·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·    · 

Volume 91, Issue 44

Friday, November 14, 1997

calling wood


Access: DENIED

©James Pugsley/Gazette
A HIDDEN PERSPECTIVE: Jesse Davidson [left], accompanied by his father John, can not sit in the stands with other students at Mustang football games. J.W. Little Stadium is one of Western's many older facilities that is inaccessible.

By James Pugsley

Gazette Staff

It is an uphill battle being fought by a small, yet determined army.

For most students at Western, the challenge of taking classes, getting resources and writing exams is difficult enough. But for physically disabled students, Western's biggest obstacles aren't academic – they are the numerous hurdles and roadblocks on campus which restrict or prevent them from getting to class.

"If it weren't for the cooperation or help of my fellow students, I wouldn't be able to get around this university," says Barbara Hoy, a full-time visual arts and psychology student who must use a scooter after a fall in 1993 cost her the cartilage from both knees.

Hoy has seen Western from both sides of her disability. One year prior to her injury, she received an honours English degree as a mature student. Since returning, she sees campus in an entirely different light – one filled with frustration and fear.

"I never thought about accessibility much until I became disabled. It's something you don't think about until you have to deal with it every day," she says, adding a recent fall on University College Hill – a major campus route with a steep incline – has left her frightened about the slippery winter months ahead.

Jesse Davidson, an enthusiastic Mustang football fan, doesn't allow muscular dystrophy nor his wheelchair to restrict him. He is best known for raising $1.5 million for genetic and cell research during a 124-day, 3,300 kilometre voyage across Ontario called Jesse's Journey. The 17-year-old London native must watch games from the track in J.W. Little Stadium because there are no facilities to accommodate his chair in the stands.

"It's a bit of a deterrent that makes people with disabilities want to stay away," he says.

Davidson, who is considering his options for university after he graduates from Saunders Secondary School in London, says choosing Western will depend on all of the facilities. "I can get around campus now, but it's one thing to come just for sports events and another when it comes to being a student."

He feels his position on field level, separated from the other students and at times only a few feet away from oncoming players, is, aside from being unsafe, a tough reality to absorb.

"If you're up in the stands, you're with the crowd atmosphere instead of off by yourself. [Students with disabilities] want to be just like everyone else."

Despite his concerns with Western's stadium, Davidson recognizes the age of the facility, as well as some others he visits, has a lot to do with their poor access. He feels some efforts have been made to improve the situation, but problems still remain. "Talbot College Theatre finally added special seats in the back row. But...," he adds, "...it's still the back row."

COUNCIL MOVES?: "In nature of the fact that half of this campus is on top of a hill and the other half is on the bottom – no, this university is not accessible," says VP-student issues Sam Castiglione, chair of the University Students Councils' Accessibility Development Committee.

"The concept of being accessible isn't that one door in every building has a push-button entry, it's that every door is accessible. It's an issue of equal access – so everybody is able to use the same things," he says. "If disabled students can't get to their classrooms, then they're not getting their money's worth."

The committee is responsible for prioritizing and coordinating various accessibility projects around campus with funding from an annual student levy. Initiated in 1993, the levy (totaling $97,854 this year – $4.86 per student) is increased by five per cent annually and is designated to be spent on making Western more accessible.

However, conflict arose last year when the levy wasn't spent, leaving $45,511 of student fees unused and halting the progression of accessibility renovations. Lucy Pinheiro, this year's VP-finance and vice chair of the ADC, says that shouldn't happen.

"When council gets a fee, it is our responsibility to use that money for what it is supposed to be used for and make sure the funds are spent effectively."

THE PLAN: In 1991, the USC and Physical Plant contrived a 221-page plan entitled "The UWO Building Accessibility Inventory" which was to lead Western into the age of accessibility. However, Castiglione says with no timeline to complete the projects (estimated well into the 21st century) and the lacklustre management of last year's levy, progress hasn't been great.

"Realistically, this campus can not become accessible in the next few years. The rate at which we're moving is still too slow."

Hoy agrees the progress hasn't been substantial enough. "I watched them develop the accessibility program and I am not impressed," she says.

Hoy explains the obstacles she must still overcome are not addressed in the plan. "It only takes into account entering the buildings, but has done nothing to make them accessible inside."

