Assistance required

Staff at Queen’s go out of their way to make up for an outdated campus

Although accommodating services are anxious to help students
Image supplied by: Supplied by Katie Charboneau
Although accommodating services are anxious to help students

It’s no secret that Queen’s isn’t the most accessible campus, but what they lack in accessibility, they make up for in accommodation. 

My very first experience at Queen’s was my campus tour in the late fall of 2005. That June, I had been in a car accident and had broken the C5 vertebra in my neck, resulting in quadriplegia (severe impairment from the neck down).  

I was still an in-patient at St. Mary’s of the Lake Rehabilitation Hospital when my case manager booked the tour, so it was one of my first outings. The tour began at an office located in the basement Stauffer Library. We took the elevator down easy enough, but coming back up was problematic. 

My case manager, occupational therapist, tour guide and I loaded into the elevator, which decided we outweighed the maximum capacity (even though we absolutely did not) and refused to let us out for a good 10 to 15 minutes. 

We called for help via the emergency intercom. When we were finally released, a maintenance man insisted it would work if only he and I went up. 

Another 15 minutes later, he and I emerged from the elevator still on the bottom floor. He instead led me through the underbelly of the library to the freight elevator, which finally got me back to the main floor — just in time for the end of the tour. 

Despite that first experience, I moved into residence in September 2006. I stayed at Leggett Hall, which was one of the newest residences, only having opened in 2003. 

I was given the “wheelchair accessible” room that included an accessible bathroom, an adjoining room for a caregiver to spend the night, and space to store my medical equipment and supplies. 

Luckily we arranged to see the room beforehand so we could suggest any changes. The foremost issue was the carpeted flooring — most of my equipment couldn’t maneuver well on it. Secondly, it only had two outlets, and I had tons of electronic equipment and adapted devices that required quite a bit of power. 

These problems were easily fixed, but required me to leave for an entire weekend for the renovation. Queen’s also accommodated my lesser needs without hesitation: allowing a microwave, a fridge, and providing cable, as I had to spend a considerable amount of time in bed and couldn’t use the common room as frequently as other students. 

Again and again in my university career, I ran into obstacles presented by the physical realities of campus. Every time, the situation was remedied. Whether it was reimbursing my unused meals when the journey to the cafeteria wasn’t possible, or revoking my parking tickets when I had to park on the sidewalk to avoid backtracking or braving the weather.

Although Queen’s has an absolutely gorgeous campus, its historical qualities create barriers. Some buildings don’t have passenger elevators, while others have ones that are completely outdated and only occasionally operational. 

My major was Classics, and the department is housed in Watson Hall. To use the elevator, I had to back my power wheelchair halfway inside, let the doors attempt to close on my armrests, then back the rest of the way in as quickly as possible. 

My caregiver would reach inside and press the button for whichever floor — running the risk of hurting her arm — all the while trying to ensure my feet were tucked back as far as possible so the doors wouldn’t catch them. 

There was barely enough room for me, let alone my caregiver, who had to take the stairs and try to meet the elevator to make sure I wasn’t trapped in it, or halfway out of it. 

I promptly became educated on which buildings were most accessible. With the help of the extremely handy Campus Accessibility Guide, I began checking the locations of my classes beforehand to see if they were indeed wheelchair accessible. 

Disability Services tried their best to move my classes to buildings and classrooms that could accommodate me and always made any additional changes if necessary.

Queen’s was great at finding solutions to most obstacles, and I actually liked their alternative routes of action. One semester I had a philosophy class in Stirling Hall, which was conveniently located directly across from my residence. It was one of the rare classes I could get to and from completely on my own. 

The lecture hall was technically “wheelchair accessible”, but only after I made my way to the back door (which locks after 5:00 p.m.), through what looked like a graveyard of unused furniture, equipment and random odds and ends, into the main elevator and to the audio visual workshop where John, one of the AV technicians, would let me in. 

I had to go through his workspace and have him open the door to the theatre hall, where he would help me get settled and then bring out an extension cord for my laptop. We then repeated the process in reverse after 90 minutes. While this wasn’t ideal, it worked, and John was always more than happy to help.

When it comes to needing accommodations, I consider myself fortunate that I have an “obvious” disability. All of my professors were caring, empathetic and more than understanding. 

Unfortunately I’ve had friends with invisible disabilities (whether physical, mental, emotional, etc.) who struggled to obtain proper accommodations, or were treated and judged unfairly by classmates and even some professors. The accommodations that were so readily available to me weren’t as accessible for them.

Luckily, Disability Services on campus have phenomenal staff and volunteers devoted to advocating for students. Accessibility Queens, a student-run group under the AMS, is another outlet for disability advocacy and awareness. I joined in my first year, then became co-chair for the next five.

The committee was an untapped resource whose funding came from yearly mandatory fees and whose budget rolled over each year. This actually came as quite a shock to us, as we were told in my third year as co-chair that we had a standing balance of over $300,000. 

How this had been overlooked for so long still baffles me. 

Of course, we were pressured to spend this money on accessibility-related projects, but finding feasible and realistic ones that weren’t already supposed to be funded by the university was strenuous. When we put out a call for proposals, it became apparent how many accessibility issues and projects were being neglected by Queen’s. 

We received requests to purchase accessible equipment for the ARC, funding to renovate inaccessible bathrooms and even more preposterous ones, such as providing financial means to hire new staff. It was mind-blowing. 

In some cases we tried to compromise, offering to fund the installation of a certain number of power-operated doors if the University would match it. None were completed.

Accessibility Queen’s became a sort of scapegoat when accessibility-related projects couldn’t be completed, or proposals were denied, even if they didn’t fall under our capabilities or responsibilities. The people working with students in need of accommodation were doing the best they could, but for many reasons, the campus remained inaccessible.

I witnessed major changes in regards to accessibility and accommodations throughout my time at Queen’s. Most problems were solved efficiently when brought to the right person’s attention. 

Queen’s is steadily working its way towards full compliance with the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act), and has amazing resources for students. The many individuals who worked together to find solutions and help students overcome barriers deserve the utmost respect and recognition. 

It’s because of these amazing people and in spite of the school’s campus, that I was able to proudly attend and graduate from Queen’s University — a goal that seemed unachievable to most, including me, way back in 2005 during those painfully lagging minutes trapped in that elevator with the maintenance man.

Katie Charboneau is the administrative manager for ALL IN, a new Kingston-based organization that provides expert information, education, support and opportunity for all individuals and organizations in regard to mobility impairments.

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