Compiled by Jen Rinaldi
May I ask you to identify your role at York and why you take an interest in accessibility?
Dr. Nancy Davis Halifax: I am an Assistant Professor in the MA and PhD Program in Critical Disability Studies at York. I come to the ideas of access from the perspective of lived experience (I live with my own fluid embodiment) as well as from an equity and social justice perspective.
Kaley Roosen: PhD Student in Clinical Psychology, active member of Psychology Graduate Students’ Association, and Co-Chair for Student Subcommittee Access York (York’s Advisory Board for students, staff, and faculty with disabilities). As a student with a disability, I often find my interests coincide with overall improvements in accessibility.
Sarah Sackville McLauchlan: I am an MA student in Humanities. I am a Blind student, so most of the services I use are related to print-access.
Andrea Smith-Betts: I am a third year PhD student from the Faculty of Education [FOE]. I work as a TA for Human Rights and Equity Studies and the Department of Social Sciences. I am also the YGSE [York Graduate Students in Education] chair for the 2010/2011 academic year.
I am a student with a mental health disability: bipolar, heavy on the depression, with a hint of panic attacks and anxiety thrown in. I am also a student with a physical disability. I have scoliosis, spina bifida, degenerative and herniated disks, pinched nerves, and diffuse degenerative disk disease.
I also am interested in accessibility issues because my daughter has what has been called a severe learning disability. I want to know university services so that when she goes on to higher learning I will be informed and able to help her succeed. As YGSE chair I am also interested in looking at accessibility issues for the FOE.
What does accessibility mean to you?
NDH: Big question–accessibility is many things. We can understand it as a way of framing social, economic, political, geospatial, and cultural rights. Here I understand accessibility from the perspective of disability, though it could mean lots of things for different communities. At least partly it means questioning the dominant meanings applied to the diversity of embodiment.
KR: It means being able to achieve the same level of access to education, resources, opportunities, and events equally across different levels of being/functioning in different individuals. It could mean placing a ramp in a classroom so a student in a wheelchair can access that particular classroom without assistance, or it could mean raising awareness to individuals who run an educational or social event in a venue full of barriers for persons with disabilities.
SSM: It means not having unnecessary obstacles put in the way of my being able to perform ordinary tasks, like reading, getting around the campus, and doing my laundry.
ASB: Accessibility means that anyone and everyone, regardless of those things that distinguish each of us from one another, is supported in their attempt to partake in any and all aspects of university life. This means full participation in what it is to be a student or staff at York. Physical access, be it to a room or use of that room, access to learning in ways in which they excel or best suit them, or access to working or teaching in the best way that person knows how is what is important. Accessibility should mean not struggling to navigate your environment.
Why is accessibility important?
NDH: We need ongoing conversations because it is conceptually complex, and fluid. To understand access and its importance, we also need to imagine what our society could be like if it was truly accessible, and to think deeply about the gaps that currently exist. We also need to understand that it is a process that can be resisted. I think also that this is a university–a place for ideas–and access is one of those really important ideas.
KR: It allows for freedom for individuals who may utilize services differently or get around differently to still reach their full potential as individuals within a community.
ASB: How a community is constructed is what I believe causes some of us to be disabled, not something inherent. Accessibility is important because it is a move toward addressing that which causes some of us difficulty in our participation in our society. I believe that we are all differently abled and if we live in a society that acknowledges this, we all prosper.
How does York seek to be more accessible? In your opinion, are these provisions adequate?
NDH: York has numerous initiatives and some of these are hidden, while others are being implemented. I am a member of Access York and that feels like a wonderful community within York that works toward changing the attitudes and environments to be more fully inclusive.
KR: York seeks to be more accessible through consultation of individuals on specific committees particular to disability concerns and creating policy to implement these suggestions. In my opinion, these provisions are somewhat adequate. The fact that the majority of suggestions for change come from representatives on committees poses a problem in that the majority of persons with disabilities at York do not know how to voice their concerns for change.
Further, at times, the bureaucratic process of creating policy and having multiple official meetings to approve various accessibility changes can be frustrating. At times, a student’s request is simple. By making a simple request go through multiple channels of authorization, a diffusion of responsibility ultimately occurs and the request becomes backlogged.
SSM: In terms of print-access, York provides all my readings and books for me in e-text, which is my preferred format. And they’re really great about getting stuff to me even when I ask at the last minute! So I have to say that York has been great about that, especially compared to some of the horror-stories I’ve heard from some of my friends at other universities! With that said, I’ve been in situations where both my home computer has been down and room 134 [in the library, which offers computers with screen-readers] has been unavailable. And as far as I know, none of the other labs, even the other accessible ones, have computers with screen-readers.
