In 2005, the Ontario government ratified the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), a milestone in terms of accessibility issues, although it’s a sad fact that it has taken the government this long to take the rights of those with disabilities seriously.
The purpose of the act is stated as “benefiting all Ontarians by developing, implementing and enforcing accessibility standards in order to achieve accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures, and premises on or before Jan. 1, 2025”.
Notably, 2016 marks the halfway point for the act’s projected target date and, like other universities and institutions in Ontario, Brock University has made significant improvements in the ongoing process of establishing a fully accessible school.
“This region is unique, and so is our university,” said Christopher Lytle, the AODA Coordinator in the Human Resources Department at Brock, “our goal is to link accessibility with human rights principles.”
Many people at Brock, from the Recruitment Office to the Department of Residence to Facilities Management, have spoken with pride about how well Brock is doing in terms of accessibility.
In addition to the government regulated mandates, Brock has created its own document called the
“Facility Accessibility Design Standards” (FADS) which regulates the designs of new buildings and renovations so that they are accessible. The accessibility refers to the needs of people with mobility, hearing, visual and cognitive impairments. The document standards apply to not just the physical construction of a building, but also its facilities and amenities, access routes and control systems.
The new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts is an example of a building constructed according to the FADS document. Some prominent new features are stairs with detectable warning surfaces and colour contrast to highlight the steps and water fountains installed at a lower level so that a person in a wheelchair can comfortably access them.
“You get the sense that accessibility is just implied so it’s a beautiful building,” said Lytle. “Before, accessibility was viewed as an attachment to a structure rather than a part of the plan.”
This proactive approach is unfortunately a very new one. Most of the time, issues are dealt with reactively, as changes are usually only made following complaints.
An accessibility audit was performed at Brock in 2006 and updated a few years ago. The Facilities Management Department is still busy going through the findings and continuing to make improvements to the campus.
“We’ve completed a significant amount but we still have a ways to go,” said Tom Saint-Ivany, Associate Vice President of Facilities Management. “There’s not a lot of pressing issues [right now]. When something comes up, we address it as quickly as possible.”
One of the biggest concerns raised by Janelle Coates, a third-year History and Medieval and Renaissance Studies major, is the lighting on campus. Coates has a visual impairment which makes it difficult for her to see depth and colour contrasts. Coates also uses a white cane to assist her when she walks.
Coates commented that certain buildings have fairly dim lighting, which makes it even more difficult for her to see. Furthermore, the poorly lit parking lots and paths outside of campus make it incredibly difficult to navigate, especially at night. Coates specifically mentioned the main pathway to East Academic, which has no lights on the stretch between Glenridge Road and the Zone 1 parking lot. The Canadian Tire bridge’s lights are often turned off after hours as well, which complicated her walk from her late class in the Plaza Building all last semester.
The other big issue for Coates is colour contrast. It’s hard for her to distinguish the walls from the floor or doors in a building that is mainly white or with lots of glass.
“The stairs in Plaza freak me out because of the glass siding,” said Coates. “With my depth perception problems it looks deeper and I can’t see the contrast because the glass is transparent.”
Another concern that has been frequently raised is accessible washrooms. While most washrooms have a stall that is large enough for a wheelchair or a powerchair, they often only have just one sidebar or none at all, and most people need two bars to properly lift themselves onto the toilet. The washroom in the lobby of the Tower is an example of one of the only properly outfitted accessible stall with two sidebars on campus.
Building and permanent construction features are not the only factors that can create barriers to accessibility however, as specific seasonal and intermittent weather can create many difficulties. Winter especially creates issues in terms of snowfall removal and ice salting on pathways and parking lots.
Jessica Lewis, a fifth-year student in Therapeutic Recreation, has a congenital disorder known as diastematomyelia, a rare form of spina bifida, which has left her paralyzed from the waist down. Lewis uses a wheelchair to get around and has encountered problems in the winter when her wheelchair gets stuck in the snow.
“Now that they know which residences have students with disabilities, they start plowing there first,” said Lewis. “They’re getting better now, although sometimes when they clear the snow they push it in front of the ramps.”
Lewis is fairly content with the current state of accessibility on campus. Lewis is able to get around on campus with the use of elevators, ramps, and automatic doorways powered by push buttons. One of the concerns she raised though, was that some of the lecture halls and classrooms in Academic South and Thistle, which are built in a raised, amphitheatre style, are very limited in terms of wheelchair accessibility.
“I’m always at the back and sometimes it can be hard to hear,” said Lewis. “It would be nice to be able to sit closer to the front.”
One of the positive points that Coates mentioned is that she can put in an request to change a classroom through her case worker. She has occasionally done this when one of her classes was in East Academic.
One of the biggest concerns of accessibility on campus is with residence. The closest residence to the university, Decew, is not at all accessible in terms of mobility impairment, because there are no elevators. Additionally, throughout all the residences, a lot of the common rooms do not have automated doors and neither do any of the offices. As a result, if a student in a wheelchair wishes to meet with the Residence Life Staff or participate in social events, they may be unable to do so because they cannot open the doors by themselves.
The Department of Residence currently has 50 rooms that they consider accessible. These rooms feature different attributes to accommodate students with different disabilities; some features include roll-in showers, grab bars, door operators, and flashing strobe alarms. The department also provides a variety of portable equipment for students with need. Available equipment includes commode chairs, lift railings, and visual alert systems.
“As residence is the student’s home while they are here, we accommodate on an individual basis based on the student’s needs,” said Cindy Chernish, Manager of Residence Facilities and Finance.
For students that self-identify as having a disability when they apply for residence, the Department of Resident invites them to come for a visit and look at a few rooms that are seen as suitable for the student. The student is able to choose what works best and identify any modifications that need to be made. The department continues to work with the student over the summer to ensure that everything is prepared accordingly and properly for when the student moves in.
“When I moved to Village, they let me look around and pick my own room and court,” said Lewis. “They also let me move my things in a day earlier so that it would be less stressful for me.”
“We don’t wait until September to deal with the issue, we start right away,” said Chernish. “We do it in a unique way – it’s that personal touch.”
Accessibility is also a factor in the academic learning environment. Students with disabilities have a tab in the Student Self Serve menu called “Oasis”, which helps them with their courses. Coates uses it to access course notes provided by a note taker and to schedule times in which she can write her exams in the Student Development Centre.
The biggest issue that has arisen for Coates, is getting access to textbooks in a large print format. The process is rather lengthy and complicated since she has to ask professors a month or two before the beginning of classes for the booklist, and then ask the publishers of the textbook to print the books in large print.
“Originally it was hard because no one had told me how to get books in an alternative format,” said Coates. “It’s gotten easier but it’s been a process.”
Coates has also had to drop some courses because the professors were not very accommodating.
“I try to be proactive when I desperately need something but other times I’m just too tired to fight the system,” said Coates.
Lytle emphasizes the need for feedback and constant communication in order to improve accessibility on campus.
“[Accessibility] is always a constant process,” said Lytle. “As a small university, the connection to students is more pronounced and negotiation is more open. The community is tighter.”
The general sentiment on campus is that Brock is doing a lot of positive things for accessibility and is moving in the right direction. According to Tania Melnyk, a Recruitment Officer for Campus Visit Programs, Brock is one of the most accessible universities in Ontario, if not the most. Despite this, there remains various blockades to experiencing the fullness of the student experience, which will hopefully be addressed in the coming months and years.
“Inclusion is a statement of constant reviewing and being reflexive about the process,” said Lytle. “There shouldn’t be any barriers between people wanting to come here to learn or to work.”