Accessibility on Campus

There are countless ways to characterize the college experience; we can point to our dramatically fluctuating GPAs, the infamous roommate drama we all know too well, our desire to make it to Café Tuesdays and Tokyo Thursdays, or simply the friendships we form in the “best years of our lives.” And yet, for many students, the college experience can be characterized by the lack of physical accessibility on McGill’s campus. The majority of us don’t give physical accessibility a second thought, as we walk through campus and Montréal with relative ease. We occasionally complain about the construction in Leacock or the make-shift ramps at Roddick gates, but rarely do we ever give it much consideration. It’s simply a minor inconvenience that we forget about as soon as we’ve zigzagged through some orange pylons. For many students, however, these physical roadblocks can be devastating. 

McGill University prides itself on its accommodations for students with disabilities, and to be fair, it provides some valuable services considering the size of the institution. The Office for Students with Disabilities provides a multitude of strong, well-administered services, ranging from note-taking systems to webinars on a variety of subjects. Although I’m a student who has not personally taken part in these resources, I know many students who consistently find them helpful. Yet, it’s clear that McGill has the resources to go even further. McGill’s current endowment is valued at $1.65 billion, ranking the second largest for Canadian universities, and at  $41,323 per student it is the largest per-student endowment in Canadian universities. McGill has a surplus of resources that could potentially benefit disabled students, yet it seems like it isn’t doing the work to apply them there. 

… for many students, the college experience can be characterized by the lack of physical accessibility on McGill’s campus. The majority of us don’t give physical accessibility a second thought, as we walk through campus and Montréal with relative ease.

The proof can be seen in the daily life of the students, such as U2 student Kaylee Brunet, who broke her leg in Winter 2019 and was forced to withdraw from three of her four classes because of the lack of accessibility on campus. She remained in one class but only attended through Skype, as it was nearly impossible for her to make it to campus. When it was absolutely necessary for Brunet to go into class, she had to be driven to 688 Sherbrooke where there was no parking available, therefore impeding traffic and risking a warning from the police. After recovery, it was still impossible for her to be on time for class within the ten minute long transition period between classes. 

Although many professors are understanding about late students, that doesn’t account for the possible missed content in those extra minutes that the student may not be able to make up.  McGill campus clearly is not built to seriously support students with disabilities, as shown through the extensive roadblocks that these students experience. 

Treks to Strathcona, McMed, or the Education building can be treacherous and intimidating and these issues are only intensified for disabled students. McGill’s downtown campus definitely has a disadvantage when it comes to physical disability because it is placed in such an urban environment, therefore working around and accommodating the city of Montréal itself. When non-profit Smart Chair selected colleges that are considered to be the “Best Wheelchair Accessible Universities,” they chose schools that are often similar in climate and geography; University of Arizona, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley are the top three accessible universities, most likely because of their flat topography, warm climate, and suburban surrounding area. 

Montréal is practically the opposite of these sunny United States college towns, therefore it’s understandable that accessibility is such a difficult attribute to cultivate here. As a student hailing from Texas and in the midst of her first winter, I’ve already slipped and stumbled countless times—both on and off campus. Our campus has snow on the ground for two thirds of the year, therefore it only makes sense that physical accessibility is challenging to say the least. Of course, keeping up with the constant downpour of snow is difficult in winter, but the further classes are often not well-salted or even shovelled, which are fairly easy methods that McGill could use to increase safety. 

When referencing the Downtown Campus Accessibility Guide created by the Office for Students with Disabilities, there are guides for each McGill building that show accessible entrances and elevators. Even so, many of these paths are extremely indirect as they are forced to comply with the complicated architecture of the city. Even if McGill buildings are technically wheelchair accessible, that doesn’t account for the preposterously long travel time between buildings, the extensive wait for elevators, broken escalators, and the lack of signage for wheelchair entrances. Some of these problems can be solved through more rigorous maintenance, and unfortunately others cannot. Working within the bounds of this construction-laden city is difficult, but for McGill to truly accommodate and include disabled students, it’s necessary to do everything possible to make our campus a traversable space. Renovating old elevators and escalators, limiting seemingly unnecessary construction projects, increasing signs for accessible entrances, and even running public transportation between far away parts of the campus are just some of the solutions that I hope to see McGill implement in the future. 

Working within the bounds of this construction-laden city is difficult, but for McGill to truly accommodate and include disabled students, it’s necessary to do everything possible to make our campus a traversable space.

Within such a large institution, it’s important to consider the experiences of students who are different from yourself, even if they represent only a small percent of the population. After all, students with physical disabilities are not the only students who may be disadvantaged at McGill. There also exist students of colour, queer students, and students from families with lower incomes who can slip between the cracks of our poorly-maintained sidewalks. I also believe that the work being done to make McGill more accessible is not the work of the institution itself, but instead the work of the students that are fighting for an inclusive environment. According to the 2009 Student Demographic Survey, 79.8% of students and 74.7% of faculty reported never feeling discrimination based on disability. It’s my hope that these numbers only rise as a supportive environment is created for all students. Now, all that’s left is the work of the institution to ameliorate the physical obstacles currently blocking the way. 

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