ASB: Though I’ve never had to use the service, I was assigned a counsellor who could write letters for me to give to professors in case I needed support in my studies.
There is a body called Access York. I went to a few meetings where issues of accessibility were discussed. I have also just learned about the Access Centre [student support for accommodation provisions and advocacy].
Are there ways in which campus is not accessible?
NDH: Of course–the university cannot help but mirror aspects of culture. For instance in one of the cafés I noted that the passages between tables was really narrow, too narrow for most persons who use wheelchairs. Also there are tensions around the issues of disclosure and services on campus [often students have to disclose their disability to qualify for accommodations]; stigma is still an enormous part of disability/impairment.
KR: Campus is not accessible in many ways. For one, individuals with disabilities sometimes feel powerless about how to enact change. Given York’s size, communication is difficult between departments. Often, diffusion of responsibility creates an atmosphere where students spend more time finding out how to raise concerns than actually raising them to implement change.
Also, new barriers are being created regularly. For example, new buildings often have inaccessible lecture halls.
Finally, expensive accommodations are frequently not covered. Individuals who need translation services have access to these; however, a student who requires attendant services for personal care must find these services on their own instead of going through the disability services offices.
SSM: First of all, I find the campus very hard to navigate. I find that there aren’t a lot of good tactile or auditory landmarks to tell you when you’ve found the building you want, or to cue you when you’ve missed it! And it’s very easy, I find, to go off in the wrong direction and not realize it.
It also seems to me that there isn’t any Blind-accessible employment at York, because it’s all either print-based and/or done on computers that require the installation of a screen-reader.
ASB: As a TA, I have been assigned rooms on the same day that are very far apart, which causes me difficulty as I cannot walk that far without pain. One room has hard plastic chairs with the attached writing area. These chairs are an insult to my disability in that there is not a chance in hell that anyone with a back, hip, or any skeletomuscular issue can sit there without harm for any length of time. I am in pain by the time I get there. I must then sit perched in pain for two hours. I am in agony leaving. This is not an accessible space for me.
How have you responded to inaccessibility on campus? What efforts have you undertaken in order to make campus more accessible?
NDH: I do my best and have tried to support student-led and other initiatives. I have been involved in advocating for the benches in Vari Hall, for access to chairs in a classroom. I think access is also something that is done in an intimate and relational manner, and we may forget that at times. I have also been involved in panels and in talking to students.
KR: I have taken accessibility one day at a time at York. I have learned to pick my battles because honestly, it is a full-time job with little benefits and a high burn-out rate. At first, I would raise awareness for specific barriers I was facing. With help from York’s CDS [Counselling and Disability Services], I would run through the confusing lines of communication until I heard a response. Sometimes that meant talking to multiple individuals and even going to vice presidents.
As I have become more aware of accessibility at York, I have started campaigning for all types of access, not just my own. One of my initiatives, which I think is most important, is opening the lines of communication between administration and students with disabilities. Through tabling and speaking to students, I have become more aware of other access issues on campus. Also, through holding venues where students can speak to the Vice President at York, I feel the communication barrier is being punctured.
SSM: I’ve spoken to the OPD [Office for Persons with Disabilities] and the building management about the card-operated laundry system in York Apartments. They’ve gone as far as putting Braille on the buttons, but that won’t help you read the card reader screen. A high-tech solution to the problem isn’t even necessary, when a simple buddy-system with a sighted peer would work fine.
I haven’t done much about getting around the campus and employment because I’m not really sure what to do. Who do I bug and what can they do?
ASB: Currently I am seeking the advice of my friends in the CDS [Critical Disability Studies] program as to how to fight for a more accessible place for me to teach in. A student in the FOE graduate program approached me and asked about how accessible/inaccessible the FOE is. This is something as YGSE chair I hope to bring up in the Grad Executive and Grad Council within the Grad Program in ED.
Have you encountered obstacles in your efforts?
KR: Yes, there are many times when I have fought for removal of barriers that I gave up on. Access to the front of lecture halls in the Tel Building requires use of a locked elevator which is either broken or the student does not know how to access the key. I wanted access one day when the key was missing. When they did find it, I was told it didn’t work. By the time all this communication occurred, my class was over and I dropped the issue. This is unfortunate given likely another student faced the same hurdle after me.
It can be frustrating. The main frustration: who to contact? I contacted many individuals and everyone was telling me that another person or department handled this. Another issue in this case was ignorance. The individual who contacted me did not understand why I did not just use the stairs. This type of treatment makes a person feel dejected and powerless, which is partly why I gave up that particular cause.
SSM: With employment there are a lot of issues: the cost of screen-reading software, compatibility issues with the software used by employers, employers’ unwillingness to invest in such things for part-time workers, and not knowing who to bug.
