Audit identifies accessibility concerns on campus
By Colleen MacPherson
Efficient navigation of a campus as large and architecturally diverse as the U of S is difficult at the best of times; for disabled persons, the task can be even more challenging. But now, thanks to a new building audit, the University has a better sense of specific accessibility issues, and what needs to be done to address them.
Both Maxine Kinakin, Manager of Disability Services for Students (DSS), and Facilities Management Division (FMD) Planner Colin Hartl agree the audit, carried out last summer, will help the University’s Accessibility Committee identify the buildings with the greatest challenges for disabled persons, and establish priorities for upgrades. “We’re made aware by students we see on a daily basis where the inaccessibilities lie,” said Kinakin. “We’re hoping this audit will bring awareness to others.”
Although it has been around for some time, the Accessibility Committee has almost no profile on campus. Made up of representatives from the student body, faculty, staff (including Kinakin and Hartl) as well as from the wider community, the group has a minor capital budget of about $75,000 annually from FMD to make physical changes like upgrading washrooms or improving classroom access. The cost of the audit, which involved hiring two summer students, was shared by FMD and DSS.
The auditing process consisted of assessing all academic and public buildings and evaluating washrooms, classrooms, building entrances, libraries and computer labs. Almost 350 washrooms were looked at, as were some 150 classrooms. The facilities were compared to current provincial building codes and accessibility standards, and Kinakin said one of the auditors – sociology grad student Andrew Livingston – uses a wheelchair himself so his trial-and-error experiences were included.
According to the audit report, nine campus buildings are recognized as being totally inaccessible to the physically disabled, including Animal Science, Poultry Science, Kirk Hall, McLean Hall, the curling rink and the observatory. The rest were evaluated using criteria that paid particular attention to doorways, maneuvering space and various assists.
Neither Hartl nor Kinakin were surprised by any of the findings; access issues are regularly pointed out to DSS by the 658 students currently registered with the office. (Kinakin noted not all registered students are physically disabled. Many have “what we call hidden or invisible disabilities like learning problems or mental health concerns”.)
For the committee, and many students, washrooms are a high priority. Kinakin said there have been students who could not be accommodated by any washroom on campus. They must attend classes part-time “because they need assistance and have to got home to use the washroom.” But, she added, “if you don’t have accessible classrooms, there’s no point in building accessible washrooms”.
Hartl pointed out that even when a washroom meets code, “it’s sometimes not enough” to meet all needs. Ideally, the committee would like to see “a network of very accessible washrooms located more in the core area of campus,” he said, citing a recent $35,000 upgrade to a Thorvaldson washroom as a model, the most money the committee has ever spent on a single project. That space now exceeds code and includes amenities like ceiling tracks for lifts.
“There are lots of things we (the committee) could go out and do,” Hartl said, “but generally we have addressed issues that are a top priority for students.”
But there are limits to improving accessibility. He described washrooms in the Arts Tower that are located between the elevator and the stairwell. “We can’t move the elevator and we can’t move the stairwell. Those washrooms are never going to be accessible because financially, it just doesn’t make sense. All we can do is redirect people to other washrooms. That’s just a fact in older buildings.”
Even though many U of S buildings are difficult to upgrade, Hartl, Kinakin and the committee are sure the audit will help ensure steady progress continues to be made. As Kinakin pointed out, in the four years she has been with DSS, the number of disabled persons has climbed steadily, “and I don’t think we’ll see it level off until those students make up 8-10 per cent of the entire student population.”