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Traveling down a snow-covered sidewalk during Toronto winters can be a Herculean effort. Even the strongest of us will eventually be weighed down by the existential despair that comes with a pair of wet socks. A few weeks ago, I was walking across campus and grumbling about how I should have gone to a university in a hot country when I realized something about the winter that I had never considered before.

During an interview for this article, I asked first-year undergraduate student Victoria Chen, “Do you find that it’s hard to get around in the snow?”

“I do,” she responded, “especially today because it just snowed and they haven’t gotten around to shoveling. Sometimes when I’m going up onto the sidewalk… the wheels [get stuck].”

The wheels that Chen was referring to are those on her mobility scooter. She has a disability that makes it difficult for her to walk, so she uses a scooter to get around campus. The realization hit me that, though the snow was a mild inconvenience for me, it would be much harder to navigate for someone like Chen, who requires the aid of a mobility device.

Like me, many sigh while navigating through Toronto snow, yet few consider how it might be harder for students with physical disabilities.

Defining disability

‘Physical disability’ is a term that covers a large spectrum of experiences. There is, of course, the example of someone who uses a mobility device, such as a wheelchair or cane. Yet this doesn’t even begin to cover the varied experiences of people with physical disabilities.

“Students with physical disabilities is a wide ranging group,” explained Tanya Lewis, Director of Accessibility Services at U of T. “We have so many stereotypes about what we think a disability is.”

Lewis states that, though people often think of a physical disability as something that you can see, the vast majority of disabilities are “invisible.” For example, having a visual impairment or hearing loss are types of physical disabilities that perhaps don’t immediately pop into your mind when you think of a physical disability.

Among those with seemingly ‘invisible’ disabilities are people with chronic pain, like U of T student and PhD candidate Corey McAuliffe. McAuliffe is a student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, studying Social and Behavioural Health Sciences. McAuliffe has “a chronic and episodic disability” stemming from an autoimmune disease she contracted while conducting field research.

Because of her disease, McAuliffe has reactive low-level arthritis that, during flares of bad health, weakens her to a point where she can no longer walk. However, since her condition is episodic and not always visually noticeable, she is not often perceived as having a physical disability, meaning she can pass for an able-bodied person. McAuliffe herself doesn’t like to identify as disabled because people’s notion of the term is so narrow.

“It’s just that that label is all-encompassing for so many different bodies. My arthritis is nothing like someone who’s a quadriplegic at all, and not that one’s worse or better, it’s just they’re not the same,” she said. “No one is perfectly healthy ever. I know some people who have a sports injury and for three weeks they’re in way more pain than I am on a daily basis…We come up with these really asinine solutions that don’t actually reflect the experience of people.”

Yet McAuliffe feels that she has to use the ‘disability’ label in order to access much-needed services. The difference between her and those with visible disabilities is that she can choose when she wants to disclose.

“Not all physical disabilities can pass. So if you are in a wheelchair, you no longer have a choice of disclosing or not… I 100 per cent pass,” said McAuliffe. “Most people would never know if I don’t say anything. I choose who I disclose to and how much I disclose, for sure.”

McAuliffe recognizes that she is lucky to have a choice, because not everybody does — others feel that they cannot disclose because it would affect areas of their life, such as their career potential.

“No one’s going to want to hire [someone] if they know all these different components because there’s so much stigma attached to it,” said McAuliffe. “There’s this thought of, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to accommodate in all these ways, and we don’t have enough money to do that, and they’re not going to be able to do their job, and they’re going to be sick, and they’re going to not show up.’”

Of course, those who have a visible disability often do not have a choice in disclosing. Mark Bowen, a second-year undergraduate studying International Relations and Classics, who uses a power wheelchair is one of them.

“I have cerebral palsy, which is a disability that mostly affects both my balance and the level of spasticity in my muscles. It means essentially that a lot of my muscles can’t relax or don’t relax and so walking around becomes rather difficult and certainly very time consuming and taxing,” he explained. “I mean the benefit of all this is I make a strong first impression as well, right?”

For Bowen, one of the hardest parts of using a scooter is that he really needs to plan ahead and ensure that the places he is going to are accessible.

“I have to think of things in advance, [that] would be the main thing, and I have to ensure that I talked to the right people beforehand. Once I do that, things tend to work out pretty well. But you also have to leave some room for improvising,” said Bowen.

I learned this first-hand when I met up with Bowen for our interview. The place where we had planned to meet was unexpectedly closed when we arrived, and we had to find another room last minute — this turned out to be much harder than I had originally anticipated.

When we went to a nearby library in search of a study room, we found that the only elevator in the building was broken. This meant we had to use one of the study rooms on the first floor, which were so small they could barely fit Bowen’s scooter. It took minutes of maneuvering before we managed to squeeze into the room and begin the interview.

All of this hassle because our original meeting space was closed and I hadn’t thought to consider an accessible backup plan.

