Crowd celebrates website launch

Accessibility event attracts over 60 attendees

From left to right: Melissa Vassallo, Heidi Penning and Andrew Ashby.
From left to right: Melissa Vassallo, Heidi Penning and Andrew Ashby.

A full crowd gathered on Wednesday to celebrate the launch of the Accessibility Hub, an online resource for accessibility at Queen’s.

The website will help prospective and current students living with disabilities navigate through resources such as mental health initiatives, counselling and disability services and adaptive technology options.

The website places all disability resources together online to improve access for those in need.

Despite the high attendance of around 60 people at the launch yesterday, the majority of the attendees were non-students.

The launch event at Stauffer Library featured the keynote speaker Melissa Vassallo, ArtSci ’02, who is an active disability and healthcare advocate.

During her fourth year at Queen’s in 2002, Vassallo was in a severe car crash with friends on the way to Florida for Reading Week. Two out of the five passengers were killed, but Vassallo survived, resulting in 82 injuries, including collapsed lungs and extensive damage to her internal organs.

She spent a year in the hospital and received more than 50 surgeries prior to her recovery.

“My mom unfortunately got that call that we all fear, that I was in a terrible accident,” she said during her speech.

Vassallo, who’s partnering with the Accessibility Hub and remains actively involved in the campaign, spent eight years recovering from the accident. After initially using a wheelchair, she moved from using crutches to walking on her own.

“It’s been really wonderful to come back and help support the school and institution that really helped to support me with my journey,” she said.

She was able to complete her degree following rehabilitation.

“When I left Queen’s in 2002 to go on spring break, I had every intention to come back and graduate, so when the accident happened, I felt a little bit robbed of my time here,” she said.

Although she volunteered throughout high school, the accident motivated Vassallo to devote her time to disability and health care advocacy, she said.

“I think accessibility should be a part of all the events here at Queen’s,” she told the Journal following the event. “It shouldn’t just be that thing over there where maybe if there’s extra money we will consider, it should be inclusive.”

Laeeque Daneshmend, deputy provost and department head of mining engineering, spoke at the launch on behalf of the University. He said that the Hub is a place to start making campus more accessible.

“[We are] a community that rolls up our sleeves and works together to create an environment where everyone has an enriching and … transformative experience,” he said.

Barriers still exist at Queen’s that challenge accessibility, but acknowledging their existence is a good start to breaking them down, Daneshmend said.

“We share a responsibility to identify existing barriers and prevent new barriers that arise in the future,” he said.

Heidi Penning, the University’s equity advisor, was a leading coordinator in the launch of the Hub. Penning works to build an inclusive and accessible environment on campus, she said, and the creation of the Hub is just another way of doing so.

“Although Queen’s is not immune to [accessibility] barriers, the Hub exemplifies our commitment to identifying and preventing arbitrary barriers going forward,” she told the Journal via email. “There is a true desire to put Queen’s on the map as a ‘go-to’ university for students living with disabilities.”

Penning works to ensure that the University exceeds the standards of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which lays the framework for the development of mandatory standards on accessibility.

“Today … we took time as a Queen’s community to celebrate the hard work of students, staff and faculty that all meaningfully contributed to making the Accessibility Hub a reality,” she said.

Andrew Ashby, the University’s adaptive technologies specialist, is the Hub’s technological coordinator who designed the website and organized the resources in an accessible way. Ashby also utilizes a wheelchair.

“I am biased, but I am very proud of the website coming together,” he said.

With the help of the Equity Office, Ashby created a comprehensive space to find accessibility-related resources at Queen’s.

While Penning laid out the groundwork for the Hub, Ashby created the website and organized the information in an understandable way.

“[The difficulty] was taking the mass amount of information and trying to get it into a usable website,” he said.

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