Accessibility is costly but critical

Quadriplegic student highlights some of the barriers she faces just to get to class on time

Katie Charboneau demonstrates the difficulties caused by poorly placed door openers.
Katie Charboneau demonstrates the difficulties caused by poorly placed door openers.

For most students, having a 9:30 a.m. class on Monday means sleeping in until 9 a.m. and making a mad dash for the door.

For Katie Charboneau, ArtSci ’11, the day begins at 7 a.m. with a wake-up call from her nurse, who helps her get out of bed and get ready in the morning.

Charboneau’s quadriplegic because of a car accident she was in two years ago. She has limited grip in her arms and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.

She lives in Leggett Hall. It takes her nearly half an hour to get to her classics class in Etherington Hall, just a few buildings down Stuart Street.

She said she misses a lot of class time when the weather’s bad.

“If it’s raining I can’t go because I have a motorized wheelchair,” she said. “A lot of the time, the snow removal hasn’t come yet or they’ll plough the road and not plough the [wheelchair] ramp.”

She also misses classes when she can’t get into buildings because nobody’s there to open the door for her. Buildings such as Etherington Hall and Stirling Hall don’t have powered door openers.

“Because I can’t get to class, I feel kind of isolated,” she said. “I feel like I’m not getting the most breadth out of my education.” This year Charboneau had to choose courses based on whether they were held in accessible buildings. She also didn’t sign up for 8:30 a.m. classes because she can’t get out of bed without a nurse, who comes from the Community Care Access Centre because the University doesn’t provide one for her. Charboneau also privately hires Queen’s nursing students.

When Charboneau came to Queen’s for a campus tour in 2005, she and the tour guide got stuck in the elevator. The handyperson told her the wheelchair exceeded the 1600-kilogram weight limit. Her wheelchair weighs approximately 136.4 kilograms.

“The handyman ended up having to take me through the back elevator—the freight elevator,” she said. “I felt really stupid.”

Charboneau chose to come to the University in spite of that uncomfortable welcome.

“I wanted to come here even before the accident,” she said, adding that the wheelchair was one bad experience among many good ones.

“[My room] was prepared for a quadriplegic. … I have buttons everywhere and they’ve always been quick to fix things.”

Charboneau said the University added a fuse box in her room to give her more electrical outlets because most things she owns are electronic.

The carpet had to be taken out because she couldn’t manoeuvre the wheelchair on it, she said. The room next to hers is also kept empty for nights her caregivers need to sleep over. Queen’s has been accommodating, Charboneau said, but should ask wheelchair users for suggestions on what they should improve.

“You can’t actually plan it unless you’re in [a wheelchair],” she said. “They don’t think of placements of buttons.”

She said some door-opening buttons are too high for a person in a wheelchair to reach and some are placed beside door hinges.

“People have the door open on them and they’re stuck behind after the door opens.”

The University has a lot of work to do before it becomes fully accessible, Charboneau said.

“They’re trying to accommodate one person at a time but it’s not accommodating the disability as a whole,” she said.

Disability Services Advisor Theresa Richard said her main role is to support individual students who register with the service.

“We can advocate to professors on what kind of accommodation they require based on what their diagnosis is,” she said.

“In terms of accessibility at Queen’s there’s a commitment on the part of the administration [to make Queen’s more accessible.] … That’s going to be a big task because it’s such an old university and lots of the buildings do require some major, major renovations.”

Richard said she hears the most complaints about Stirling, Ellis and Etherington halls.

“Etherington has an outside accessible door but not an inside accessible door,” she said.

The first step towards campus accessibility is to make it a value on campus, she said.

“Sometimes people will use a washroom for disabled people when it’s the closest one to them,” she said. “I think sometimes people think no one uses those and they use them for storage.”

She said there are more than 500 students registered with Disability Services. Thirty-eight of them have mobility disabilities. There are more students and some staff around campus who choose not to register with the service, she said. Although it’s expensive to make buildings accessible and it only seems to benefit a small group of people, the University has to continue improving accessibility on campus, Richard said.

“It could be we don’t have people [with disabilities] at Queen’s because we’re not as accessible as we could be,” she said. “Accessibility is not a choice. … People with disabilities ought to be able to go where they want to go without being judged for that.”

Jeanette Parsons, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act program co-ordinator, said the University receives $50,000 to $75,000 each year from the provincial government for service improvements.

“That’s used every year to correct physical barriers to the existing infrastructure,” she said. “We [the University] don’t take out a budget on top of that.”

Parsons said new, accessible infrastructure is part of the general renovations of a building.

“It’s all woven into the cost of the project.”

Jeannette Kobelka, ArtSci ’08 and AMS Accessibility Queen’s co-chair, said she thinks the University should put more money into making the campus fully accessible.

“Each year there isn’t enough to get the projects done fast enough,” she said.

Accessibility Queen’s collects a $3 mandatory student fee from undergraduate and graduate students every year. The committee uses the money for small maintenance projects such as putting in door-opening buttons in buildings students identify as inaccessible.

“But we don’t have $60,000 to put in a lift,” she said.

Joyce Zhu, Kobelka’s co-chair and ConEd ’08, said Accessibility Queen’s paid for the lift for the stage in Grant Hall in 2006. The committee was able to do this because of a budget surplus due to previous years’ unused funds.

Zhu said the University should try to raise its accessibility budget.

“It sounds like a lot but when you think about how much [accessibility] costs, it’s not.”

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