Steve Payette, a recent Concordia graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and Cultural Studies, knows that having a disability and being a student is not easy.
Payette, who took the majority of his courses at the Loyola campus, recalls the challenges he faced as a quadriplegic.
“The CC and AD buildings are not accessible at all,” he said. “On the second floor of the CC building they put a lift, but you have to go get ?a security guard to get the key. If you are in a wheelchair you can’t do it alone. That is so stupid!”
“Why would you put something to benefit someone if they can’t use it on their own? Imagine? if a ?regular student always had to call security. Why don’t you just make it right from the beginning?” questioned Payette.
Dr. Leo Bissonnette, the coordinator for the Access Center for Students with Disabilities (ACSD), said the main problem with these buildings is that they were built in a time when contractors did not consider accessibility issues.
He said the challenge we now face is retrofitting antiquated buildings. “One of the problems with access at Loyola is that it is? an older campus,” he said.?”When you try to? fix things, that’s the?[dated]?design you have to work with. The CC and the AD buildings have half-levels. When [someone in a wheelchair] gets to the bottom level they must take a lift and then the elevator.”
The accessibility problems can be very serious for people with impaired mobility. Payette even had to drop a course. “I dropped the course because it couldn’t be switched. I had to take it the year after,” he explained.
But according to Bissonnette, students with a disability must open a file with the ACSD as soon as they register for classes. The responsibility rests with them.
“You can’t sit in silence,” Bissonnette said. “The university can’t react to something if they don’t know about it. Make this your first stop. You’re part of the solution. What happened was, Steve brought his problem to my attention after the fact. The university can’t react to something if they don’t know about it. We are dealing with older buildings. In [the] following terms he was accommodated,” Bissonnette said.
He explained that the ACSD deals with more than 700 students and new buildings are built with Universal Design in mind.
Universal Design is based on barrier-free design and assistive technology that provides ?comfortable accessibility to buildings for people with disabilities.
Special handles, automatic doors, wider bathrooms and lower, reachable locks are now standard with new buildings. But besides these improvements, Universal Design also focuses on addressing the stigma attached to the current accessibility set up when a ramp leads to the back of a building ?rather than ?the main entrance.
Payette said that there are still many problems with accessibility in the university as Universal Design has not been fully integrated into new buildings. “They are just doing patch-work. I don’t think that the Communications and Journalism (CJ) building is wheelchair-friendly,” Payette said, pointing to the drain at the end of the wheelchair ramp. “When you have a manual wheelchair you can get stuck and flip over.”
He? says the CJ building’s emergency exit system, a chair which is supposed to bring handicapped people down a flight of stairs, is also problematic. He would have to be able to stand to get on it, which clearly presents a problem. “If there should be a fire, the chair is useless,” Payette said. He also thinks some accessibility features are made without being thought through. Even doors can pose a challenge to the disabled. “You have those big heavy doors. The regular students have problems opening them… imagine us. How much more expensive would it have been to install doors that are less heavy?”
But Universal Design is not the only problem disabled students face. Remi? Stebenne, a Journalism student at Concordia, has grown increasingly frustrated with the many obstacles he faces on a daily basis at his school. One of his major complaints is that keyholes for the elevator he has access to are too high.
“Just put it lower so that people with wheel chairs can reach it,” said Stebenne, pointing to a keyhole that is beyond his reach. “Why do they put it that high?”
Stebenne also says? that he often waits 20 to 25 minutes every time he tries to use the main elevator on the ground floor of the Hall building. This is because other students often don’t let him go first in the elevator. On two different occasions he had to wait nearly 45 minutes.
“The only reason I got in once was because a security guard, walking by, started kicking everyone out. He actually had to force people out. Believe me, if I could take the stairs I would,” Stebenne said, smiling. “But I can’t. So please, pay attention to the sign that says ‘Give priority to handicapped people’.”
To get to class on time, Stebenne says people with wheelchairs have to cross the street to the Library Building, take the elevator to the basement, cross the underground tunnel to the Hall building basement, and take the freight elevator from there. “It’s faster that way,” he said.
However, Bissonnette insisted the situation at Concordia is improving. He cannot ensure that students without disabilities will respect those who depend on the elevator, but a wider elevator is being built in the Hall building for those who use wheelchairs in mind.
He also says the Concordia Council for Student Life (CCSL) recently donated $30,000 for a computer room tailored to students with disabilities. “We hope to be operational within three weeks,” he said. “We will have new computers, adapters, hardware and software. We hope to meet the needs of students with visual and learning disabilities and of students with mobility impairment.”
Stebenne agreed that Concordia and the ACSD are genuinely trying to help students with disabilities, but he feels more could be done and more must be done.
Especially with regard to bathrooms that can accommodate students with large electric wheelchairs.?”There is only one bathroom that is really accessible to me and that’s on the fifth floor,” Stebenne said. “If I’m at the other end of the building on the first floor, and I have to go, well, I have to run to the elevator, wait about 20 minutes to get in,” Stebenne said as he shook his head.
More accessible bathrooms, bigger elevators and more of them would likely go a long way in making life a little easier – and increase respect – for students with disabilities.
According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, there are no national standards for access to buildings. Building codes are a provincial responsibility and accessibility standards vary from province to province.
According to a paper published by Patricia Falta, retired Architecture Professor at the Université de Montréal, Quebec adopted a law to entrench the rights of disabled people in 1979.
Articles 69 and 70 demanded structures built before 1976 to be made accessible. Since rules and regulations were never defined, this law is not applied.