Story by: Holly Walker and Bianca Zanotti
Over the years, Ryerson has taken strides to make the campus barrier-free. While community members commend the school on the progress it’s made, many say there is still room for improvement.
Ryerson opened the doors to its Student Learning Centre (SLC) in 2015. The building was supposed to be state-of-the-art, with equal access for everyone. This, however, is not the case.
Toronto lawyer and accessibility advocate David Lepofsky pointed to the building’s existing issues in a 2017 Toronto Star article. These include massive pillars invading staircases and a steep ramp, among others.
But the SLC isn’t Ryerson’s only accessibility issue. When considering the lack of elevators, ramps and accessible washrooms, the problems seem far from solved.
While the school technically complies with the province’s current regulations, it’s hoping to meet the needs of everyone in its community.
Ryerson and the AODA
Heather Willis, Ryerson’s accessibility coordinator, said the school conducted an audit of physical spaces in 2016. The university’s goal is not to merely meet the standards set by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), but rather surpass them.
The AODA aims to make Ontario barrier-free for people with disabilities by 2025. However, the province’s Building Code does not require existing infrastructures to be retrofitted with accessibility features such as universal washrooms, adaptable seating, power door operators and unobstructed paths.
Under the act, only new buildings or renovations must be accessible.
“If you look at the AODA, the standards are fairly minimal. You could be completely compliant with the AODA and still be fairly inaccessible,” said Willis, a wheelchair user herself.
Darren Cooper, the project manager of Ryerson’s Accessibility Project, said that as a person with vision impairment, he experiences barriers on campus daily.
“The trees in the middle of the sidewalk are a huge barrier, and they’re not positioned in a straight line — they’re all over the place. It’s like navigating a maze,” he said.
Cooper also notes that curb cuts — specifically ones at Gould and Victoria Streets and by Jorgenson Hall — lack tactile warning indicator strips. The strips are meant to help people with blindness differentiate between the sidewalk and the road. While the strips are mandatory under the AODA’s Design of Public Spaces Standard, it would only be enforced if Ryerson was to renovate them.
According to Cooper, the AODA has done a lot to remove barriers and push the accessibility lens forward, specifically under the previous Liberal provincial government. However, after the recent election, the Progressive Conservative government has tabled many discussions on the future of the AODA and its enhancement, leaving many in the community worried about what’s going to happen.
“My hope is that the minister will bring those committees back to the table and continue that work,” said Cooper.
Technology as a tool
Although the physical space at Ryerson needs improvement, the school promotes technology as a way to bridge the gap.
In 2017, the university created the Accessibility Project, an initiative by the Chang School and the Digital Media Zone.
The project funds up to $25,000 toward innovations, such as apps and electronics, aimed at removing barriers.
While technology is a great tool, Ryerson’s accessibility experts explain that it should be complementary to the user’s life, rather than depended on.
“I think technology has a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities,” Willis said. She explains, however, that the role of technology has a complicated relationship with people in the accessibility community.
For Cooper, the core skills that help him navigate the city and campus aren’t attributed to technology, but rather to fundamental skills he learned at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
When asked if he would use a technologically advanced white cane, Cooper said he probably wouldn’t, as technology can inevitably fail.
“(It) can signal a sense of freedom because it removes a lot of barriers,” Cooper said. “But at the same time, technology can leave people with disabilities behind.”
The social model of disability explains that it’s not the person who’s physically disabled, but rather the environment around them that is disabling.
“That’s why we put the emphasis on removing barriers. It can really make a difference systemically,” Willis said. “It’s about creating systemic change and accessibility overall.”
Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi acknowledged the physical barriers present on campus and said the university is committed to removing them.
“We are working on phase one of what we call the Public Realm Project. We are scheduling the construction to eliminate those barriers in the spring and summer of 2019.”
The Public Realm Project is intended to improve Ryerson’s public spaces with an emphasis on safety, accessibility and quality of place. When developing plans for accessibility improvements, the “nothing about us without us” mentality should be a driving force. This means no policy should be implemented without participation from those affected.
“What we’d like to do is engage the community in some consultation,” said Lachemi. “It’s a priority for us to make sure to eliminate those barriers, especially for people with disabilities, and make sure their experience on that part of the campus is as smooth as possible.”