Physical accessibility on Queen’s campus

‘Our campus is old, and a lot of things need to be improved’

The Journal sat down with student advocate Isaac Sahota.
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“I doubted if I could survive living here [...] after my first week of Orientation.”

Isaac Sahota, ArtSci ’22, has been an advocate for students with physical disabilities since he arrived at Queen’s. Sahota, who uses a wheelchair, worried life at university might not be accommodating following a less-than-accessible Orientation Week.

It was the lack of consideration that went into planning the event to include students with physical disabilities—despite the best intentions of ASUS Orientation Week leaders—that caused Sahota to have doubts. According to him, event planners failed to consider how the week’s rainy weather would impact his mobility.

“I really had an Orientation that was not very welcoming,” Sahota said. “It's not to blame anyone, but [physical accessibility was] just a perspective they were lacking.”

From that moment onwards, Sahota was determined to help prevent other new students from experiencing the same sense of unease Orientation Week instilled in him. He went on to volunteer with the ASUS orientation team for two years.

“For someone who [has a] physical disability, a step like moving to a university, living away from their home, living independently, it's a big decision,” Sahota said.

“That's the introduction when you come here, and the orientation, if it's problematic, it could stop you from continuing with whatever journey you want to pursue.”

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When students first come to Queen’s, many live on campus in residence. A student’s experience in residence can set the tone for what to expect from life on campus throughout the year.

Queen’s digital accessibility hub’s page on residences states if students “have special needs that require physical accommodation or building adaptation, Queen’s Residence will meet your needs to the best of their ability, provided that you communicate these accommodations to them well in advance of your arrival.”

Residences on campus have varying degrees of accessibility. According to the accessibility hub, there are 16 wheelchair-accessible dorm rooms. Of the rooms designed for wheelchair access, only two are not single rooms.

Students with hearing loss who require a visual fire alarm are limited to 18 rooms in residence that have a total combined capacity of 29 students.

Sahota witnessed the difficulties students with disabilities can face living in residence firsthand. He recalled noticing a student with a visual impairment struggling to navigate the stairs during a fire alarm amidst a crowd of other students rushing to exit the building.

“[The student and I] talked about it, because whenever I see anyone who might need some accommodations, I make sure they don't have to go on their own,” Sahota said. “I make sure I'm there to [...] guide from my experience, because I’ve spent almost three years here now.”

Living in residence also presents challenges for students who require a service animal. Students who have a larger dog, for example, must be cognizant of the size of available residence rooms. Rooms in Victoria Hall, Queen’s largest residence building, range between 9.5 by 13 feet to 17 by 17 feet, depending on the number of beds.

As per the service animal guidelines for Queen’s residences, service animals are assessed on a case-by-case basis. The eligibility of each animal to live in residence, enter dining halls, and attend retail food outlets is defined by an individualized accommodation plan.

Handlers of service animals must manage the hygiene of their animal and its environment. If the animal requires regular grooming or bathing, “residences may set aside designated cleaning areas [...] if appropriate facilities are available.” If this designated area isn’t accessible to the handler, they’re responsible for seeking an off-campus service for hygiene.

Students with a service animal also assume responsibility for any damages caused by their animal.

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According to Sahota, accessibility on campus begins outside of the buildings.

“Our campus is a little old, and sidewalks are a little old, so that that's where I had to start from [in my advocacy work],” Sahota said. 

“[The university] had to renovate sidewalks, and they had to do a slope angle adjustment, [...] because if someone is in a wheelchair, there are certain angles the slope should be at.”

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires “[any] change in the level of [an outdoor] path must have a slope or ramp. Similarly, sidewalks with steep or depressed curbs must have curb ramps.” All public sidewalks must “meet slope ratio requirements when constructing or redeveloping” outdoor walkways.

Sahota said sidewalks are what initially drove him to become actively “involved into trying to better the physical accessibility of Queen’s campus.”

From there, he went on to join the Accessibility Queen’s (AQ) committee, a part of the AMS Commission of Social Issues, as a general member. In his second year, he served as an AQ co-chair.

According to AQ’s Facebook page, the committee “raises awareness about accessibility issues for students with disabilities on campus” and “[offers] support to student groups looking to run accessible events and help fund student project proposals to improve accessibility.”

