By Cybele Sack
For disabled students who need a scooter to get around campus, the doors to the Ryerson Athletic Centre, represent not an entrance but a barrier.
Whenever 18-year-old Aaron Broverman wants to use the RAC, he has to take his scooter to his residence at the International Learning Centre and wheel two blocks back with his sport wheelchair so he can pass through the accessible entrance.
From the front, the first-year journalism student can get out and use his cane to help him into the facility.
After working out, he has to wheel all the way back.
The accessible entrance to the RAC through Kerr Hall does not have automatic doors, and the area is too narrow to accommodate Broverman’s scooter.
Broverman is just one of many physically challenged students who struggle at the RAC because the facilities, programs and services are not accessible to them and say their needs are not met.
According to the Access Centre for students with disabilities at Ryerson, there are about 500 students with disabilities registered at the school, and about half of them have visible physical disabilities.
Jane Brown, manager of marketing and communications at the RAC, says each year there are usually two students with visible disabilities who use the facility. This year, she identified another student user who is blind and needs the assistance of a seeing eye dog.
Marion Creery, director of student services, acknowledges that there is a problem.
“It’s very important. We need to be moving along and make sure we’re responding to this.”
There are other barriers in the gym for students with disabilities. The entrance to the bathroom is not on the same floor as the gymnasium or equipment room, so Broverman has to wheel in his sport chair down the hallway to the elevator, up a floor, and then back down the hallway to the washroom. Then he needs someone to open the door for him.
Uzma Khan doesn’t like the message sent by the closed doors. Khan, 22, is the coordinator of RyeACCESS, a division of RyeSAC which advocates non-academic issues facing students with disabilities.
“For people who use a scooter or wheelchairs and can’t access a room, it tells them that they’re not welcome there, that we are building an exclusive environment,” she says. “If I needed someone to open the door for me every time I walk up, it’s infringing on my independence.”
On a tour of the RAC, Khan found a number of problems.
As a person with low vision, poor lighting was a personal issue. Many of the hallways had inconsistent lighting which cast shadows along one wall and made it difficult for Khan to identify obstacles in her path, even with the use of her white cane.
At one point on the tour, Khan walked into a circular concrete pillar just a few inches from the wall.
“Because there was no connection [between the pillars and the wall], the cane could just go through the side,” she explains.
The lighting in the bathroom is also poor. “I wouldn’t be able to see where the toilet paper is,” Khan says.
Students with low vision need high contrast in their environment, according to Khan.
But Khan wants the RAC to focus on standardization first not adapting its equipment.
Every entrance should have a wheelchair accessible button, in the same position, on the same side of the door, she says. Lighting should be uniform and bright.
The signs in the RAC are mostly black writing on shiny silver plates. Khan can’t read them.
Signs and literature should be at least 14-point font, white on black or the reverse, with Braille and a non-reflective surface, suggests Khan.
According to the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA, 2001), barriers are related to poorly designed and maintained buildings and equipment, poorly presented information, poor communication or attitudes by service providers, and other problematic policies and practices. The ODA states that all universities must prepare a yearly accessibility plan, starting in September 2003.
Ryerson’s first plan is now online.
“It’s not just the RAC. There are a lot of physical barriers on campus. There’s still a lot that needs to be changed,” says Khan.
And barriers aren’t just obstacles that affect the physically disabled, but also those with invisible disabilities.
Service barriers generally arise from problems with staff communication and attitudes.
But Broverman loves the staff at the RAC.
“They are the best staff I’ve encountered at a gym so far. They’re really nice,” he says. “Everything that comes up, they try to help. I can do almost anything because the staff make possible.”
The problem arises when the member doesn’t want to self-identify or isn’t visible disabled.
“I think there’s a lot of people with disabilities that aren’t as visually apparent,” says Brown.
Karen Lewis, assistant dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Physical Education and Health, explains the importance of universal accessibility.
“If you only deal with individuals who present themselves and accommodate that one person, you are missing all the invisible disabilities. With all the good intentions, you have no idea how many others are still excluded. It’s a basic human right that we have to be accessible and equitable,” she says.
Lewis says that one of her faculty’s core goals is to be equitable. She has already participated, along with 26 other U of T athletics staff, in a one day workshop offered by Variety Village at $25 per person, to train recreation staff to work with people with disabilities.
The program is designed to provide better services to a wider population base, increase sensitivity and awareness of accessibility issues, and increase ability awareness, according to Variety Village outreach coordinator Ray Ristich.
The goal is to have all full-time and part-time staff operating at least at the level of the basic course within three years.
Paul Carson, executive assistant to the dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto, says their athletic facility “draws quite extensively from the expertise of Variety Village. It’s a great resource,” he says.
Brown is interested.
“I think that would be a great thing to explore, especially if we can get to the point where our facility is more accessible and we can create a more physically welcoming environment,” she says.
Currently, there are no sport programs organized for students with disabilities at Ryerson.
Broverman played wheelchair basketball for 10 years, even making it to the British Columbia Games. But he stopped when he came to Ryerson.
He can shoot at six and a half feet high, but at the RAC, the nets are too high.
However, he’s not discouraged, saying it may make him a better player.
“If whoever is responsible for organizing different teams were to set up sports for people with disabilities, maybe more students would come out,” says Khan.
Currently, Carleton University offers intramural wheelchair basketball and the University of Toronto plans to introduce it.
“If our facility was more attractive to persons with disabilities, then they might just be rolling right into my office and telling me [what recreation activities they want],” says Brown.
At Rye, the only hurdle in the way of such a program is a financial one.
“Because we are a cost recovery and revenue generating facility, we can’t do anything unless we can recover our costs,” says Brown. “We would need to find a partner that would help us financially.”
Khan understands Ryerson’s financial situation.
“Ryerson’s not the richest university in the world, and I understand that retrofitting costs money, but it all comes down to accessibility planning. It
S not going to happen overnight, but over time, barriers can be removed,” she says.
Brown is open to opportunities for improvement.
“We want to do as much as we can, and there’s probably things we need better direction on. Maybe there’s funding out there we’re not aware of that could fill the gap,” she says.
“I’m sure if there was more of that unknown [accessibility problems at RAC], then we would be made a priority in campus planning. But I’m sure that there’s many areas of Ryerson that need this kind of funding.”
Currently, all full-time enrolled students contribute $55 to the RAC through their incidental fees.
With 250 students with physical disabilities who have trouble using the gym this adds up to approximately $13,000.
But some students with disabilities think it should be refunded so they can pay for membership at a gym that does accommodate them.
“I’d rather go to a specialized gym, where I can use all the equipment that’s specialized for people in wheelchairs. I don’t like Ryerson taking my money to put into this facility which I don’t use,” says Duc Giang, a 24-year-old, fourth-year information technology management students, who uses a wheelchair.
“I think because students with disabilities are paying the same tuition as students without disabilities, they should have the same access to facilities,” she suggests.
In 1995, Ryerson conducted an accessibility audit of all of its buildings and has done periodic updates.
Ian Hamilton the director of planning and facilities has those audits but will not make them public.
But he said improvements to a facility such as the RAC are “made on a case by case basis.”
He encouraged those with accessibility problems to contact him, so he can develop his priorities. “[Complaints] help us prioritize what we do on an audit. They can bring their issues to this department [campus planning and facilities]. Ryerson is quite mature about dealing with things like this,” he adds.