By Carly Yoshida-Butryn
If people get in the way of Donna Ryder’s wheelchair, she’s not afraid to give them a piece of her mind.
The first-year social work student flat-out asked a group of students if they were disabled when they piled into the elevator of the Library building, preventing her from getting on.
They said no. “I asked them to use the stairs,” she said. They laughed awkwardly at first but eventually listened.
“If someone is blocking my access, I will say something. If we don’t speak up for ourselves, no one else is going to do it.”
Even though Ryder has no problem vocalizing her concerns, it doesn’t always help.
She was forced to miss a lecture in the Sally Horsfall Eaton Centre because the elevator wasn’t working.
She also had to wait three weeks to get one of her textbooks because the only bookstore selling it wasn’t wheelchair accessible.
With Accessibility Awareness Week going on until March 7, the spotlight has been shone on the challenges facing students with disabilities.
According to the Access Centre, the number of disabled students registered with them increased by 387 over the last two years from 565 to 952.
And with this growing number, access advocates want to see more changes made on campus to accommodate these students.
While there are 40 wheelchair accessible external entrances on campus and elevators in most buildings, students with disabilities still face major problems when trying to get around on campus.
Access Centre co-ordinator Stephanie Marinich said that after the harsh winter we’ve had this year, some students found that accessible entrances and ramps hadn’t been shoveled.
“I’ve had some students say that this winter was hard to get around,” she said. RyeAccess, a student organization that advocates for those with disabilities, has a number of upgrades they would like to see on campus.
These include more curbs cut on Gould Street for people using mobility devices and colour-contrast strips on stairwells to help those with low vision to see the edge of each step.
Also known as the “death stairs” by those with low vision, the steps in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre have proved particularly difficult to navigate on campus.
While no one has been injured on them yet, Sean Major, events co-ordinator for RyeAccess, said that it’s better to implement these changes before there’s an accident.
“It’s always good to start from a preventative standpoint,” he said. The Access Centre agrees but believes that Ryerson could be doing more to prevent future problems.
“On the whole, it’s reactionary rather than proactive,” said intake worker and front-desk assistant Tracy Machado. “We should be doing things before they become an issue.”
RyeAccess outreach co-ordinator Corey Davidson said the number one issue is to ensure there is a system to make sure all students are able to attend classes if an elevator breaks down.
This is a particular problem in the Sally Horsfall Eaton Centre and Eric Palin Hall. Major said that maintenance workers are usually quick to get elevators working again, but sometimes, for whatever reason, it’s just not fast enough, and students using wheelchairs are forced to miss their classes.
RyeAccess suggests having a bank of available empty classrooms that don’t require an elevator to access.
That way, if an elevator is out of service, students can simply relocate to another room on a main floor.
“It’s important that people aren’t impeded from going to their classes just because they need to use the elevator,” said Major.
Ryerson President Sheldon Levy said the school’s newer buildings are under a stricter code to provide access for those with disabilities, such as the Ryerson Business Building.
The maze design of the washrooms and increased space for accessible seating in lecture halls makes it easier for students using mobility devices to get around.
But Ryerson’s older buildings are especially problematic for students with disabilities. “Our disadvantages are things like Kerr Hall, which are not friendly for students that are challenged in any way,” said Levy.
Third-year journalism student Morgan Dumas agrees.
She uses a wheelchair to get around campus and finds Kerr Hall to be a particular problem for her.
She said there are very few wheelchair accessible washrooms in the building, and the ones that exist have toilets that are far too low for a person in a wheelchair to use.
“This is a big problem for me,” she said. “Whenever I need to go to the bathroom in Kerr Hall, I have to cross the bridge to the RCC and use the washrooms there, which are much more wheelchair friendly…they have the push buttons outside them, something many of the bathrooms in Kerr Hall are lacking.”
Frank Nyitray, a continuing education student, was in a motorcycle accident and suffered from memory loss and impaired motor skills.
He uses the Access Centre for academic support. “If it wasn’t for the Access Centre, I would have been out of here a long time ago,” he said. “Support like that is priceless.”
Nyitray feels that Levy is on the right track with the Master Plan to make the school more accessible.
But with the campaign to close Gould Street, Davidson is concerned about where and how Wheel-Trans buses would drop off and pick up students if the street were closed.
While there is always room for improvement, Davidson feels that Ryerson is doing a good job of welcoming students with disabilities.
“Ryerson has actually a good record with addressing access issues,” he said. “As new buildings come up, they dialogue with correct student groups, outside groups, CNIB, [and] mental health organizations.”
During his visit to Ryerson as part of Accessibility Awareness Week yesterday, Lieutenant Governor David Onley praised the work done by RyeAccess and by the school to accommodate students with disabilities.
Levy said that when retrofits are done for campus buildings, access for students with disabilities is always taken into consideration.
“There’s always annual plans where you improve access, whether it’s doors that open or ramps that are provided, so you’re really on an ongoing process of improving the campus,” he said. “There’s always more to do, let me put it that way.”