Accessibility progress slow at Queen’s

Outdated buildings raise concerns about access as campus audit begins

The hallways in Jeffrey Hall are poorly lit and lecture halls in lower levels are inaccessible to wheelchair users.
The hallways in Jeffrey Hall are poorly lit and lecture halls in lower levels are inaccessible to wheelchair users.
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The main entrance at Waldron Tower is wheelchair accessible, but lacks an automatic door.
The main entrance at Waldron Tower is wheelchair accessible, but lacks an automatic door.
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The elevator at the JDUC may be too narrow for some wheelchairs.
The elevator at the JDUC may be too narrow for some wheelchairs.
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When Andrew Ashby went to give a talk on accessibility in Jeffrey Hall last year, he couldn’t enter the lecture hall in his wheelchair.

“It was in one of the lower classrooms and they only gave me a couple days heads up,” Ashby said. “I went there the day before, opened the door to the theatre hall and there were stairs going down.”

Ashby, Queen’s Accessibility Hub coordinator, works at the Adaptive Technology Centre at Stauffer Library and has been employed by the University for 11 years.

On the day he was scheduled to talk at Jeffrey, a co-worker went in his place instead.

According to Ashby, Queen’s is “getting there” in improving its physical accessibility, which the University is obligated to do under provincial law.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which was passed in 2005, mandates that all Ontario universities improve accessibility on campus. The aim, according to the Queen’s Equity Office, is for an “accessible Ontario by 2025”.

The Act requires that public and private sector institutions make their services and buildings accessible. It created mandatory standards in five areas: employment, design of public spaces, information and communication, transportation and customer service.

The Queen’s Equity Office created working groups for each of these areas, including the Built Environment Working Group (BEWG), which focuses on public spaces and buildings.

The BEWG is currently in the process of running an accessibility audit of all of the buildings on campus. The audit will assess the accessibility of each building and make recommendations on improvements.

The University’s older heritage buildings cause the most problems, according to Ashby.

“Stirling Hall is always an issue. We have students with wheelchairs and when they join classes, they end up moving the class to another building,” he said.

Ashby said Stauffer’s Adaptive Technology Centre serves students who have visual or hearing impediments, learning disabilities and mobility issues. Disability Services refers students to the centre, which provides technologies to help students with their studies.

The office trains staff in other departments on ways to improve accessibility, but Ashby said he’s found that due to AODA regulations, other departments have begun coming to him for advice.

Ashby said buildings are more accessible when they have elevators, accessible ramps, clear signage and colour contrast that’s easy for people with visual impediments — such as colour blindness — to see.

The BEWG audit, he said, arose from a need to prioritize what has to be done and how much it will cost.

“At the higher levels, that’s what they need to know: how much things are going to cost, so they can budget accordingly and they can go from there,” he said.

He added that the stigma towards students with disabilities causes as many problems as physical access.

“Students are always reluctant to even self-identify, because they’re afraid. Sometimes if they get accommodations they’re viewed as getting special treatment or not having to do what other students have to do, which isn’t true,” he said.

Newer buildings are more accessible, such as the two new residences — David C. Smith House and Brant House — which will have two large elevators each when they open next fall. Meanwhile, older buildings, such as Miller and Bruce Hall, have accessible entrances hidden at the back.

The JDUC, Ashby said, has only one accessible entrance at the side and a narrow elevator inside.

“I can fit, but if someone has a wider wheelchair they couldn’t get in there,” he said.

Yvonne Holland, the chair of the BEWG, said some campus buildings will never meet regulations.

“We have buildings that are brand new that obviously meet all of the new regulations, and we have buildings that are over 100 years old that will never be able to meet the regulations,” she said.

Holland said the group meets once a month and aims to make Queen’s compliant with the Ontario Building Code and the new AODA regulation.

The ongoing audit will be an environmental scan of all the spaces on campus, which Holland said she estimates to be close to 90 buildings. The BEWG will be looking at the conditions on the ground, she said, before comparing it to standards set in the Ontario Building Code, the Facility Accessibility Design Standards (FADS) for the City of Kingston and the City of London and the AODA. She said it’s premature to say what areas of campus need the most work, and that the audit will begin to reveal the problem areas in “six to eight months”.

“It is not inexpensive to do this level of audit,” Holland said. “It is the first step in a strategy that we’re going to develop. I think it would be very difficult to say, ‘well it’s all bathrooms, or it’s just one building’.”

She said the University has to be selective in deciding which buildings to renovate in the short term, since the financial situation limits what can be done.

“In all honesty, nobody could say what they think we’re going to be facing at the end of this. It’s certainly not a $500,000 solution. To get the audit done is in the hundreds of thousands,” she said.

Holland added that while not all buildings can be feasibly renovated to meet AODA standards, any extensive renovations that the University contemplates would be designed and built to fit the new standards.

Heidi Penning, Queen’s Equity Advisor, said recommendations added in 1989 to the Ontario Human Rights Code had already established many of the AODA’s recommendations.

“We have a duty to accommodate unless it causes undue hardship,” Penning said. “That’s the minimum for how human beings treat each other.”

Penning, along with the Equity Office, created a framework in 2011 to improve accessibility at Queen’s. She said she also pitched the idea for the Accessibility Hub — an online resource that provides information on accessibility.

The audit, Penning said, will be a tool to guide campus planning for “significant renovations”. The AODA doesn’t mandate that all buildings become accessible, she added, but rather that new buildings and renovations meet the standards.

“When you point out buildings like the Grey House — of course they’re inaccessible. But a wise person would look at the current landscape financially at the University,” she said.

But she said while the accessibility audit may not lead directly to change, it will guide future developments at the University.

“The accessibility audit will be a tool in the same way that the Campus Master Plan will be a tool,” she said.

While the University has improved much more than private sector companies, she added that it’s difficult to comply with AODA rules on a campus with attitudes and standards that vary from department to department.

“The good people who imagined and put into law the AODA — it would be interesting to know if they thought about universities and how decentralized we are,” she said.

Since the AODA was established, not every department has been able to meet the standards, but Penning said accessibility issues have gotten more attention in meetings on new projects. For example, she said, the administration discussed accessibility when designing the two new residences. Adding two elevators to each residence, she said, “exceeds everything” in the AODA.

“There was a time when we had to really get people to think about accessibility,” Penning said.

“The tides have shifted, and people are getting it.”

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