November 24, 2014

Health & Ed | September 23, 2013
Accessibility is not universal
How McGill perpetuates ableism
Written by | Visual by Carmen Fenech

We rush up the stairs of the Morrice Hall, or run up the hill to the Education building, late for our next class. We run down more stairs to catch the metro; we walk through the barriers at the entrance of a supermarket so we can grocery shop, and stand on the never-ending escalators at the Cineplex, anticipating our upcoming movie experience. Most do these things without a second thought, but these are the people who don’t happen to be in need of a wheelchair, crutches, canes, walkers, and the like. The fact is, physical mobility is a privilege most people take for granted. This is ableism; an often indirect or insidious discrimination in favour of the able-bodied, and it is at the very basis of our society.

Some of us can’t get to class in a building without elevators, or can’t get past the barriers at Milton gates. Some miss out on a decent bite to eat because most places are inaccessible to people with limited mobility. I use the term ‘limited mobility’ in this article, as it does not only encompass people with physical impairments, but also, for example, those who need to use canes or walkers, parents with strollers, and people with broken limbs.

Our modern capitalist society is based on getting ahead. In essence, it is built on staircases, and it revolves around staircases. McGill’s campus is no different. “McGill is way behind,” asserted Ahmed El-Geneidy, associate professor in the School of Urban Planning. “[It] considers people with limited mobility as second-class citizens,” he says, because the University has barely broken any ground in terms of retrofitting all the buildings in order to make them fully accessible. In El-Geneidy’s opinion, maintaining the historical facade of a building (an argument used against incorporating ramps into old buildings on campus) should come secondary to ensuring that all students and staff, able bodied or not, can easily get where they have to go. “You do not even have a campus map that tells you how to get from point A to point B in a wheelchair,” he continue. “A person with a limited mobility should not be stopped from taking Arts or Engineering [because of the way the campus is planned].” In order for McGill University to advertise itself as an institution open to everyone, it needs to make sure that the campus is 100 per cent accessible to all, and, according to El-Geneidy, “[needs to] place people with limited mobility as [its] top priority.”

“You’re the first person who comes and talks to me about [accessibility], after seven years [of being at McGill],” El-Geneidy told me. The university does not accompany text with Braille everywhere for the visually impaired, captioning for the hearing impaired, or even disability buttons for opening doors in every building. The fact is the same: there are efforts, but they aren’t enough. Rather than investing in new benches for students, “I would take some of that money to make the campus more accessible to people with limited mobility,” explained El-Geneidy.

“The campus is poorly built for students with all kinds of disabilities,” Frederic Fovet, Director of the Office for Students with Disabilities at McGill (OSD), told The Daily. “The argument you will hear is that the buildings are historical […]”, he said. “We still have a reflex where we think about access at the end, [this] is very costly, [and] it is not dignified to certain people.”

The Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche, de la Science et de la Technologie du Québec (MESRST) gives half a million dollars to McGill annually (the same amount is also given to other universities) in order to improve access to buildings and facilities. The problem is not whether funds are available or not – they clearly are – but rather a lack of executive decision. Lydia White, Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity), is in the process of setting up the Universal Access Capital Projects Working Group, which would allocate the funds given by MESRST to the University, effective this term. White told The Daily over email that “The Working Group will solicit, receive, and prioritize eligible proposals for capital projects to improve access to our buildings and facilities for persons with disabilities. Recommendations will be presented to the Provost for final deliberation and decision.”

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel […] but this is still retrofitting. A separate issue is universal design and access,” argued Fovet. One of the problems is the failure to hypothesize that people would have a problem with accessibility before a certain project is undertaken. Great examples of this issue are the barriers at Milton gates, which the Director of the School of Architecture, Annmarie Adams, calls a dreadful addition, adding that, “The very design of them assumes an able-bodied tall person, as the swinging arm tends to hit the rest of us mid-body or even hits kids in the head. Imagine what it will mean for those in wheelchairs or with canes.” Another example all students are struggling with is the construction on the entrance to the Redpath Library; it is currently physically impossible for a student with limited mobility to access the library through the tunnel – the only entrance. Furthermore, if a student with limited mobility is registered in a class that is located in an inaccessible building, the OSD still has to contact the faculty and change the location of the whole class. “It still goes through that hands-on plugging holes [approach], because we have a number of buildings that aren’t accessible,” maintained Fovet.

A huge equity and human resources problem also exists, since employing new staff with limited mobility is difficult given the current state of campus. In terms of other impairments (such as sight or sound), accessibility is very sporadic and non-standardized. “Every time someone thinks about access they push it back to this office,” Fovet explained, “but it’s not the end with this office. Everyone on campus has to get ownership of access and that’s not happening.” Individuals should not brush it off because the matter may not directly concern them; they should be the ones to mobilize in order for change to occur. Fovet affirmed that a person doesn’t need to know someone with limited mobility to be conscious of disability and universal access. “I think it’s important for people to go through the deconstruction of ableism; that you are in a position of privilege because of [you happen to be able-bodied],” he added.

Historically, McGill has been an ableist institution, but Fovet is hopeful. There have been improvements, especially in the OSD, and Fovet optimistically declares that, with a little awareness, McGill could become a leader of accessibility in Canada.

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