Talking with ABLE about experiences at Brock (Part 1)

From March 1st to 4th a newly ratified club at Brock University called ABLE (Awareness Breaks Limits for Equality) hosted a Disability Week. The purpose of the week was to highlight some of the issues and stigmas faced by students with disabilities such as service dog use, a survey on students’ experience with Disability Services, and other events aimed at raising awareness.

Part of my work as the BUSU Advocacy Coordinator involves raising the status of equality issues at Brock. I’ve been particularly impressed by this new club’s advocacy surrounding inclusivity and accessibility and wanted to learn more.

The week prior to the ABLE events I sat down with President Keely Grossman, and members Alanna Kitching and Jessica Koppers to talk about their experiences as students with disabilities. Keely has a visual impairment and uses a service dog. Jessica suffers from anxiety and arthritis. This event came at an opportune time for BUSU’s advocacy work since we will be representing Brock students at OUSA’s 43rd General Assembly this weekend, discussing the challenges students with disabilities face on university campuses.

Jeremy: When picking Brock, did you look into the services Brock provides?

Keely: 100%. I looked at all the services and accommodations; I applied to three schools… I chose Brock because their accommodations fit me, the staff was really friendly, and I was able to live in residence, which was able to provide space for my guide dog. I was able to choose the room which best suited my needs.

Jeremy: You also attended a school for the blind and visually impaired, is there anything you learned going to this school that Brock could learn from?

Keely: Being in a school for the blind and visually impaired, the biggest thing they did was give extra time when writing exams. Personally, I need double time and Brock was okay with this. I received it in high school and they carried it over for me. At the school [for the blind and visually impaired] certain things were more visual for those with some sight, for example the stairs were colored, this is something that doesn’t apply to me but there are those that could benefit from this. They also used lots of landmarks to help those with varying degrees of visual impairment.

Jeremy: Is there something that Brock can do, as an easy fix, to help students with visual impairments?

Keely: Put more braille!! Half of the classrooms don’t have braille. Some departments don’t even have Braille on their mailboxes, just more braille all around.

Jessica: The library rooms don’t have braille either.

Jeremy: What are some things that help you feel comfortable at Brock with your disability?

Keely: I feel like in the halls people always help me, like holding the door for me when my hands are full, and I have Izzy [my guide dog], because I know when people don’t open the door or close it, it can land on Izzy, which is hard to manage. It really is little things that help make me feel included.

Jeremy: How about your residence? Did you have any experiences that stood out to you?

Keely: My first year was awful, some of the activities weren’t inclusive, the other thing was that the [Residence Life Staff] I had were not well trained in the sense of disability. I could tell they weren’t very comfortable, and not well educated on people with visual impairments. I could really feel it in their attitude towards me for certain things. I got lost in here once and I had no support from my [Residence Life Staff]. Also on my floor I did not have anyone who felt comfortable going off-campus with me which made it really hard. I’ve had a great academic experience using the Disability Services. It was just first year and residence.

Jeremy: What kind of activities were you not included in, in first year?

Keely: It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t included but that it wasn’t accessible. For the first activity to get people comfortable with each other they would tell us to organize by different qualities and characteristics. Most of them being physical characteristics like, “everyone with brown eyes get into a group,” well, uh, okay, who has brown eyes?! Right off the bat people had to help me in finding the groups when it could have been a different activity which I could have participated on my own without the help of others.

Jeremy: How have your experiences using transportation been? Has anything negative ever happened taking the bus?

Keely: The drivers are so nice, really good at assisting me. I find some of the bus companies are better than others, but overall they are all helpful. I feel comfortable on the bus.

Jeremy: When you have a poor experience, are you able to voice your concerns?

Keely: This is where it gets complicated, yes and no in first year. They gave us a survey at the end of the year but my [Residence Life Staff] and I didn’t really get along and there wasn’t any way to fix it. My voice couldn’t be heard because I was shy and nervous to speak out about my experiences. I think that a lot more could have been done if I had been able to feel more comfortable. Now I am very comfortable and self-advocate without any problem. I have advocated for myself with professors many times, it was more experiences with other students that were hard.

Jeremy: Have professors been good with your accommodations?

Keely: I’ve only had one bad experience. It was in first year, the prof wanted an exact page count between six and a half and eight pages. On my computer program, it doesn’t specify, it only tells me that I am on page six, I printed it off, and his policy was if you are above or below this average you get a zero. I was about three lines short and he gave me a zero. I tried to explain my visual impairment, and he still wouldn’t take it. I took it to Disability Services and they put it in front of the chair of the department who resolved it for me.

Jeremy: Ontario is working towards a fully accessible province by 2025; do you think there is anything Brock can do to work towards this?

Keely: Definitely! Right away they can make more accessible units for students, when building new residence consulting with students with disabilities because currently it is ridiculous how few we have.

Alanna: I know from walking around campus with Jessica Lewis, who is in a wheelchair. We went to workout in the Zone with her trainer and the elevator hasn’t been working for over a month. Although there is an elevator Brock hasn’t addressed that it isn’t working. Even though the accessibility is there, it has to be maintained.

Keely: I wouldn’t have even known that being a student with a visual impairment.

Jessica: Some little things people don’t notice, like in the accessible washroom, the garbage can inside it is automatic, so you have to [put] your foot down to use it. Well for someone in a wheelchair it doesn’t make sense. People in communities like our school, need to be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and see things like, “If I was blind or in a wheelchair how would I access this?” Instead of looking at it only as we see it for ourselves.

Keely: Another thing that can be done is actually including these people in the process of construction. I don’t understand why there can’t be an announcement [through] Disability Services for a call to students who want to help improve accessibility. I don’t know how the school expects to become accessible without talking to those it affects.

Jeremy: What are some of the social barriers you experience on campus?

Jessica: For me it’s when people assume I can do something and when I say I can’t do it, they don’t understand why not. I grew up with arthritis so something like crossing my legs in elementary school wasn’t possible for me. I would have to sit at the back with the teachers on the bench. A lot of people looked at me funny, people would comment, “oh, she doesn’t have anything wrong with her; she shouldn’t be sitting back there.” You have to be careful when addressing students using services because you don’t know what might be affecting them.

Keely: The biggest thing is to not judge people, it might sound bad, but trust that something is wrong and they have a legitimate reason for using different services. Who wants to have a disability? Why lie about not being able to sit cross-legged, who would want to live like that?

Alanna: Most people are open to talk, if they are out in public doing something differently there will probably be a reason for it, but if you’re really curious usually you can go up and ask politely. As long as you aren’t judging, doubting, or making fun, people are usually receptive to curiosity.

Keely: Personally I love it when people ask me. I hate it when people just stare at me. Like if you have a question feel free to ask! I’m like an open book, even if it seem like a stupid question like, “can you cook?” Yes I can, but people don’t know, something simple like an oven I’m able to use but most would think I can’t.

Conversations addressing issues of accessibility and inclusivity on Ontario’s university campuses are growing. Being able to sit down and listen, first hand, to the experiences of these students was incredibly enlightening. Asking students directly what they are doing to help themselves is a powerful force behind making Ontario fully accessible by 2025.