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Building spaces for everyone

Students promote discussion on universal design in Engineering

On February 23, about seventy students, faculty, and staff attended the Forum on Accessibility and Universal Design in the Faculty of Engineering, hosted by the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) and the engineering faculty, with help from the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD).

The forum is the second in a series of equity events spearheaded by the EUS Equity Committee – an informal body within the EUS that works alongside the EUS Equity Commissioner to address inequality in Engineering. The first forum took place in October and discussed “inclusivity.”

The goal of the forum was to create awareness about accessibility, emphasizing ‘universal design.’ Universal design is the concept of designing buildings, products, and environments that are accessible to the widest range of people, both with and without disabilities.

The panel was comprised of four experts whose work focuses on accessibility, and who implement universal design in their work. Before the discussion began, keynote speaker Isabelle Cardinal, the Consultation Services Director at Société Logique, a non-profit that promotes creating universally accessible spaces, explained the concept of universal design.

She said that much of the concept of universal design focuses on removing obstacles and making places “barrier-free.” Cardinal pointed out that these obstacles “create” disability.

“Separate is not equal. The way you’re offering service is important.”

For example, if a person had a spinal injury or a walking disability and there was a gradual slope to the building that they were trying to access, then there wouldn’t be any obstacles and they wouldn’t be handicapped.

She explained that universal design’s focus on creating structures that are inherently accessible differs from the previous approach of ‘accessible design,’ which focuses more on adding features to inaccessible structures.

Cardinal illustrated this by explaining that, instead of creating a building with a separate ramp for people in wheelchairs, under universal design, the entrance to the building would be lower in the first place, so that no ramp would be needed.

“Separate is not equal,” said Cardinal. “ The way you’re offering service is important.”

Ernesto Morales, an architect and Assistant Professor at Université Laval, noted some of the challenges in implementing universal design. The current construction code, he said, is not conducive to a universal approach, and to change the code one needs to either argue that the issue is a question of human rights or provide scientific evidence as to how the code is inaccessible.

Furthermore, panelist Ling Suen, Director of Transportation Planning and consultant at Intelligent Computer Systems and Applications (ICSA) Inc., pointed out some factors that may be overlooked.There is a difference between making something accessible for a person who is deaf and a person who is deaf and blind. She also noted that cultural differences need to be brought up in universal design.

During the question period, one audience member asked about how to encourage engineers to create more accessible designs.

Morales said that education was key, and that universal design should be integrated into the curriculum and not taught as a separate concept.

Michael Kokkolaras, a mechanical engineering professor, noted during the discussion period that accessibility is often not incorporated in design because of the way engineers are taught.

“Mechanical engineers are traditionally trained to find solutions for given problems, but they’re not really trained to formulate problems already,” he said, explaining that while problem formulation is emphasized in design courses, students often “don’t realize that formulation is 50 per cent [of the process].”

There was also debate over the importance of cost. For example, to add in an elevator in the Redpath building would cost about $1.09 billion, compared to the $450,000 budget that is allocated to this type of planning.

However, Suen argued that it wasn’t a matter of cost but political will.

“Cost is strictly relative,” she said.

“Mechanical engineers are traditionally trained to find solutions for given problems, but they’re not really trained to formulate problems already.”

Jenna Laham, a U3 student in chemical engineering and member of the EUS Equity Committee, noted that in classrooms, students are taught to think ahead when it comes to costs and to under-budget, but not so much to consider costs of accessibility.

“What’s important for us is to witness conversations happening,” said Tinke-Marie De Witte, also a U3 chemical engineering student on the EUS Equity Committee. “To have four panelists who come from different backgrounds professionally, to be a in a room with students who are studying different things and professors who are teaching different things – it brings together in one room people who are approaching problems in a lot of different ways.”