Accessibility at Laurier: Discussing tangible tips for fostering an inclusive environment

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Photo by Garrison Oosterhof

Promoting accessibility and inclusion is a challenge presented at all post-secondary institutions, including Wilfrid Laurier University, and throughout society as a whole.

However, Laurier as a school has made strides over the past several years in ensuring that those with disabilities are included.

Laurier’s Eye to Eye club is one tactic of many which strives to advocate for accessibility.

Jack McCormick, fourth-year business student at Laurier, is a co-founder of Eye to Eye; a club dedicated to promoting inclusion and alleviating the stigma associated with vision impairments, amongst other disability groups.

The club also holds various events to promote inclusivity on campus. For example, each term the club holds a Dinner in the Dark event for students to participate in.

“It’s an opportunity for people to enjoy some food … while blindfolded and [to be] able to learn about inclusion and diversity. You get an understanding of what accessibility could mean,” McCormick said.

McCormick has Leber Congenital Amaurosis; a degenerative form of blindness which limits his vision to light, shadow and movement when in good lighting. Although McCormick said he has had poor vision his whole life, his condition has gotten significantly worse throughout the past five to six years.

In correspondence with the condition, McCormick uses a service guide dog who has accompanied him since he started at Laurier just over three years ago.

As a result, Laurier’s Accessible Learning Centre is a major resource on campus of which McCormick takes advantage.

“[The Accessible Learning Centre] is able to act as sort of the intermediary between myself and professors to help them understand what accessibility means in their classes,” McCormick said.

The centre helps students by ensuring class materials, such as lecture slides and textbooks, are accessible. In addition, the centre will setup alternative test and exam spaces to accommodate certain needs and abilities.

The centre also has the ability to work with students one-on-one since accessibility can mean something different for each individual. For example, a student with the same condition as McCormick may require a completely different approach to ensuring learning is accessible.

“That’s what the accessible learning centre is there for; it has the ability to apply whatever solution works the best for each individual student and is able to provide that individualized, customized approach,” McCormick said.

“The Accessible Learning Centre does a great job. In an ideal world, the courses would just be accessible and I wouldn’t need the Accessible Learning Centre; we’re not there yet,” McCormick said.

Another important aspect of the Accessible Learning Centre is helping professors comprehend their role in ensuring their class is accessible.

For example, some professors may need to alter the way they teach their class in order to meet the needs and abilities of some students. However, in McCormick’s experience, some professors are less keen on being flexible.

Overall, however, simply keeping an open mind and remembering that the people you interact with may be facing barriers of accessibility will go a long was in ensuring that everyone is included.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement and there always will be. There’s a lot of professors who have the understanding and are very much aware of what they need to do to make sure that everything is accessible,” McCormick said.

“But there are some professors … who aren’t aware or don’t care or see accessibility as a burden and don’t see the value in it. It’s a societal issue — it’s not a Laurier issue.”

McCormick explained, however, that one of the biggest challenges presented to students with a disability such as vision impairment often stems from outside of the classroom.

“In most things, the biggest accessibility barrier that anyone with a disability encounters is people’s perceptions and awareness,” McCormick said.

Many individuals with vision impairments face obstacles while navigating social aspects while at university.

“The average person will often be unsure around people with vision loss and not know how to interact with them or may have preconceived notions about [their] abilities in a social situation,” McCormick said.

For example, peers may be comfortable and confident to be kind to those with vision impairments in a classroom setting; however, when it comes to going out to a bar with that same individual there is often a hesitation due to the perception that those with disabilities are unable to participate in such social experiences.

“That sort of perception is challenging to overcome … I have to be very comfortable with who I am and very outgoing so that my confidence eliminates any hesitation that people in the community may have,” McCormick said.

In order to break down these barriers and change societal perceptions of disabilities, McCormick said that exposure is a key component.

“People often view people with disabilities as less capable … so what I really try and promote is exposure and being aware that you’re not aware,” McCormick said.

For McCormick, exposing oneself to inclusion and incorporating accessibility is far from simply attaining political correctness. Instead, keeping an open mind to learning from a variety of people who hold a diverse set of experiences is important to being more accepting and inclusive.

In addition to exposure, McCormick said that training is also an essential aspect of integrating accessibility into every day life.

For example, individuals working in the service industry would benefit greatly from receiving education regarding tangible, practical things they can change and incorporate to make their environment and perspective more accessible and inclusive.

“If I’m waiting in line at Tim Hortons, it’s helpful to say ‘who’s next’ so I know that counter is open rather than standing there awkwardly not knowing if it’s my turn or not,” McCormick said.

“As well, just being aware that if someone is asking for assistance with something, there’s probably a reason. They’re probably not asking for you to tell them what the special is today because they’re trying to be annoying, [they’re] asking because [they] can’t see what’s written on the board.”

Minor changes such as making emails or documents more accessible are aspects which McCormick feels would make a huge difference.

Overall, however, simply keeping an open mind and remembering that the people you interact with may be facing barriers of accessibility will go a long was in ensuring that everyone is included.

“It’s about knowing that you’re not perfect and that you’re going to make mistakes that may offend people and learning from those mistakes and keeping an open mind to people’s perspectives,” McCormick said.

“And listening to them when you have the opportunity to learn from someone else.”

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