Handling Racism and Disability Issues:
A Student Complaint Against a TA with an Accent

Rosa Prince, Graduate Programme in Environmental Studies
Volume 9 Number 2 (December 1999)

A difficult situation occurred at the beginning of a course in one of my tutorial groups. I'm a mature woman of Caribbean background, African heritage, and a Canadian resident for close to 20 years. I have a Trinidadian accent. A female student of Caucasian background, speaking with a Canadian accent, informed me that she had a disability with accents. She asked to be switched to another tutorial so that she could be taught by a TA who spoke in clear, Canadian English.

At first, I thought it was a case of discrimination. Despite the offense I felt at the student's request, I struggled to give the student the benefit of the doubt and examine the situation from a rational, "open minded" perspective. I tried not to allow the thought of racism to prevent me from taking the student seriously. I decided that it was more important to become aware of this disability, rather than jump to the conclusion that she was being racist. I told the student that I would communicate her request to the professor and let her know the results. I also asked the student to make an official request to the programme office to switch tutorials. This approach gave me peace of mind so that I could continue being a liberated, free-spirited and capable graduate student whose dream is someday to become a professor.

Since I was not aware that accents were a disability, my first instinct was to visit the Office for Persons with Disabilities on campus. I was informed that understanding accents can be difficult for people who are severely hard of hearing. If the student had not been registered with the Office for Persons with Disabilities, or had not had a disability, this situation might well have been a case of discrimination based on race. While this information put me at ease, it however prompted more questions about students' disabilities. For instance, do students have to tell TAs about their disability? What counts as a disability?

After this experience, I certainly think that it is wise for TAs to be aware of the different kinds of difficult situations that can arise in classrooms. My advice to TAs who find themselves in difficult situations is the following: