Commentary  Letter to the McGill administration regarding accessibility at Thomson House

Signs on public buildings are intended to designate all accessible entrances for persons with disabilities. At Thomson House, the official graduate student space of the Post Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) at McGill University, a concealed and blue-faded disability placard points to the front entrance staircase, which does not feature a ramp. The student-centered space is fundamental for creating a supportive and engaging environment where all graduate students can thrive.

The lack of a proper [accessibility] signage at Thomson House sends a profound message to students with disabilities – that they are not expected or welcome. It also demonstrates an attitude of neglect and apathy on the part of the university and, to a lesser extent, the graduate student body, regarding the needs of disabled persons. Assurances for a “barrier-free environment” in university life are clearly stipulated in McGill’s Disability & Student Rights Policy .

McGill University has made it abundantly clear that improving access to Thomson House is not a priority. On March 9th, 2016 McGill’s Universal Access Capital Working Group (UACWG), which is mandated to approve and fund accessibility-related improvement projects, agreed that accessible doors located at the back entrance of Thomson House would be fitted with automatic door openers and a card reader to to allow access to graduate students with disabilities. Furthermore, on September 28th, 2017, the UACWG committed to financing a pre-design project proposal for improvements to the Thomson House pathway for persons with disabilities. These projects have since been terminated or stalled by the working group, citing a lack of available funds for Thomson House improvements. But according to the approved meeting notes on March 21st, 2017, approximately $200 000 remained in the working group’s budget.

McGill’s Office of Students with Disabilities (OSD), which was created to support and provide accommodations for students with disabilities, has also failed to deliver on Thomson House renovation projects. The OSD is a member of the working group but has not supported any of the initiatives related to Thomson House improvements, while backing projects such as McConnell Engineering Cafeteria renovations and an audit for gender-neutral washrooms at McGill’s Faculty of Law.

McGill has often claimed that renovations to Thomson House may undermine its historical and/or cultural value. However, the Quebec government has not granted any cultural or historical significance to this property. Moreover, McGill’s internal policies on protecting supposed ‘heritage’ buildings should not supersede the Disability & Student Rights Policy.

Furthermore, the McGill administration recently released its report on Respect and Inclusion, which included several recommendations for increasing campus accessibility by prioritizing physical renovations on campus. While I commend McGill’s dedication to respect and inclusion, the report does not provide any information regarding which projects will be prioritized nor specific timelines for these projects.  

Within the PGSS policy on Equity and Diversity, there is a dedication to ensuring equitable access to all McGill University spaces.  An intersectional accessibility audit conducted by expert accessibility auditors is currently underway at Thomson House, which was not funded by McGill. The audit will evaluate several structural (i.e., ramps, functional elevators, bathroom sinks and toilets, signage, etc.) as well as non-structural (i.e., event programming, services for accommodations, etc.) accessibility issues in line with the principles of Universal Design, which are stipulated in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 2, CRDP). The audit report is set to become a reference document which will guide the accessibility advocacy activities of the PGSS in a direction that centres equitable access to physical spaces. The document will highlight pressing accessibility deficiencies while complementing them with actionable steps which will facilitate McGill’s accountability to these needs.

The university should be reminded that ensuring that university programs, services, and student-run activities remain accessible to all members of the McGill community is fundamental to creating an environment that truly values respect, diversity and inclusivity on campus. Investing in McGill’s buildings, especially those that are designed to foster collegiality among students, is a prerequisite to upholding a standard of respect and inclusion for persons with disabilities. However, student associations must also work in concert with the McGill administration to continually advocate and prioritize the rights of students with disabilities. Without active student involvement leading the charge on this issue, persons with disabilities will remain marginalized on our campus.

Efthymios Tim Hadjis

PGSS Equity and Diversity Commissioner, Winter/Spring 2018