Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
Photo of concrete steps and a ramp with barred access at Trent Univeristy. Photo courtesy of Rishabh Joshi, edit by Emi Habel.

Icy Wheelchair Ramps and the Ableist Culture at Trent

Written by
Emi Habel
and
and
January 17, 2022
Icy Wheelchair Ramps and the Ableist Culture at Trent
Photo of concrete steps and a ramp with barred access at Trent Univeristy. Photo courtesy of Rishabh Joshi, edit by Emi Habel.

In light of Trent University’s recent announcement that remote learning will be extended until January 30th, 2022, it is undeniable that many of us are dreading the return to virtual learning–especially if you are a student with a disability. Elizabeth Mitton wrote two articles detailing the reality of Trent’s remote learning delivery during the last two years in which she highlights that the level of commitment advertised by the university did not match the reality of its efficacy, or lack thereof. Elizabeth’s articles provide great insight into the situation and can be found on the Arthur website (here and here). And if you needed any more proof of Trent’s shortcomings when it comes to remote learning, an anonymous letter submitted to Arthur by a student who is hard of hearing should seal the deal:

I require captioning in all of my synchronous and asynchronous courses, and that captioning has been difficult to obtain in many of my courses…I find myself spending 2-3 times longer on assignments than I should be, handing in subpar work at the very last minute and overall in a very poor mental state throughout this semester. I have breakdowns several times during the week and almost dropped out of school at least a half dozen times.

Unfortunately, this is the reality for many university students. The National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) addressed this shared experience amongst disabled students in their Landscape of Accessibility and Accommodation in Post-Secondary Education for Students with Disabilities report, which highlighted that while universities and colleges may make “good faith efforts” to improve accessibility for students, accessibility and inclusion severely lag behind the evolution of the student experience for abled folks. They focus on a crucial point throughout their report: too many of the accessibility aids offered to students don’t fit the evolving nature of disability and accessibility (especially for people with chronic, episodic, degenerative or “invisible” disabilities) and the interactions between disability, technology, and the learning and workplace environments. 

As a student with disabilities who has attended three different post-secondary institutions (we love having multiple life-changing epiphanies), I have seen a spectrum of accessibility systems ranging from non-existent to adequate. On a good day, you (figuratively) and I may be able to focus on our studies and be tired from schoolwork like every other student. On a bad day, though, we can feel like we’re screaming for help in an echo chamber as we’re fed lies about studying in an environment that cares about disabled students and the quality of our education. 

Here are some instances of ableism I have witnessed during my post-secondary years: my friend having her high-school Individualized Education Plan (IEP) ignored by faculty in our first year of college; my workshop instructor yelling “I don’t care!” as we voiced our concerns about our accommodations being taken seriously during a midterm; a guest lecturer repeatedly mocking my classmate’s disability in front of the entire class with the professor’s approval; and of course, being personally harassed for having my service dog, Winnie, as my sidekick outside of and on campus. 

All of this, of course, given that you can even get to school (thankfully a non-issue during virtual school). I asked Rishabh Joshi, photographer for Arthur, if he could snap some pictures of mobility-aid ramps around campus for an anecdote I had in mind, hoping to use the pictures as visual reminders. The results, however, ended up painting an even richer picture. The photos shown below are of two different ramps around the Trent University West Bank campus that were taken at the beginning of December, which is a busy month on campus during in-person learning. The ramps (which are already relatively steep) are covered in unplowed, untreated ice that would make it difficult and dangerous for someone using mobility-aids to get to their class or exam room. Students who require mobility-aid ramps need them every day, so it is ridiculous that they are only plowed and/or salted on “some” or “most” days of the week.

Photo of the many concrete stairs around Trent's Otonabee College and Environmental Science building. Photo by Rishabh Joshi.
Close up photo of the concrete steps and ramp mentioned above. Photo by Rishabh Joshi.

Unfortunately, the structural inaccessibility within the university doesn’t begin or end with icy ramps. Whether it’s the inappropriate number of automatic doors around campus not functioning or the over-abundance of able-bodied students mindlessly using ramps and crowding the space for disabled students (let’s leave this energy in 2021), structural accessibility around Trent’s 1,400-acre campus does not receive the attention and action it warrants. Students also have mixed experiences when it comes to navigating residence life with a disability, finding that many buildings are difficult to access for students who use mobility aids. 

Accommodations and accessibility in all it’s forms are necessary to ensure education is accessible to all and free of discrimination or biases against a group(s) of people. It seems as though disabled students, who are paying the same tuition as their abled classmates, are receiving an experience, education, and safety that is subpar to that of abled students in the eyes of the university. 

Now that we’ve looked at some real-life examples, let’s discuss some areas of the defective system responsible for many of these barriers. Trent University, like numerous other institutions, uses an accommodation model based on self-advocacy. Basically, disabled students need to “legitimize” their disability or illness in order to be taken seriously and accommodations are given on an “ask and [maybe] receive” basis. This need to legitimize one’s disability adds stress and an “unnecessary cognitive load” on a student and all too often robs them of proper accessibility because self-advocacy alone is not enough.  

Or, as a Student Accessibility Services (S.A.S.) advisor put it during my own application to the services: “Applying for S.A.S is basically like taking another course,” highlighting the fact that applying for individual accommodations and ensuring you receive them requires an unmerited amount of labour on the student’s behalf, to the point where it feels like the student is taking on the workload of an additional course.

And then, disabled students run the never-ending risk of having to adjust to the attitudes and decisions of each professor or instructor, all too often finding professors who are hesitant (or downright unwilling) to provide them the necessary help. Too many instructors seem to have a significant amount of individual freedom when it comes to accommodating a student, being able to decide how much or how little they are willing to accommodate the student’s accommodations (yes, you read that right). While professors and instructors are required by the S.A.S. to oblige accommodations, many aspects of the course remain at their discretion, such as comments and attitude, granting extensions, providing closed-captioning or course material on time, and much more. Even when obligated to accommodate you, many instructors will still find ways to make learning at the same pace as your classmates ridiculously difficult. 

This discrimination, harassment, and undue stress on disabled students will keep happening if Trent University continues to pat itself on the back and think it’s a safe space for disabled students. A telling quote by Kenneth Mitton, one of the students interviewed by Elizabeth, reveals the feelings of many students:

To be an educator requires a lot of responsibility, and just because you may know a lot and have experience in your field does not mean you’re doing a good job of teaching it. Disabled students should not have to fight twice as hard to find advocacy, security and accessibility inside and outside of the classroom. The burden needs to be placed on institutions instead of on the backs of disabled students who are, at the end of the day, paying to learn and trying to navigate university life during a pandemic.

As we go into yet another semester where uncertainty and unexpected changes remain abundant, disabled students are faced with a multifaceted struggle that adds undue stress to an already unprecedented situation. I believe that a significant amount of this stress could be alleviated by Trent University if they began listening to and acting upon the feedback of disabled students, as well as seriously prioritizing the experience and education of all students rather than solely non-disabled students.

It is my hope that as we continue to raise awareness and hold the university accountable for its “promises” to and treatment of disabled students, we will begin to see more inclusive accessibility within and outside of the classroom, concrete action on behalf of the faculty, and systemic changes within the university’s policies. 

Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
Written By
Sponsored
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish

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"Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system."
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