Ryerson Student Learning Centre has Serious Accessibility Issues

So for those who don’t know, the Ontario government’s mandate on accessibility is that the province must be fully accessible by the year 2025. Movement toward this goal has included a legal requirement that newly-constructed public buildings be fully accessible. Ryerson University in Toronto apparently didn’t get the message when it built the Ryerson Student Learning Centre.

Content Note: Ableism, Accessibility Issues 

A young man in a wheelchair can't get up concrete stairs. Stock photo; not the Ryerson Student Learning Centre.

Image Decription: A young man in a wheelchair can’t get up concrete stairs. Stock photo; not the Ryerson Student Learning Centre.

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David Lepofsky, lawyer and accessibility advocate, is blind. He took Carol Liebermann of Global News on a walk around the Ryerson Student Learning Centre, built in 2015, to show her, from an accessibility standpoint, how there’s “one design flaw after another.”

Here’s a summary, from another video, that Lepofsky did for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance, of some of the major problems with the Ryerson Student Learning Centre:

  • Angled staircases at several key areas in the building. For blind and low-vision students, these guide feet one way for a short distance, then abruptly change the direction, creating a tripping hazard.
  • Hangout steps that encourage people to put their legs and belongings in the line of traffic, and that aren’t accessible to students who use mobility aids.
  • An information desk and computer information kiosk that both lack basic accessibility features.
  • Several problems with the main entrance: angled stairs that follow a confusing route, a ramp that follows a confusing route (with hangout steps), an elevator that’s not plainly visible and that many people won’t think they can use due to confusing signage, and angled pillars in the path of travel.
  • Significant problems with signage, particularly for students who read Braille.

There are other problems as well – enough that Lepofsky’s  information video is 30 minutes long.

Ryerson responded to Lepofsky’s criticisms:

“The Student Learning Centre meets the requirement of the current applicable Ontario Building Code and meets the best practices of Ryerson’s Accessibility standards, to ensure that the building is inclusive to all abilities. In the spirit of inclusivity, on-going improvements are being integrated into the programming and physical operations of the building.”

Here’s the problem with that.

One More Time – Universal Access Benefits Everyone…

You don’t have to have lived as a disabled person in Ontario for very long to know that a building can be fully accessible under the Ontario Building Code and still have accessibility barriers. The Building Code simply isn’t comprehensive enough. It’s an issue, all  disabled in Ontario know this, and we need to keep at the Ontario Government about it – because it’s not okay that the Building Code is okay with a blind man getting whacked in the head as he walks because a slanted pillar is architecturally edgy.

And we all know that Ryerson isn’t going to say in its official statement that perhaps, in light of Lepofsky’s criticisms, that the best practices of its Accessibility Standards need to be revisited to see if they do indeed meet the needs of all students.  But let’s hope that Ryerson does revisit those standards –  as a university that offers a prestigious disability studies program, it should recognize that disabled people are the experts about their own experience. It should also recognize that some of the barriers present in the Ryerson Student Learning Centre arose from fundamental errors in thinking about accessibility. If they were best practices, Ryerson should really be embarrassed:

  • Braille signage often doesn’t give the same information as printed signage
  • The information desk in the lobby has no wheelchair height and no knee space for wheelchair users. The sign that’s put up when the desk isn’t manned invites people to ask people in yellow shirts their questions (no good for blind or low-vision people) or go to a certain room, to which no directions are given.
  • The computer at the information kiosk  has a touchscreen, which is inaccessible to people with several types of disabilities.
  •  Signage problems make the external elevator difficult to find and confusing to use.

Those aren’t best practices. Those are significant issues, ones that walk throughs with disabled people could have identified and that could have been easily changed before the building was even opened.

The Ryerson Student Learning Centre is Supposed to Be for All Students

Now, I know that there are people rolling their eyes and thinking that I’m being too picky, and that David Lepofsky and I should be thankful that Ryerson tried. But the way I see it, if David Lepofsky decided tomorrow to become a Ryerson student, he’d be paying exactly the same tuition and student fees that non-disabled students do, only the brand-new building whose facilities for both learning and recreation are supposed to fully  and easily available to him as a student are only available with the stress and anxiety involved with dealing with poor design, bad signage, reliance on others to ensure safe navigation.

That’s ableism, folks.

As is the expectation that disabled folks should just shut up and be grateful for every crumb of access that we’re given, especially in buildings that are built with public money.  So give me a break with the whole, “Why can’t you just be happy?”

Accolades vs Access

The design for the Ryerson Student Learning Centre won several architecture awards, which says a lot about where Ontario is in its thinking about accessibility at the moment.

2025 really isn’t that far away. Care to place your bet on whether we’ll actually have a fully accessible Ontario by then?

My Brain AVM: Winter and Accessibility

We had snow in my area yesterday. There’s no dodging it anymore: Winter is on its way. Winter changed a lot for me after my brain AVM surgery and stroke.

Content Note: Ableism, accessibility, brain AVM, call-out, stroke, winter

Close-up on a large shovel full of snow.. It's held by a man in a beige jacket, navy gloves, and jeans. Keyword: Brain AVM

Image Description: Close-up on a large shovel full of snow.. It’s held by a man in a beige jacket, navy gloves, and jeans.

I’m one of those annoying Canadians who would be perfectly happy with sweater weather all year long. Heat’s a seizure trigger, so humid Ontario summers make me nervous and uncomfortable. I’m not especially bothered by the cold weather in winter, but I don’t like snow and ice, especially since my brain AVM and stroke.

Like, I really don’t like snow and ice.

