Changing the way we build

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UVic and the UVic Students’ Society (UVSS) have not yet met accessibility goals say front-line advocates including the Society for Students with a Disability (SSD) and Gordon Argyle, the accessibility co-ordinator for UVic Facilities Management. Argyle, who began advocating for accessibility as a UVic student in the late ’80s, was a founding member of the first iteration of the SSD in 1988. Since then, UVic has made strides in implementing its own construction standards for greater accessibility than society at large.

“B.C. building code is not adequate for the needs of a lot of people with more severe disabilities,” says Argyle. “And I wanted them to be able to come to university because academically, they’re qualified.”

While Rick Hansen and similar advocates have motivated action toward accessibility and inclusivity, Argyle says improvements that make the university accessible for someone like Hansen — who has hearing, sight and fully functional arms to wheel up a steep ramp — do not suit those at the other end of the spectrum.

“People with disabilities are the last group to attend university,” says Mike Allen-Newman, communications director for the SSD. He says over time, post-secondary education has become accessible to many previously disadvantaged groups (women and visible minorities, for example), but only in recent times have many people with disabilities been able to attend.

Each year, Argyle compiles accessibility concerns in priority order from the most urgent down to a wish list. Some solutions have to wait until there is funding, like the second elevator in the MacLaurin Building, which took 10 years, and some until there is enough awareness, like changing the edging on stairs from white to more visible yellow. It took two years to alter stairs campus wide.

“[Most] feedback I get is positive. I’ve definitely gotten negative feedback,” says Argyle. “If anyone wants to criticize, I sure don’t mind hearing it.”

Many barriers are successfully dealt with on a case-by-case basis through the SSD and Resource Centre for Students with a Disability. For example, Argyle helped to provide a hearing-assist system for a linguistics professor at the peak of her career who was losing her hearing. One of Argyle’s first initiatives, which is ongoing, was to replace all round doorknobs with levered handles instead. In Argyle’s time here, UVic has gone from having only three automatic door openers to more than 300 automatic door openers. However, Argyle’s prerogative to fund upgrades in the Student Union Building (SUB) is limited. A recent selective accessibility audit of the SUB reports that several doors in the building do not have automatic openers and are heavier than the three to five pounds recommended by some fire regulations.

“Like anything,” says Argyle, “you’re fighting for finite resources.”

Argyle says installing visual fire alarms throughout the SUB would be costly. He’s installed similar systems in the offices of hearing-impaired people, but not building-wide. The Upper Lounge and the hallway that houses the SUB General Office have only one wheelchair accessible exit. Argyle, the SSD and the accessibility audit all recommend adding a ramp to the exterior doorway at the end of that hall.

Besides making all doors and washrooms accessible, Allen-Newman can envision many improvements around campus and the SUB. The information board outside the UVSS offices could incorporate a multimedia panel for the visually impaired; signage currently on sandwich boards that change position daily and cause unforeseeable obstacles in walkways could instead appear on windows or hang from mountings on walls. Outdoor maps have small print, some paved pathways are broken from roots, and the Help Desk in Clearihue, for example, is difficult to access for someone with balance or mobility issues. Some designated stalls in SUB washrooms have narrow pathways or grip bars in inconvenient places. The single-occupancy washroom in the centre of the SUB, which is the most accommodating and the only one with a lift, is gated off at certain hours when other parts of the building are still in use.

In some cases, the answer is to ask for help from university personnel such as Campus Security workers, who can open gates and help with way-finding, but Allen-Newman says that can take too long (sometimes 20 minutes, and even as long as an hour-and-a-half) or feel degrading and wouldn’t be necessary if better measures were in place.

Argyle is currently on health leave, but several of his projects will continue. He is still actively pushing UVic project managers to consider accessibility. “I keep bugging them,” he says.

Argyle says the process has been more difficult in recent years as policy changes. There’s more paperwork, and he says some is appropriate and some is micromanagement from the provincial government. He’s noticed that different issues are popular over time, and right now the environment and sustainability are hotter topics than accessibility. He is happy that current advocacy groups and student committees (such as the Academic Accommodation & Accessibility for Students with a Disability committee) seem vigorous. He says they must keep issues of accessibility front and centre.

“If the student society wanted to pay for it, we could do it,” says Argyle of SUB renovations. “Unfortunately, much as I don’t like it, all this comes down to dollars, you know, and where you’re going to spend them.”

As of press time, the UVSS had not responded to the Martlet’s request for comment.

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