Originally published in the Dalhousie Gazette. Halifax, NS.
Isolated and alone, she sits in the front row every time. The other students sit behind her in the auditorium. They have the choice, she doesn’t. For a shy person, it’s a nightmare.
Mary MacDonald has been in a wheelchair for 10 years due to muscular dystrophy. She’d love to sit with the other students, but the room doesn’t allow for someone with four wheels to join them.
“I have to sit up there by myself, sticking out like a sore thumb at the front, while all my classmates are seated behind me. It’s a feeling of exclusion,” she says.
MacDonald is involved with the Student Accessibility Fund committee at Dalhousie and is in her third year of the business program at Dal. She says it’s important to note that she can only speak on her own little slice of inaccessibility with her wheelchair. She cannot reflect on all experiences, a mistake commonly made when addressing disabilities.
She describes with grace her frustrations with certain aspects of campus, from high countertops to broken automatic doors, inaccessible classrooms and complete exclusion from events on campus.
“It would be helpful if there was a person using a wheelchair that they were consulting with for the planning of the campus outline,” she says.
In the summer of 2008, Dal hired a group of architects to begin planning out the Campus Master Plan, a layout of the campus which would increase the density of the campus, connect Sexton, Studley and Carleton, and create learning commons, among other goals. The plan was approved in November 2010.
John Crace, chairman of WHW Architects, was the local consultant for the project.
“I don’t actually remember meeting specifically with a group that represented accessibility issues on the campus,” says Crace, “but it was a common topic of conversation because there was a fairly high level of frustration with a lot of the existing buildings, so it was never too far from peoples minds.”
Crace says their team of architects followed the guidelines and principles already laid out for buildings, including the minimum requirements for accessibility.
“When buildings are built to the code, there should be really no barriers for anybody to get in and out of the buildings,” he says.
MacDonald would disagree.
“If they only meet the minimum standard of accessibility, that’s not adequate. They should be striving for full accessibility,” says MacDonald. “You have to ask if accessibility is just an afterthought.”
MacDonald was a student at Dalhousie in the 1990s. She says Dal has made tremendous improvements towards accessibility, including the Student Accessibility Services. Other areas, such as the Rowe Management Building, she describes as missed opportunities. The classrooms have staggered steps preventing her and many others from moving around.
“That building is going to be standing there for presumably the next forty to fifty years and how do you go about fixing it?”
Currently, Crace’s team is working on a project to renovate the Weldon Law Building.
“It has terrible accessibility,” says Crace. “Anyone in a wheelchair is directed to go around the side of the building like a second-class citizen.”
The Campus Master Plan will be an ongoing process that may take 10 years to complete. The Rowe building was completed before the Campus Master Plan was underway.
In the meantime, MacDonald would like to see Dal administration address other accessibility issues. She says the public events hosted by Dalhousie rarely take accessibility into account. Many of them take place at University Hall, which she describes as completely inaccessible.
“A person using a wheelchair is in a really awkward spot because then they have to point out that it’s not accessible and they know it’s going to be extremely disruptive for Dal to have to change that venue,” says MacDonald.
Another major issue is the Tiger Patrol, a transportation service that claims on its website to be “available to all students.”
“On a number of occasions I’ve left the Rowe Building at night and I can see the Tiger Patrol in front of the SUB, with students climbing aboard, but I can’t use it to get home.”
MacDonald carries a stick around with her, tucked into her chair, to reach elevator buttons on campus. She has learned to adjust to the inconveniences of her surroundings, but it hasn’t been easy.
On the one hand, she says there have been areas on campus with a lot of improvements, in other areas improvement for accessibility is still needed.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a higher standard of accountability from a university of this size on accessibility issues,” says MacDonald.
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