Dealing with the double doors outside Middlesex College Rm 110, hard-to-reach door handles in the University Community Centre and the difficult manoeuvres she must make to get around the second and third floors in the Social Science Centre, have given Hoy back problems and sore arms.

"There are buildings I am reluctant to go into because they pose too much of a problem."

Inaccessibility became such a problem for English student Carrie Booth that she left Western altogether. "It is not merely one or two classrooms nor just one building that is not accessible, it's all the older buildings that pose barriers of one kind or another."

Booth has the muscular disorder fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, necessitating the use of a walker. The inaccessibility of Middlesex and University College washrooms is only one of the many flaws she sees at Western. "They have the wrong kind of taps, the towels are too high, the sinks are the wrong height, the path to the stalls are too restricted and the doors are not accessible, to name a few."

CHOOSING A DIRECTION: Each month, Jessica Moretti, commissioner for students with disabilities, assists approximately 12 disabled students with things like letter writing or time management. But of those students, 10 have learning disabilities – raising the question as to why $107,000 worth of accessibility projects are already approved by a committee if there are fewer physically disabled students making demands. To Moretti, Western's inaccessibility is keeping people away to begin with.

"I have talked to students who came to tour Western but didn't [apply] because they couldn't get around. By addressing the concerns of accessibility now, there will be more students with physical disabilities on campus in the future," she says.

The primary renovations the Accessibility Development Committee has budgeted for this year's levy include building a $35,000 exterior ramp at Althouse College, modifying washrooms in University College, widening an entrance in Talbot College as well as adding electric door openers to many entrances around campus – including the currently-inaccessible office of the University Students' Council on the third floor of the UCC.

Moretti isn't impressed. "Ironically, the university honours [olympic wheelchair athlete] Rick Hanson by giving him an honorary degree but they don't respect him enough to make the campus accessible so he can come to Western."

RESPONSIBILITIES: Pinpointing who should carry the onus of responsibility for Western's accessibility is still an ongoing debate, despite any financial leadership shown by the USC in the '90s.

"There is a lot of confusion as to who should take control of the situation," says Moretti. "Ideally, the administration should do all of [the spending]. The reality is they're not. They are responsible for the students – accessibility is their problem and they have to make sure it's up to code," she says.

Castiglione agrees, "We shouldn't have to charge a levy. Students shouldn't have to tax themselves, the money should be coming out of the university's budget."

"The USC, as an employer and provider for students, has the same obligations and responsibility we do," says Bill Wilkinson, Western's director of equity services. Wilkinson, along with four other members of administration, sits on the Barrier Free Access Committee – an advisory panel to Physical Plant to address access concerns when any renovations are done on campus. He feels there are misinterpretations about the responsibility issue.

"Under its own processes, the USC wanted to have a levy created in 1993, but since then there has been the notion that the university has used it as an opportunity to avoid spending on accessibility," he says, adding that he sees the levy in a positive light – as "another opportunity for Western to enhance its barrier-free access."

"It's frustrating," Peter Mercer, Western's VP-administration, says about the financial aspect. "There used to be more disability funding from the province and [the students' reaction] is part of the effect of the cuts."

Mercer says there are concerns about spending more than absolutely necessary since facilities such as parking spots for people with disabilities, although required by law, are seldom full – and on the occasion they are filled, there are complaints.

"We recognize that the shopping list is much longer than we thought it would be, but we have to look at the major construction and try to correct the biggest problems first. It's a matter of priorities."

The remaining responsibility falls on Physical Plant to ensure the projects are completed, something the ADC and BFAC members say they are concerned about, since progress is sometimes slow.

Dave Riddell, senior director of Physical Plant, says projects like Essex Hall, Western's new residence with excellent accessibility, became a reality with the help of university funding, BFAC and the input of disabled students. However, a deferred maintenance study released in 1994 indicates it will take approximately $7 million to make Western a barrier-free campus, something Riddell sees as an obstacle.

"We are considering barrier-free access when we do any renovations but we've got budget limitations," he says, adding the age of Western's infrastructure presents a significant disadvantage.

From the students' perspective, that doesn't appear to be good enough. "[Campus inaccessibility] is sending a shameful message," Booth says. "Western will be the loser if this problem is not addressed."

To Contact The Focus Department: gazfocus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997