Unreliable campus elevators have disproportionate effect on students with disabilities
On a summer day in 2018, Ghofran Alyass was going to be late for class. Alyass was taking a summer course at Ryerson and the classroom was in the Sally Horsfall Eaton Centre (SHE) building. She frantically pressed the elevator button a couple of times before she realized the elevator wasn’t working. She wasn’t going to make it to class if she didn’t think fast. “I was like seconds from being late for class, so I needed to be lifted up the stairs, in front of the security,” she remembers.
Alyass, a fourth-year disability studies student, identifies as a person with a physical disability. She uses a manual wheelchair and relies on elevators to move around campus.
With the SHE elevator out, she knew she could go to Eric Palin Hall, use that building’s elevator and then access her classroom. But she also knew that if she did that, she’d risk being late. So she didn’t do it. Her mom was with her, and was able to carry her up the stairs, while security carried her wheelchair. “I was extremely sad because I had to be lifted up the stairs because they weren’t able to fix the elevator,” she says. While Alyass got to her class in a timely manner, how she got there wasn’t ideal.
According to a 2018 report, Ryerson received 26 accessibility-related concerns in the 2017-18 reporting period. That was the highest number for any single year since 2010-11 and the second highest in 10 years. According to the Facilities Management Department (FMD) website, in the one-week period from March 4-10, there were eight separate elevator outages, affecting parts of 10 campus buildings, Lindsey Craig, a university spokesperson, says there are around 80 elevators on campus, some as old as 45 years. She says “the rate of outages and the time it takes to return the unit to service varies depending on the age and location of the particular elevator and the availability of parts if replacement components are required.”
She says the facilities team actively works with the elevator service provider to “request urgent responses to any elevator issues on campus.”
Heather Willis, the accessibility co-ordinator at Ryerson, says when there is an outage, the university has to publicly post about it, including details of who to contact, where the next accessible elevator or ramp is and an estimate of when the outage will be restored.
This adheres to the Accessibility Ontario Disability Act’s (AODA) customer service guidelines of universities being transparent. “There’s not a lot you can do about a broken elevator, except fix it as soon as you can,” she says.
Willis says the facilities team has a three-year plan to modernize the elevators on campus and tackle the older buildings on campus. “Some of the elevators are really old,” she says. “Now they’ve got a large amount of money to start this modernization plan, and address (the elevator issues).”
Craig says the plan, starting in the summer of 2020, will “improve elevator reliability across campus,” which includes improvements to high-priority elevators on campus.
In the meantime, Willis encourages students with accessibility needs to take the Access Tour, which emphasizes alternative routes on campus. “The more accessibility you have, the less individual accommodation (students) need.”
Going forward, Willis says the university still has to work on fully accessible, accommodating spaces. She says the Student Learning Centre (SLC) has specific issues around accessibility, like the small elevators and ramps.
“It can be really problematic. You can wait a long time for an elevator,” she says. “If (a building) doesn’t look and feel accessible and welcoming, it might as well not be.” But Willis is not the only one who feels this way.
Alyass actively avoids coming to campus because of some of the accessibility issues she has experienced, specifically in the SLC. Since starting at Ryerson in 2017, she has avoided the building because of its elevators and minimal ramp access.
“There’s always people sitting in the way and that’s another barrier because, as a person with a disability, (I have) faced not only physical barriers, but attitudinal barriers,” she explains. “I find with some people, you automatically get a look like, ‘why do I have to move?’” Alyass says the inaccessibility hasn’t allowed her to be mobile on campus.
Adam Asmar, the co-lead co-ordinator for RyeAccess, says accessibility on campus is always going to be a work-in-progress. RyeAccess is a student-run on-campus initiative focused on increasing accessibility for students, and offers support for their needs on issues like the elevator access. “(Disabled people are) very much at the mercy of elevators. When one elevator goes down, that whole thing is out of service.”
Asmar says he believes FMD doesn’t always do a comprehensive fix of an elevator.
“(Facilities) resets the elevators because resetting it takes 20 minutes versus fixing it takes days. So the problems will just keep persisting,” he says.
While Asmar acknowledges it isn’t entirely Ryerson’s fault when an elevator goes down, he criticizes how they communicate with students who rely on the elevators. “I don’t think they hate disabled people when elevators go down. I just think elevators go down on their own,” he says. “When you repurpose a service elevator to be a personal elevator, it’s very undignifying and it’s not fair.” Asmar is referring to the Kerr Hall elevators, which are mainly used for moving freight.
Asmar says an automatic notification system should be set up to alert students of any accessibility outages or changes. “There should be an automatic message when an elevator doesn’t work, and it should be fixed as soon as possible,” he says. “There needs to be more consultation with folks with physical disabilities.”
Alyass agrees that a system to notify people about elevator outages would help those with accessibility needs.
And she says she’s thankful that, on the day the SHE elevator wasn’t working, she had her mom and security to help her get to class.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Ghofran Alyass. The Ryersonian regrets the error.