 

Able-bodied ignorance

My lack of foresight speaks to the larger issue of able-bodied people being unaware that people with disabilities have different needs. From little things such as doors too narrow for a scooter to larger systemic issues such as fearing the loss of a job, able-bodied people do not have to worry about similar issues.

Chen described to me an experience that encapsulated the problems she faces because she has a disability that requires the use of a mobility scooter. “My French classroom was in Teefy Hall before, which is not accessible at all,” she said.

But Chen hadn’t known that before she went to class. When she arrived, like many students, she couldn’t find the right building. However, unlike many other students, when she finally found Teefy Hall, she realized that she could not get in because it wasn’t accessible.

“I asked a lot of people just walking by… [but] most of the time when you ask, people don’t know… just because it’s not something they have to think about in their lives and they’re very busy too,” said Chen.

Eventually, she decided to call St. Michael’s College, where Teefy Hall is located, to ask if there was an accessible entrance. “They were very apologetic and very accommodating,” said Chen. Staff members came to help her into the building, and a security guard stayed outside to watch her scooter during class.

“So it was not accessible at all, but they apologized and they told me they would figure something out by the next week, and they did,” she said. “I just got an email from my TA that said the classroom had been changed. So that was very nice to see that they took care of that.”

Accessing  accommodations

Just one of Chen’s singular experiences shows that while there are definitely efforts from the university to accommodate students with disabilities, U of T has a long way to go before the campus is fully accessible.

Ron Swail, Chief Operations Officer of Property Services & Sustainability, is one of the people in charge of making UTSG accessible. He says that one of the hardest parts of the job is that many of St. George’s buildings are quite old.

“The average building age on St. George is 80 years… So there are areas that aren’t accessible, and we have been working a little bit at a time for years to address those issues,” said Swail. 

Initiatives include retrofitting elevators to add auditory identification of floors; installing door operators in easier to reach places; putting in large, single-use, non-gendered washrooms; and upgrading labs to include accessible spaces.

“There’s also a classroom enhancement project that’s going to address virtually all the classrooms on the campus that are run out of the [Academic and Campus Events] department; part of those retrofits will be addressing AODA,” added Swail.

AODA refers to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, a provincial law enacted in 2005 that outlines how “all levels of government, non-profits, and private sector businesses” have to make their workplaces accessible, according to their website. Under this legislation, the university is “required to develop “multi-year accessibility plans outlining their strategy to prevent and remove barriers.”

While Swail’s department is responsible for getting the physical campus up to date, the Accessibility Services Office is in charge of finding accommodations for students in the meantime.

“Students with disabilities come in and they give us documentation that outlines the nature of their disability and then we work with them on what accommodations would be appropriate,” explained Lewis.

“They do very fine work particularly,” said Bowen, who uses many of their services, including volunteer note-taking, test accommodations, and taxi credits, which are offered to help students get around campus if they are unable to walk.

Chen, likewise, has used the Accessibility Services Office frequently. Her first experience with the office was after she discovered she could not live in Trinity College residence because the buildings were inaccessible at the time.

“I talked to Accessibility Services and they were able to basically go through another [college] and put me up somewhere else,” said Chen.

However, there are things that Accessibility Services cannot provide; they cannot help if a building is wholly inaccessible, for example.

Students for Barrier-Free Access (SBA), a group on campus that advocates for students with disabilities of all kinds, says that it is still “a common experience for U of T students with classroom accommodations to get to class only to discover that their accommodations aren’t met.”

“In many cases U of T buildings do not have elevators, ramps, automatic doors, or push buttons. Some buildings also lack standard signage to notify students of accessible entrance, elevators and washrooms. Failure to remove snow in a timely manner is another example of a physical barrier to access. Relatedly, U of T is also known to keep campus open on major snow days making it close to impossible for students accessing campus on wheelchairs or other mobility limitations to go to class,” the SBA wrote in an email to me.

Swail said that “we’re a long way from getting this campus completely accessible,” but the university is trying to speed up the process.

“This year, we have a major study that’s going to happen on about a dozen buildings…and then from that we’re going [to] make a plan for the campus as well [as] try and speed up the retrofitting,” said Swail. “I would love to see the St. George campus fully accessible, but it is daunting when you have 120 buildings at the age they are.”

In the meantime, students with disabilities will continue having to advocate for themselves, which is no small task.

“It is physically and emotionally exhausting to continuously ask for accommodations and not have them met,” stated the SBA. “Individualizing these barriers and placing the responsibility on students with disabilities to overcome them somehow rather than having the University doing the work of removing the barriers only adds to the barriers that students face on campus.”

What can able-bodied people do to help those who live with physical disabilities? Move beyond the stereotypical image of a disability and meaningfully consider how experiences are different for everyone.

“People tend to just stick to appearances, first impressions. You can’t help it,” said Chen. “I just think that people could just try to educate themselves about all the different types of people out there because, you know, it doesn’t hurt to just open your mind a little… to be aware that you share the space around you.”