Mount Allison lists small class sizes, a good reputation, teaching excellence and the ability for students to create their own degree as reasons why it is among Canada’s top undergraduate universities. But one thing lacking from that list, one thing you do not hear students cite as a reason they chose this institution, is its physical accessibility.
Amy Visser, a third-year psychology student, broke her leg at the beginning of last semester. After weighing her options, Visser decided to transfer to Carleton University for the rest of the year on a letter of permission from Mt. A.
“[O]ver my first two years at Mt. A, I’ve experienced an icy campus where lots of people are falling, and they have two good legs. I didn’t want to risk injuring myself again,” she wrote in a Facebook message.
According to Olivia Auriat, president of the Association of Chronically Ill and Disabled Students (ACID) at Mt. A, the choice Visser made is not unique. “Every year we have at least one student break their leg and they basically have to drop out,” she said.
Visser was quick to point out the support Mt. A has offered her. “The school was pretty helpful. [They] made time to talk to me about my options and gave me time to think about them by extending deadlines for tuition payment and the drop/add period.”
Through the Meighen Centre, students who undergo surgery, break a leg, or have their mobility temporarily inhibited through other incidents are able to cope with their situation. The Meighen Centre helps students find note-takers, tutors and walking assistants.
Anne Comfort, the program and services manager for the Meighen Centre, elaborated on the lengths to which she and her coworkers go to help students in need.
“We reach out to professors to let them know, ‘student x may miss some classes,’” she said. “If a student can’t make it [to a classroom], we could ask to have that class moved.”
In response to the criticism that services at Mt. A receive, Comfort said that students sometimes reject accommodations despite her recommendations.
“The students often don’t want that attention drawn to themselves,” she said.
Mt. A’s campus is far from ideal for prospective students who deal with such permanent disabilities. Currently, no wheelchair-using students attend the school. In addition to steep slopes on campus, many academic buildings are not accessible.
When asked about this, Comfort said that though she encourages prospective students with mobility disabilities to visit the campus, “sometimes at the end of the visit they will say, ‘you have a lovely campus, but I don’t think it will work for me.’”
With over 175 years of history, many of Mt. A’s buildings were built decades before issues of accessibility were widely discussed.
When asked about steps the school is taking toward a more accessible campus, Mt. A’s vice-president finance and administration Robert Inglis said, “The University is guided by its Accessible Facilities Policy, which indicates that we deal with accessibility projects as part of larger, overall capital projects within a building.”
Auriat does not attribute the inaccessible nature of our campus to the current administration. She does, however, believe it is not a reason to be apathetic toward accessibility issues.
“It’s [about] being constructive in moving forward, not letting the past be an excuse for not moving forward,” Auriat said.
Mario Levesque, a professor of Canadian politics who has been at Mt. A for nearly five years, believes that some of the accessibility-related changes that have been made to residences are insufficient.
“Most of the changes I have seen are exterior,” he said. He referred to problems with door handles, grab bars too far from toilets, and showers with one-inch lips and inadequate spaces between beds and walls. “When they [have] renovated the residences they really haven’t adapted them to make them fully accessible,” Levesque said.
Despite these issues, the University has made some progress. Based on a 2007 report that identified exterior stairs as an accessibility issue, stairs have now been exchanged for slopes. Despite this, many buildings still do not have elevators or accessible washrooms. Addressing these issues would cost Mt. A millions of dollars.
Levesque looks at the current Indigenization efforts on campus as inspiration for future changes to infrastructure.
“We need a similar effort for accessibility on campus and yet there is no traction for that at all. [The administration] thinks they move three steps [forward] and that’s it, they’re done,” he said. How do we get that traction? Levesque believes a fundraising campaign through University Advancement is the solution.
“Call it Fully Accessible Mt. A by 2020 or 2030,” Levesque said. Such a campaign would take a big commitment from the University, both financially and ideologically.
“I think that Mount Allisonians would embrace that campaign – how do you argue against an accessible campus?” Levesque said. “That’s like saying we only want Mt. A to be for white people, and you can’t do that. We want Mt. A to be inclusive of all different types of people – of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and abilities.”