ASB: So far I have been having a hard time receiving accommodations for me, such as a room relocation for my tutorial. They switched me, without telling or informing me, to a room that could be considered even less accessible.
Have you found York administrative bodies and the York community (students, faculty, and staff) are receptive to calls for accommodations?
NDH: Yes, and there is a great deal of hidden labour that is related to the calls for accommodation from students, staff, and faculty. I think some of us reach the end of the day and we want to have the changes implemented, but we know we have to wait–that can be frustrating because the need can be so urgent.
KR: Yes, I have found this to be true. I think the problems arise in diffusion of responsibility. I don’t know how many times I heard “yes, I agree that is a problem, but that is a (fill in blank: ministry problem, funding problem, policy problem).” I think there is a general lack of information and awareness within the York community.
SSM: On-campus employers, no. But York Apartments and OPD have been very understanding and helpful about the laundry issue, if somewhat slow acting. But I find the York administration rather opaque. It’s hard to know who’s in charge of what and where to find them. I think a lot of the York community are still not aware of what accommodations are needed.
ASB: I feel a strong support from the CDS program even though I am in the FOE. Unfortunately it seems that only those who have firsthand knowledge, work with people with disabilities, or live with someone with a disability seem to listen and care. Other students/staff may be sympathetic but it is usually a concerned nod and then on to the next item on the agenda.
How do you feel about having to push for change as one person or a small group of people?
NDH: There is a strong community at York that is advocating for change and I feel I am part of that community. I think that we need to learn from each other and to act as advocates for each other as necessary.
KR: I find it exhausting at times. Sometimes it feels like you are the only one noticing these issues, even though I know that is not true.
SSM: I find it annoying. So much of what we need would, I think, be pretty self-evident if people would just take two seconds to think about it in a non-stereotyped way. And it really bugs me when people refuse accommodations because they don’t want to spend the money.
ASB: I am tired and frustrated and feel unwell. I feel like people think that my concerns are not legitimate. I suspect that because my disabilities are largely invisible, there is an assumption that if I can make it through, I don’t need the assistance. I am tired that the push still has to be so big. I am disappointed in that the only support I really got was because I know people who know how to do this fight. If I was just your average student I would be in misery, not knowing where to go, that I have a right to make it different, and that things did not have to be this way.
What, in your opinion, should be done to make campus more accessible?
NDH: I wonder what would happen if there were a central site that could list the initiatives that are ongoing at York. It would raise awareness of what is being done, what needs to be done, and the importance of community in making it happen.
KR: I think more communication needs to occur between persons with disabilities and individuals making decisions. Somebody at York makes decisions and approves new buildings. But, every time a new building is erected, there are barriers. More money is wasted when these new buildings are retrofitted after the fact. These retrofits can be prevented through simple communication and implementation of Universal Design. It is not enough to put buttons on doors and grab bars besides toilets; there is more to accessibility than this.
SSM: First, whenever they’re going to upgrade to a new system, they should think in advance about whether or not it’s going to be accessible and to whom it might present barriers, rather than trying to retrofit accommodations after the fact when complaints arise.
Second, they can require and help all on-campus employers to have accommodations available to non-print-reading people. So, work-stations with screen-readers, e-text options for paper-work, etc.
ASB: We have to continue to make people’s attitudes more accessible. People without disabilities seem to see our need for accessibility as a pain or nuisance, something that has to be done by law. I want to see a true adherence to the belief that we all deserve, unquestioningly, the right to be able to move about unimpeded.
How might members of the York community help as allies?
NDH: Be aware–of your own attitudes, those of others. Be sensitive. Respectful. Remember that access is only part of the larger horizon of creating a culture of social justice and equity.
KR: I think York members should speak out against barriers and educate themselves on barriers. It can be isolating to be the only individual to speak up when a professor wants to hold class or a social event in an inaccessible location.
SSM: I think the most important thing is to take those two seconds to stop and think, in a non-stereotyped way, about what people really need. And then, when you offer to help, offer it from that space. Beyond that, when you hear about an accommodation that’s needed, help lobby York Admin to get it!
ASB: On-campus groups who support disability rights need to keep fighting for attention. Those of us who struggle need to keep seeing each disappointment that we face as an educative moment. The more we interact and talk, and educate, the more likely we are to build allies at York.
Are there any closing remarks you would like to make?
NDH: This is a great initiative. Thanks for asking these questions, and inviting me to take part. It is an important part of community dialogue.
KR: I have seen improvements at York and none of those would have been possible unless individuals and groups spoke out and made efforts to change. It is rewarding, despite the challenges.