Especially when it accumulates – on sidewalks, on stairs, on wheelchair ramps, in banks that I have to step over to get from my ride to the sidewalk. Sometimes it accumulates because it’s falling so fast and hard that there’s no point in trying to clear anything or make surfaces  safe for walking until there’s a break in the onslaught, and it’s on those days that I don’t go out unless it’s necessary, and do what I have to do quickly so that I can minimize time on slippery surfaces if I must be out.

I know that there are days when it’s almost impossible to keep surfaces clear, which is why I’m so impressed by businesses that try, and why I’m more likely to spend my money in them. But if I have to be Accessibility Bitch with a business about the snow/ice on its stairs/ramp that’s obviously been accumulating for a couple of days or more…especially if I have to do it repeatedly….rest assured that not only will I stop frequenting that establishment if at all possible, I’ll also let people know why I did so.

Here’s why:

I Won’t Go Where I’m Clearly Not Wanted

I’ve said this before a couple of times in my post-brain AVM surgery years, but I think it bears saying again: Not keeping stairs and ramps clear in winter whenever possible says to me that I should probably look for another way to get what I’m looking for; if you really cared about what I have to offer, you’d make sure that I can get into your building.  So maybe I look for another business that wants my money, another volunteer organization that wants my time and experience, or another community group that wants my input.

I know that you don’t intend to send that message, but that’s the message I get: That what I have to offer isn’t as good as what a non-disabled person does, and therefore not worth the effort it takes to keep your entrances free of  built-up ice and snow.

That used to make me a bit sad.  But now, frankly, I’m over it. I know my worth, and if you don’t, that’s your problem. But your short-sightedness puzzles me, particularly when business is involved.

My money is just as green as anyone’s, after all.

This Isn’t Just About Me

I am a young(ish), moderately disabled person, yes; I’m not the “norm”. I am, however, living in a community with a high population of older adults compared to the rest of the province (according to Census 2016.) I actually sit on a committee of older adults trying to make my community a place where people can age well, as someone interested in accessibility issues, and the ability to get around safely in winter is definitely a concern that most committee members share.

It’s also a concern for parents with kids in strollers, and people who for whatever reason are a little unsteady when walking, and people with no mobility issues at all who are just walking a bit too fast to get out of the cold.

Here are some things to think about:

  • A wheelchair ramp that’s got snow and ice built up on it is of no use to anyone. It’s better off blocked off, in fact, until the people in charge of the ramp can commit to keeping it a condition where it’s safe for people to use.
  • When snow and ice enter the equation, anyone can fall. I was nineteen, in the days before the brain AVM surgery and stroke, fairly healthy and wearing good boots with lots of tread when I took a bad step in a snowy parking lot in Kingston and fell flat on my back. Luckily, I walked away with just my dignity bruised.
  • I’m really not as militant as I sound. If I bring concerns about an accessibility issue to you and you demonstrate that you’re willing to listen to me and take me seriously, I’ll likely go away singing your praises.  And if I see evidence of action based on our discussion – you’re aces in my books. But having to come back over and over is annoying for both you and for me.

Bottom Line

I don’t like writing posts like this, damn it, but I’m still a bit unsteady even with my cane, especially in winter, and there are many people out there who much less steady than I am and wish that more people were saying this stuff.

So I’ll keep saying it.

Just take care of your snow and ice so that we can get into your buildings. It’s not that hard.

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When a “Token” and an “Activist” are the Same Thing

Something that I wrote in a comment the other day got me thinking. I’ve never felt awkward about being the only person with disabilities in a group, or the “token disabled person”, if you will). I credit this to my experiences with people with disabilities before the stroke, telling people that they had the right to try whatever they want, and to having a support system that really encouraged me the same way after I had my stroke. I’ve definitely been aware that I’ve been the only one in groups like writing circles, meetings, or my ballet class with a visible disability, but the disability is rarely my biggest worry. So I’d never really considered, until I commented on it earlier this week, that when someone with a visible disability is *the* person with a disability in an organized activity, they’re automatically an ambassador for the rest of us…whether they like it or not.  And if a person’s invisible disabilities are known to everyone in the group, and they’re the only one who has them, the same applies.

Cartoon of non-disabled kids, various ethnicities, crowd around white girl in a wheelchair reading a book. "Let's Play Together" is written in white block letters across the top. All across a blue background. Keyword: Token

Image Description: Cartoon of non-disabled kids, various ethnicities, crowd around white girl in a wheelchair reading a book. “Let’s Play Together” is written in white block letters across the top. All across a blue background.

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Tokens Aren’t Automatic Activists

It’s a big responsibility, and not everyone asks for it. Sometimes people just want to go to an activity and enjoy it, without the pressure of having to represent everyone like them.

I don’t think that humans deliberately regard people like this. It’s not meant to be hurtful. I don’t think we’re even aware that we’re doing it most of the time, and I probably do it myself. Perhaps it’s one of those “short-cuts” that the brain uses to categorize people, much like stereotyping. I think that we’re certainly able to rise beyond a bad impression of one person and not generalize it to everyone else, if we choose.

I just think, for people struggling to come to terms with especially acquired disabilities, it can be another layer of learning to deal with large-group social interaction that we don’t necessarily anticipate. I didn’t come out of the hospital ready to embrace activism, through my words or my writing or by being the token disabled person in an activity. I just wanted to get back to a point where I was feeling well enough in my new life to get back to feeling like me.

Activist on My Own Terms

But I wasn’t “me” anymore, was I? I was “me” in a wheelchair…”me” with a cane…”me with a weak arm…but not the “me” who had gone into the hospital for surgery.

It took me a while to realize that the new version of me was okay. And then accepting everything that came along with it, and then celebrating it, was okay.

But I do understand why some people are never comfortable in activities where they are the token disabled person.

Can you think of other groups that might be uncomfortable when members are the “token member” in a group?

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