Auditors will complete an accessibility scan of Queen’s today to bring the University up to provincial standards by January 2010.
The province, which mandated accessibility improvements by 2010, aims to have accessibility for all Ontarians by 2025.
“One standard is called Accessible Customer Service Standard and the university must be in compliance by January 2010,” the University’s Accessibility Co-ordinator Jeanette Parsons said.
The standard is an Ontario law which came into effect on Jan. 1, 2008. It’s the first accessibility standard created under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005 (AODA).
Parsons said requirements include training University staff in accessible customer service, a policy on the presence of support persons, service animals and personal assistive devices, a process for managing the disruption of services, like elevators, and a mechanism for persons with disabilities to give feedback.
Parsons said Queen’s was ahead of the curve on meeting these requirements.
“The Customer Service Standard came in to force in 2008, but we already had a committee struck in 2007,” she said. “We had our training action plan ready for approval last winter and training began in April and some universities are only beginning their training now.”
Other standards need to be met in the coming years for Ontario to meet its goal and become barrier free by 2025.
“Accessibility means improving the capacity for persons with disabilities to participate fully in the life of the university and it usually means removing barriers to participations,” Parsons said.
Accessibility can include physical accommodations like elevators or non-physical accommodations like using microphones in class or a large font, she said.
“It means having a certain attitude and culture of inclusion,” she said. “It’s not that they’re going to make life miserable for them; it’s actually forgetting about them.”
In terms of physical accessibility, Queens is an older campus with some older buildings and unique challenges, Parsons said, adding that older buildings aren’t the only problems.
Mackintosh-Corry Hall was built in the 1960s and it has a huge number of accessibility barriers, she said.
“Accessibility is not just physical,” she said. “We have 650 students with disabilities and the vast majority are students without visible disabilities.”
Parsons said you can’t separate the cost of accessibility from the cost of day-to-day operations.
“It’s setting people up with disabilities to become scapegoats, by saying, ‘You cost the University this much money,’” she said.
Director of Campus Planning and Development Audrey Kaplan said the University is getting better and more complete information about what the campus has in place for accessibility.
“You can’t manage what you don’t know so we’re looking overall at the campus,” she said.
Queen’s Accessibility, Disability Services and Campus Planning are currently working on a high-level scan of physical accessibility on campus, she said.
“We went out through a full proposal process and found a consultant to collect the data,” Kaplan said, adding that Toronto-based SPH Consulting is conducting the scan. “We’re looking for common occurrences and looking to see a continuous path for someone with a disability,” Kaplan said. “We’re looking for the gaps and then we will be making some recommendations.”
SPH Consulting is conducting the scan on Nov. 20, 21, 26 and 27 and the results are expected in December.
The scan will provide guidance on next steps and give data to back up future grant applications.
Kaplan said financial constraints will be a factor in recommendations, but won’t drive them.
“There’s always a limit to the pot but if we find a really superb case than there’s other pots we can go to,” she said.
Michael McNeely, Accessibility Queen’s co-chair and ArtSci ’10, said barriers to accessibility aren’t always obvious or deliberate.
“I’m finding that as the University is trying to get through the financial crisis, they have a bunch of priorities and I don’t see accessibility as high on that priority list,” he said.
“There’s a variety of disabilities and some have accommodations and some don’t,” he said. “While the note-taking program is good for [some people], if the prof is showing a movie and it doesn’t have subtitles that would present an accessibility challenge for someone who’s deaf.”
McNeely, who is deaf, said although most staff and students are willing to learn about accessibility issues, he can understand some may be afraid of what they don’t know and worry about accidentally offending the person.
He said Accessibility Queen’s is working towards making the campus more accessible and spreading awareness.
“It’s easy to feel left behind because sometimes we feel like the University isn’t really paying attention to what we’re going through on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
McNeely said one problem Accessibility Queen’s faced last year was a lack of snow removal that made it difficult for some to move around campus. The committee is lobbying to change that this year, he said.