The leaves are beginning to fall, the mornings are colder and darker and snow will soon coat the streets and sidewalks of Oshawa. Imagine you’re walking to your favourite restaurant, or maybe your friend’s house; snow crunches under your feet as you hop up the stairs to enter the building. Now, think about that scenario again, but you’re in a wheelchair. The snow is caught in your wheels, and the last thing on your mind is how you’re going to reach that door because you’re fighting to move even an inch.
With winter quickly approaching, it’s more important now than ever to address the issue of wheelchair accessibility. While Oshawa suffers from a lack of universal accessibility, Durham College (DC) is trying its best to make all its students feel welcome when they exit the city and enter the campus. The college is committed to creating a universally accessible student experience, and has worked in cooperation with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) to ensure its hallways, bathrooms and residences meet the needs of all students.
Durham Region has a population of around 650 thousand. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 70 thousand are living with a disability. That means more than ten per cent of the population lives with a disability, but there are still buildings around Oshawa and its surrounding cities that are not universally accessible. A lack of wheelchair accessibility is a huge issue, as many businesses still only provide a stairway to their entrance, and fail to include lower elevated sinks and soap dispensers in their bathrooms. Paint for handicap parking spaces has washed away, and street signage is at a height that’s difficult to see for someone in a wheelchair.
Buildings around the city still lack automatic door openers, and even if they do have them, the layout of these buildings often makes it difficult for someone in a wheelchair to maneuver comfortably. This may also include, but is not limited to, the removal of snow from sidewalks and pathways in the winter. Durham College and UOIT made it one of their goals in the Campus Master Plan to address these issues, work within the AODA standards, and make the school accessible for all students, staff and faculty.
Durham College states on its website that it’s a “value-driven organization, committed to equal access, diversity, respect and delivering quality customer service.”
Section 3.2 of the Campus Master Plan directly addresses universal accessibility, adhering to both the AODA and the Accessibility Standards for the Design of Public Spaces. Wheelchair accessible ramps can be seen throughout the campus, bathroom stalls contain lowered sinks, soap dispensers and hand dryers, elevators are scattered throughout, and hallways are spacious enough that students using a wheelchair can flow freely amongst other students. Also, any new building will be required to meet the standards set out in the Ontario Building Code, in relation to the AODA requirements.
While this section addresses the creation of new buildings and significant changes to existing ones, it is the goal of the AODA to achieve accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities by Jan. 1, 2025. That means, within the next decade, it will be expected that buildings located in Oshawa will follow the lead of Durham College and UOIT and become universally accessible. That includes, but is not limited to, installing wheelchair accessible ramps, bathrooms and transportation devices such as an elevator. The goal of the AODA is that any “barriers” preventing persons with a disability from, “fully participating in all aspects of society because of his or her disability,” will be removed in the next ten years.
Marc Athanas, the Residence Life Manager for Durham College and UOIT’s South Village and Simcoe residences, can attest to the amount of change that can come in a decade. Athanas has been working at the school for approximately ten years, and has seen significant change in the level of universal accessibility since his arrival. The South Village residence has seen additions to its accessibility in terms of automatic doors, and the level of accommodation it provides with its rooms.
“Any student who has a mobility concern, we ensure they’re housed in our South Village residence, because of its proximity to the institution, especially come winter,” says Athanas. “We have barrier free suites here, which are designed for access for students who use a wheelchair.”
The suites include a roll-in shower, grab bars in the bathroom, a lowered counter, and other similar accessibility features, Athanas says. These features mimic the transformation the campus has seen in the journey to making Durham College more universally accessible.
“We’ve had students who’ve had beds that we provide that didn’t fit their needs. We work with that student to get a bed in there that does fit their needs,” says Athanas. Athanas and his team at the South Village residence have also lowered sinks upon request and are willing to do what is needed to accommodate all students, he says. Similar to the campus, the residence has seen changes made to its level of accessibility over the past ten years, to ensure it follows AODA standards and provides all students with the same living experience.
The current system is not perfect, and it may never be. But as the college states on its website, “we strive to foster an accessible environment throughout our organization.” The school continues to move toward its goal of a barrier-free student experience. However, even the current level of universal accessibility can act as an escape from the struggles some students may face in a city that has yet to catch up to standards of the AODA and the needs of over ten per cent of its citizens. Students who use wheelchairs can exit the city, where ramps and other accommodations aren’t provided, and feel welcomed by the college’s plan to make itself more universally accessible.
The city of Oshawa and other cities in the Durham Region can look to the steps DC has taken, and apply those changes. The time will come when students realize their voice matters in both their community and their school. With Durham College already suffering from a lack of student engagement, it’s important to strengthen the relationship with its students. Adding to the level of accessibility doesn’t only affect those students who have accessibility needs. It will show all students the lengths their school is willing to go to in order to accommodate them. Youth with disabilities can see Durham College supports their needs even if the city they live in currently doesn’t.
With winter quickly approaching, it will become increasingly important for citizens to be more aware of how they can help those with accessibility issues, especially if your city doesn’t offer such support. You can make a positive impact on the life of someone who uses a wheelchair by keeping your sidewalk clear of snow and avoid using wheelchair accessible parking spaces unless you hold the applicable permit. It only takes a few simple steps to spark the change you wish to see in your community.