McMaster complies with provincial regulations regarding accessibility, but can the institution address what accessibility means for different students and foster a culture of accessibility across the university?
Ramps, braille design and test accommodation are just some of the ways campuses strive to be more accessible to students with disabilities. But is the University doing enough to understand the many facets of accessibility and the issues that come along with aiming for a completely accessible campus?
The McMaster Accessibility Forum, which will be held on Nov. 15, aims to address issues concerning accessibility on campus. This will be the second such forum held, where organizers hope to compile a list of student concerns to bring to different bodies across the University.
Removing barriers of all kinds
Mainstream definitions of accessibility typically conjure images of physical barriers or buildings with highly accessible design features such as ramps or wheelchair lifts. Removing physical barriers and creating a more physically accessible environment has been an institutional priority for many years.
Tim Nolan, Manager of Disability Services, mentioned that McMaster overall has been steadily improving physical accessibility and conducting building wide accessibility audits for years.
Nolan noted that new technology can be extremely helpful in diminishing physical barriers. He gave the example of Urban Braille Design, which uses texture contrast in paving sidewalks to give visual orientation to those who are blind and visually impaired. This technology has just been installed in new sidewalks in front of the McMaster Museum of Art.
However, Nolan also noted that when some technologies are developed, “accessibility is not always a forefront.” And while new buildings should comply with Built Environmental Standards according to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA), navigating campus is not always the easiest task.
Meghan Hines, a fourth year Commerce student and one of the organizers of the forum, remarked how for a first-year student with a physical disability it can be cumbersome to initially get around campus.
Hines, a student with a physical disability herself, noted that the wheelchair lift in MUSC requires a special pass to use, which discourages more students from using it and therefore negates its main purpose.
However, students with physical disabilities are just one group who require special attention, according to Ann Fudge Schormans, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and member of the Disability Action Group.
Fudge Schormans highlighted how issues surrounding students with learning disabilities or disabilities related to mental health issues often go unnoticed. She emphasized how this can be especially significant because of the high degree of stigma attributed to both types of disability.
While mental health awareness has been a major focus point of both University Administration and MSU strategy, it does not necessarily address mental health issues from a disability framework.
Alisa, a student and psychiatric survivor, emphasized how the current framework tends to promote an overtly medicalized view of mental health issues. She believes this leads to accommodations primarily being made for physical disabilities and then the same accommodations being uniformly applied to mental health cases.
“The issue stems from how we think about mental health in terms of thinking of it as solely a medical idea… The way Mac talks about mental health awareness obscures the fact that these people belong to an equity group which can be connected to others with different disabilities.”
Raihanna Hirji-Khalfan, an Accessibility Specialist with the Human Rights and Equity Services Office, also argued that equity for students with disabilities is a major issue, especially in regards to attitudinal biases.
“Attitudinal barriers are a huge issue. So trying to create a culture of accessibility is extremely important. You can’t necessarily eliminate all barriers but if there is a culture of accessibility it can limit or negate the effects of exclusion or barriers on campus.”
Since AODA came into force in 2005, post-secondary institutions and other organizations have had to comply with various regulations, especially with regards to customer service. The goal is to ensure a fully-accessible Ontario by 2025. Tim Nolan asserted how important this timeline is, in order to provide an end-date for institutions to make themselves fully accessible.
According to the McMaster Accessibility Plan, the University has smaller milestones to comply with prior to the 2025 end goal. Online AODA training modules were some of the first measures that were undertaken by the University. Some education- based regulations must be complied with by Jan. 1 2013 and are extremely relevant to students and staff.
One specific regulation requires institutions to provide accessible educational materials such as textbooks, in a variety of formats. Another regulation mandates that educators receive adequate training in accessibility awareness.
But McMaster does not have standard training for instructors across faculties on disability awareness, beyond the limited AODA online modules.
Fudge Schormans explained that, “more could be done in terms of AODA compliance training, more than just the modules.” She suggested that a broader range of tools should be made available for instructors to increase the accessibility of the curriculum and lectures.
According to Nolan, the University will soon be rolling out a tool from the Council of Ontario Universities that should help improve instructional design.
Part of $700,000 in funding from TD Bank was allocated to make textbook and resource accessibility a more attainable goal and allowed a new staff position in Library Services. The TD Coordinator for Library Accessibility Services is responsible for working with students with disabilities and adaptive technologies.
However, students with disabilities and accessibility awareness are still not at the forefront of McMaster’s administrative strategy. As outlined in recent OUSA documents, it remains difficult for institutions to address the diverse array of needs of different disabilities, given the complex process and documentation required to receive government funding. Students like Meghan often pay out of their own pocket for special documentation or services.
Leaders in accessibility
While McMaster has long recognized the value of an accessible campus, even prior to AODA, some Ontario universities have excelled in addressing equity for students with disabilities.
York, Ryerson and Toronto all have programs in disability or equity studies, which create a higher degree of student awareness of accessibility issues. Guelph is recognized as a leader in the field as the host of an annual Accessibility Conference.
Some campuses, such as Brock, provide a higher degree of direct student support to students with disabilities, offering students with physical disabilities attendant care to help with their daily living. Other campuses offer students with disabilities their own spaces for peer support and student campaigns.
UOIT has an entire virtual unit dedicated to universal instructional design. McMaster’s School of Social Work has recently begun inviting students with intellectual disabilities to audit courses in order to open up otherwise unavailable opportunities for these students.
Fudge Schormans explained that faculty have remarked upon how all students have benefitted from this experience and introducing new teaching methods has created greater dialogue and diversity in the classroom.
The Accessibility Forum creates an open and inclusive atmosphere for students with disabilities to voice their concerns about how McMaster approaches the issue of accessibility. Katie, a student with a hearing disability, is planning on attending the forum but isn’t sure what will come out of it. “I think it’s hard to be fully accessible because everyone has such different issues,“ she said.
McMaster has set out to create an inclusive environment for students of all abilities, as mandated in the President’s Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Community (PACBIC). But in trying to create a culture of accessibility, students have argued that the institution must both address the group as whole while also avoiding the amalgamation of diverse accessibility needs into a homogenous category.
Students with disabilities are a group that strives to be more recognized, and fostering an accessible environment is just the first step towards recognizing this group’s needs.