‘It’s getting better’
According to Laurier’s Accessible Learning Centre (ALC), there are 830 students currently registered through the office with some form of disability, be it learning, cognitive, visual, sensory, auditory or physical.
That number amounts to approximately 6.2 per cent of the students enrolled on this campus, each of whom encounters unique challenges in the classrooms and facilities of this university daily.
“I’m fine. I’m more cognizant of other people and things that can present challenges. I find the main thing is to realize that we are just regular students.
“I find that sometimes, I don’t know, there’s a kind of misconception,” said Alex Miller, a second year communications student who uses a walker.
Miller and others told The Cord that despite some irritations, the university — which offers many support services — fares pretty well in terms of physical accessibility.
While the consensus was generally positive, those with physical disabilities had some worries with particular areas of campus.
All those for whom mobility is an issue spoke of the university’s small campus — squeezed for the most part within a single city block — that appealed to them and contributed to their choice of Laurier over other larger schools.
“Because it’s a smaller campus, you can actually get around,” fourth-year classical studies and religion and culture student Rebecca Watson said.
She pointed to the recent redevelopment of the Quad area and replacement of stairs with a gradual slope, both of which made a noticeable difference for her ability to move freely.
Miller was also sold on the relative proximity of everything on campus.
“It’s a huge selling point,” she said. She explained that there is potential for the university to capitalize on its physical size as something to market to students with mobility issues.
“Laurier has an opportunity that no other schools have. The buildings are within one city block. They can make money off of that. If they put their money into accessibility, their payoff would be enormous.”
Despite Laurier’s small campus, both Watson and Miller explained that particular areas of campus were problematic and at times frustrating.
“This year has been a lot better with the improvements … but it’s still quite difficult to get around,” Watson said.
“Definitely the area around the new expansion to the Terrace – that’s quite tricky, especially with the snow and ice.”
Miller said the St. Michael’s campus posed the most problems, but the entrance to the Dining Hall was also frustrating.
At the moment, the accessible entrance is blocked off due to ice accumulation that happens every winter. The other main entrance available has a set of steps.
This means Miller, and others like first-year psychology student Nathaniel Andrew — who uses an electric wheelchair — are forced to take the elevators up to the Concourse level of the Fred Nichols Campus Centre, make their way through to the Senate and Board Chambers and then take the elevator down to the Dining Hall to get there.
“It’s a bit of a pain,” Andrew said, assessing buildings like St. Michael’s where entrances are problematic.
“There are definitely some areas, I’d say the less-travelled areas, that are not as good.” Both Andrew and Watson complained about the availability and proximity of designated parking spaces as well.
“There isn’t really anywhere to go that is close to any of the entrances,” Watson said.
For students such as Andrew, the ALC can be a valuable resource. He is often in contact with the centre, which he approaches if there is ever something making his route across campus more difficult.
“Occasionally there will be a button that doesn’t work for the doors or something and they fix it,” he said, adding that under most circumstances, the university is quick to respond.
Sociology professor James Overboe, who teaches courses on disability at Laurier, explained that there has been improvement in the accessibility of campus over the years.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “I think when I first came here Laurier was behind.”
Overboe walks with the aid of canes, and recalled years ago having to regularly call to have trucks that were parked outside the Dr. Alvin Woods Building moved so he could access the sidewalk.
He pointed out that despite the focus on specific funding for infrastructure to be created for people with disabilities, these systems actually affect all individuals on campus.
“One of the things that always bothers me is that there’s a budget for accessibility yet everybody uses the accessibility benefits like ramps,” he said, noting his own reliance on elevators and ramps to traverse campus.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to wait for able people to walk down a ramp so I can walk up it,” he added.
Overboe’s goal is for disability to be considered first rather than as an afterthought or exception.
“What I’ve been trying to work on is the notion of presence of disability, where people think about disability all the time, where it’s foremost in their minds,” he said.
“Right now there’s an absence of disability — disability is considered to be an exception rather than the rule.”
“We need to think in ways that are proactive rather than reactive.”
A different approach
Overboe advocates for a new approach to examining disability, which is particularly relevant as issues of disability become more prominent in the media and new legislation comes forward.
“The way I look at it is more from a multifaceted perspective, rather than just looking at physical disability and how we make the physical environment better.
How do we make the cultural environment better, how do we make the attitudinal environment better, how do you combine them all?”
Gwen Page, manager of Accessible Learning, said that the number of students with any type of disability — physical or otherwise — that her office works with is steadily rising.
More students with disabilities are attending university, a fact Page attributed in part to greater development work in high school.
“There’s a lot more liaison from the high school system in,” she said.
“A lot of students as well are succeeding at the high school level and able to come here as a result of the accommodations,” she added.
Greater numbers of students with disabilities have resulted in the expansion of Laurier’s Accessible Learning operations, especially in the last decade in order to provide a variety of services to students as means of lessening the effects of disabilities on their education experiences.
“Those accommodations are put into place to help create an equal level playing field for students,” Page clarified, continuing that they are not put in place “to create an advantage or to create a system that evaluates them in a different context. It allows them to perform to the same standard.”
Overboe’s assessment of the current state of affairs is similar.
“The regular way we think about disability within post-secondary education is leveling the playing field,” he said.
“What I would like to see actually happen eventually,” he continued, “is that the presence of disability ends up creating a space where disability is not seen as something as lacking but as something positive to the university environment and to disabled students.”
“It’s a shift in thinking.”
Similar to all public and private institutions in Ontario, Laurier is subject to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
The Act is being continually revised and built environment standards are being brought forward in the next few years that would affect all new building construction and renovations in the province.
In the meantime at Laurier, “A lot of the older buildings haven’t been renovated,” Dana Gillett, employment equity and AODA officer said.
“For a variety of reasons, some of them may not exist in the [25-year campus] Master Plan, others they don’t want to do a renovation now and then in five years have to change it,” she explained. “We’re just at the beginning stages of the built environment stuff. There will be a lot to come out and a lot of project plans,” she added.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was put forth in 2005. Its purpose is to improve the lives of Ontarians by “developing, implementing and enforcing accessibility standards.”
Its goal is to improve facilities, services, accommodations and other infrastructure by Jan. 1, 2025. The Minister of Community and Social Services created a Standard Development Committee composed of 44 individuals from various areas of Ontario society (half of which have disabilities).
The committee proposed a final Accessible Built Environment Standard in July 2010 for the first five years to be approved by the minister.
The built environment standard refers to buildings, site development, public ways, as well as public parks, trails and playgrounds.
Elements targeted in both the public and private sector will be: common access and circulation, interior accessible routes, plumbing elements and facilities, as well as recreation elements and facilities.
The document states that the main or primary entrances to a building shall be accessible.
Amount of students on this campus registered at the ALC with a disability
Funds allocated towards accessibility upgrades on campus in 2008-9
Increase in the amount of students registered with the ALC on campus from 2000-8
Millions of Ontario inhabitants who report that their daily life is limited by a disability