As AQ co-chair, Sahota focused on making incoming students with disabilities feel safe and welcome at Queen’s.

Under his leadership, AQ started a mentorship program called Accessibility Allies that matches incoming ArtSci students with disabilities with upper-year students—an achievement he called his “dream project.”

Sahota also worked to create an AQ bursary that aims to support projects striving to better accessibility on campus.

“Our campus is old, and a lot of things need to be improved,” he said.

When it comes to updating campus, Queen’s has a multi-year accessibility plan spanning from 2016 to 2025. The document is 33 pages and describes commitments to implementing changes to facets of the institution, including policy, trainings, and infrastructure, to make Queen’s more accessible.

The document states Queen’s is committed to consulting persons with disabilities in the process of improving campus access and “strives to improve its ability to consult, engage, listen, and reframe accessibility issues so that the results of our work better meet the expectations and needs of persons with disabilities.”

According to the plan, “[n]ew facilities and all future extensive renovations are completed to meet accessibility standards and Ontario Building Code barrier-free design.”

Under Ontario’s Building Code, existing buildings are not affected by updated accessibility requirements and revisions to the code unless an extensive renovation is planned. In other words, Queen’s isn’t legally obligated to update accessibility in buildings that predate amendments to the code, the most recent being in 2012.

But older buildings on campus are often in need of updates.

Summerhill, the oldest building at Queen's, was built as a private home in 1839. According to Queen’s building directory, Summerhill has no barrier-free access to the lower- or upper-levels. There’s also no designated accessible washroom.

There are several other buildings with barriers.

In Humphrey Hall, for example, there are doors that act as barriers in corridors with no operator buttons, nor are there lifts or ramps in corridors. Humphry’s elevator, which provides access to all levels of both Humphry Hall and Craine Building, isn’t mirrored, and there’s no braille or audible announcement system.

Similarly, Ontario Hall corridors have doors that act as barriers and don’t have power door operator buttons. Its elevator, too, doesn’t have braille, mirrored walls, or “much room within.”

These facilities are in stark contrast to the newer Isabel Bader Centre, which has corridors and rooms designed to allow for the turning radius of various mobility devices.

Additionally, students with physical disabilities who can’t afford a parking pass, which costs a minimum of $116.48 per month throughout the school year, may struggle to find accessible parking near where they’re headed on campus.

For a student attending Douglas Library, for example, the nearest accessible meter parking is a single space on Union Street across from Miller Hall.

Students looking to learn more about the physical accessibility of campus buildings can visit the Queen’s accessibility building directory to find details such as corridor access, washrooms, and parking. However, the resource isn’t comprehensive—entries for some buildings, including the ARC, are incomplete.

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Sahota believes accessibility advocacy is vital in Queen’s work towards inclusion.

“If there’s no physical accessibility, [Queen’s is] excluding, by default, students with disabilities,” he explained. “I know that's not [Queen’s] goal, but it's a perspective we are missing.”

“It's important. I think we want to support people rather than demotivate them, especially when they are already facing some external, harsh circumstances.”

Sahota is always keeping an eye out for changes that must be made to improve day-to-day accessibility.

He files maintenance requests for broken buttons, faulty entrances, and snowy pathways. He’s found that though the institution strives to stay on top of these things, without his requests issues have largely gone unnoticed and unaddressed.

As happy as he is to do this work, he acknowledged it can a burden on students.

“Sometimes you [have] to keep reminding [the university],” he said. “But I feel like there needs to be someone who should be taking care of all these things without anyone actively reminding them.”

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Overall, Sahota has enjoyed his time at Queen’s. He’s found departments and professors accommodating to his needs, and he sees and appreciates the work other students are doing to improve accessibility on campus.

“I survived, right? And I successfully completed everything, and I have no regrets and no bad feelings,” he said. “But I just don't want anyone to be welcomed the way I was.”

Though he’s been a force of change at the university in his three years here, Sahota knows there’s more work to be done. When Sahota graduates this spring, he hopes to see advocacy for physical accessibility continue on campus.

“There’s a lot to do, and I see a lot of students trying to contribute, so we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “But there’s a lot to do.”

“I was here for three years and I still feel like I could stay here for three more years.”

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