When Alicia Rowley wants to work out, she needs a friend’s help to lift her wheelchair down the three steps to the entrance of the track at the Ryerson Recreation and Athletics Centre (RAC). From there, the fourth-year Ryerson psychology student can wheel herself around the track with speed and ease.
But Rowley, a 22-year-old paraplegic who was born with spina bifida, says she doesn’t work out anymore — even though she’s been wheelchair racing since she was a kid.
“I don’t really have a person now that I would feel comfortable to do that with, so I don’t really go to the RAC anymore,” she says.
Unknown to Rowley, the RAC and the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) introduced a policy last September that is meant to help students with disabilities work out. But the policy is nowhere to be found on the MAC or RAC’s website, or in any document available to the public — leaving it somewhat of a mystery to many students with disabilities on campus.
The policy allows any RAC or MAC member with a disability to bring in a personal support worker or an attendant to assist them in their workout, free of charge. If the same support person is coming in on a regular basis, they are given a free membership to make future visits hassle-free.
“We realized the importance of being able to work out and to be physically active greatly outweighs the need for us to try to make any money off of it,” said Anthony Seymour, manager of recreation at Ryerson.
The major problem plaguing the RAC, and the reason the policy in unadvertised, is the lack of space to accommodate students with disabilities, says Seymour.
“We don’t have a tremendous amount of equipment that provides accommodations, but that’s something we are working towards,” he says.
Rowley says it’s unfair the policy wasn’t posted anywhere. While she doesn’t specifically have the assistance of a personal support worker, she says the policy would still be useful for others.
“It’s a great idea for some people, for people that have a more severe disability, but for someone like myself — I’m capable of working out by myself, as long as I have access to the different areas of the gym,” she says.
Heather Willis, the co-chair of Ryerson’s accessibility advisory committee, notes that while the RAC does have issues when it comes to accessibility — the building was built in the 1980s — the facility and university in general are taking huge strides forward to fix them.
Willis and Seymour have teamed up to look into what kinds of accessible equipment can be brought into the gyms and will be looking at facilities such as Variety Village, a barrier-free fitness centre in Scarborough, for guidance.
About half of Variety Village’s 6,000 members have a disability. Lynda Elmy, director of communications at the facility, says there are small changes that fitness centres can make in order to be more accessible.
These include buying a few pieces of interchangeable and accessible equipment, such as slide-out seats for people in wheelchairs, or adding ramps over some entrances.
“I think as we start to recognize the diversity of our population, not only ethnically wise but ability wise, it’s important that we strive to provide opportunities for all students to work out at the facility,” Seymour says.