So for those who don’t know, the Ontario government’s mandate on accessibility is that the province must be fully accessible by the year 2025. Movement toward this goal has included a legal requirement that newly-constructed public buildings be fully accessible. Ryerson University in Toronto apparently didn’t get the message when it built the Ryerson Student Learning Centre.
Content Note: Ableism, Accessibility Issues
Image Decription: A young man in a wheelchair can’t get up concrete stairs. Stock photo; not the Ryerson Student Learning Centre.
David Lepofsky, lawyer and accessibility advocate, is blind. He took Carol Liebermann of Global News on a walk around the Ryerson Student Learning Centre, built in 2015, to show her, from an accessibility standpoint, how there’s “one design flaw after another.”
Here’s a summary, from another video, that Lepofsky did for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance, of some of the major problems with the Ryerson Student Learning Centre:
- Angled staircases at several key areas in the building. For blind and low-vision students, these guide feet one way for a short distance, then abruptly change the direction, creating a tripping hazard.
- Hangout steps that encourage people to put their legs and belongings in the line of traffic, and that aren’t accessible to students who use mobility aids.
- An information desk and computer information kiosk that both lack basic accessibility features.
- Several problems with the main entrance: angled stairs that follow a confusing route, a ramp that follows a confusing route (with hangout steps), an elevator that’s not plainly visible and that many people won’t think they can use due to confusing signage, and angled pillars in the path of travel.
- Significant problems with signage, particularly for students who read Braille.
There are other problems as well – enough that Lepofsky’s information video is 30 minutes long.
Ryerson responded to Lepofsky’s criticisms:
“The Student Learning Centre meets the requirement of the current applicable Ontario Building Code and meets the best practices of Ryerson’s Accessibility standards, to ensure that the building is inclusive to all abilities. In the spirit of inclusivity, on-going improvements are being integrated into the programming and physical operations of the building.”
Here’s the problem with that.
One More Time – Universal Access Benefits Everyone…
You don’t have to have lived as a disabled person in Ontario for very long to know that a building can be fully accessible under the Ontario Building Code and still have accessibility barriers. The Building Code simply isn’t comprehensive enough. It’s an issue, all disabled in Ontario know this, and we need to keep at the Ontario Government about it – because it’s not okay that the Building Code is okay with a blind man getting whacked in the head as he walks because a slanted pillar is architecturally edgy.
And we all know that Ryerson isn’t going to say in its official statement that perhaps, in light of Lepofsky’s criticisms, that the best practices of its Accessibility Standards need to be revisited to see if they do indeed meet the needs of all students. But let’s hope that Ryerson does revisit those standards – as a university that offers a prestigious disability studies program, it should recognize that disabled people are the experts about their own experience. It should also recognize that some of the barriers present in the Ryerson Student Learning Centre arose from fundamental errors in thinking about accessibility. If they were best practices, Ryerson should really be embarrassed:
- Braille signage often doesn’t give the same information as printed signage
- The information desk in the lobby has no wheelchair height and no knee space for wheelchair users. The sign that’s put up when the desk isn’t manned invites people to ask people in yellow shirts their questions (no good for blind or low-vision people) or go to a certain room, to which no directions are given.
- The computer at the information kiosk has a touchscreen, which is inaccessible to people with several types of disabilities.
- Signage problems make the external elevator difficult to find and confusing to use.
Those aren’t best practices. Those are significant issues, ones that walk throughs with disabled people could have identified and that could have been easily changed before the building was even opened.
The Ryerson Student Learning Centre is Supposed to Be for All Students
Now, I know that there are people rolling their eyes and thinking that I’m being too picky, and that David Lepofsky and I should be thankful that Ryerson tried. But the way I see it, if David Lepofsky decided tomorrow to become a Ryerson student, he’d be paying exactly the same tuition and student fees that non-disabled students do, only the brand-new building whose facilities for both learning and recreation are supposed to fully and easily available to him as a student are only available with the stress and anxiety involved with dealing with poor design, bad signage, reliance on others to ensure safe navigation.
That’s ableism, folks.
As is the expectation that disabled folks should just shut up and be grateful for every crumb of access that we’re given, especially in buildings that are built with public money. So give me a break with the whole, “Why can’t you just be happy?”
Accolades vs Access
The design for the Ryerson Student Learning Centre won several architecture awards, which says a lot about where Ontario is in its thinking about accessibility at the moment.
2025 really isn’t that far away. Care to place your bet on whether we’ll actually have a fully accessible Ontario by then?
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