Whether a dreary stone turkey or a proud, egotistical peacock, Robarts Library is emblematic of U of T’s culture. For some, the 49-year-old structure — named after John P. Robarts, the 17th Premier of Ontario — is a home away from home. From blocks away, students can spot the building’s broad tail or pointy beak in the sky, reminding them that they are near U of T’s central St. George Street. 

So, when U of T announced that its largest library would expand in 2016, I can only imagine that campus was abuzz. Its five-storey, freestanding expansion, named Robarts Common, promised to increase the library’s available study spaces by 25 per cent, bringing its total to 6,000. The expansion connects to Robarts Library through bridges on its second, third, and fourth floors; offers 32 meeting rooms; and has wi-fi access and wireless printing throughout the building. The space was funded through donations from more than 1,000 donors.

A U of T News article published in September wrote that Robarts Common “was designed as a dedicated space for students.” So, as a student with a disability, I was excited to visit the Common when it opened ahead of schedule on March 24. I was thrilled that it was designed with me in mind.

However, when I stepped through the building’s Harbord Street entrance, I was greeted by wooden bleachers and stairs behind the front desk. When I attempted to climb up to the top of these stairs, I mistook a gap for a step and fell down, banging my knee. 

At the time of my fall, these steps had black strips of wood — this solved the accessibility issue of depth perception, which I lack, and should have prevented me from falling. However, I’m thankful for my banged knee and bruised pride. Without them, I wouldn’t have asked the important question: is Robarts truly accessible? And, arguably more importantly, what does it mean to be accessible?

To answer those questions, I’ve spent the last several months conducting research, interviewing librarians, students, architects, designers, and getting personal tours of Robarts Common both before and after its official openings. I also toured the fourth floor reading room of Robarts Library, which was renovated this year, to see if accessibility was consistent in these recently developed university spaces.

This article is a summary of my observations. It is in no way intentionally bashing the hard work of the architects and librarian staff that I know have done their best to make both these spaces accessible. Rather, by highlighting both the expansion’s accessible and inaccessible elements, I hope that U of T and the public will consider how we can improve universal design and stretch the idea of accessibility. 

Understanding accessibility

When reading this article, it’s important to remember that my comments have been based solely on my observations as a disabled student who uses Robarts Library daily. But, when it comes to defining accessibility from a logistical and architectural lens, I’m no expert.

While writing this article, I researched two main frameworks of accessibility, both of which I’d like to touch on before diving in. The first is the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA), an Ontario law which ensures that no one discriminates against someone with disability. Said discrimination could involve employment, education, or even designing and building accessible spaces. 

Despite this legislation, Canadians with disabilities still experience ableism when entering and using public spaces. Thea Kurdi is the president of DesignABLE Environments, an organization of consultants who help their clients — including U of T — create accessible designs through regulations and design principles. According to Kurdi, though AODA may dictate design requirements, the act is the minimum standard for accessibility. In an interview with The Varsity, Kurdi also mentioned that the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario advocates for accessibility standards that are much higher.

The second framework that I’ll mention is U of T’s own accessibility standards, which U of T follows under the umbrella of the AODA. In a statement to The Varsity, a spokesperson for the university’s AODA office wrote that, in the process of designing Common, the university formed a tri-campus technical working group that “worked with world-leading accessibility consultants… to identify regulations and universal design principles appropriate for the University’s built environments.” 

Ultimately, the university adopted the University Facility Accessibility Design Standards from the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD) as a framework and “is in the process of customizing these standards for [the U of T]context.” The spokesperson added that, once finalized, these standards will be applied to “all new capital projects, including renovations,” and will be “updated as needed in consultation with members of the University community with lived experience of disability.”

Before writing this article, I also thought highly of another standard of accessibility — universal design, meaning the design of buildings, products, or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability, or other factors. Though it isn’t a formal guideline, I’ve always considered it the “golden rule” of design; it is a well-established set of accessible policies that everyone should adhere to. After all, its seven principles — equitable use, flexibility in use, intuitive use, providing perceptive information, avoiding hazards, low physical effort, and appropriate use — seemed to be great guidelines. 

However, Kurdi made it clear in her interview that universal design isn’t so universal. Rather, it is very subjective and depends on the building codes, the design, and the client’s level of accessibility commitment, among other factors. This ambiguity, of course, blurs the guidelines of accessibility, making the defintion inconsistent for people with disabilities as they navigate new spaces.

Now that we know the basics, let’s consider a concrete example of the aforementioned accessibility standards at work: Robarts Common. Diamond Schmitt Architects is the architectural firm that designed the Common; in May, their principal architect, Gary McCluskie, gave me a tour of the building. McCluski’s tour highlighted both accessible and inaccessible features of the space.

Exploring Robarts Common

Navigating Robarts’ loading dock was a problem McCluskie’s firm faced when designing the common.. Loading docks are the arrival and departure point for shipments brought to or picked up from buildings, often by trucks. 

In an email to The Varsity, U of T’s director of library communications, Larysa Woloszansky, wrote that Robarts Common is positioned “on a complex site, straddling an existing loading dock.” Therefore, Woloszansky explained, the building is oriented to encourage vertical travel through the space, with movement organized around the use of its three elevators. 

Woloszansky added that, through the Common’s Harbord Street entrance, students “encounter the elevators immediately when they enter the [space],” and, because there are “no workspaces present on the ground floor… it was important to ensure the study areas on floors two through five could be accessed easily and efficiently upon entry. 

While touring the space, I also observed how accessible features were incorporated into the design of the Common’s study spaces themselves. For example, many desks were tall for those who prefer to stand instead of sit for periods of time. Additionally, the distances between desks are large enough for those in wheelchairs to easily navigate the aisles, and chairs were removable from desks, which allows people in wheelchairs to easily use the tables as well.

The design of the Common also incorporated features for students with spectrum disorders. Robarts Common is filled with natural light, which some students might find to be busy and bright. To make the space more inviting for these students, according to Woloszansky, the Common has “automatic curtains that are on sensors to help block any overwhelming lights which we hope can reduce any sensory output.” Woloszansky added that each study room has a dimmable light feature, which allows users to adjust to their preference.

Woloszanky also acknowledged that some people with spectrum disorders “may find the open area of the common and  [sic] some noises stimulating.” To solve this problem, Woloszanky wrote, the Common includes bookable study rooms and secluded study spaces that encourage quietness. Woloszanky added that the flooring was chosen with noise in mind: “We used carpets mainly to keep sound and noise to a minimum as we know that can be overwhelming.” Lastly, Woloszanky wrote that, because the designers of the Common knew that some fabrics could trigger those with spectrum disorders, “We tried to use non fabric furniture where possible.”

As beneficial as general accessibility features are, it’s arguably most important to know whether this accessibility extends to emergency features. In Robarts Common, it does — fire alarms flash to indicate fire for students with hearing loss, and they flash in synchronization to prevent a strobing effect for those with epilepsy who find flashing lights triggering. 

However, despite these elements of accessibility, there were also points of inaccessibility within the space. The first problem lies with most of the space’s bookable study rooms; I noticed that they typically have handles, and no buttons, to open their doors, which could make accessing the space tricky for wheelchair users. In an email to The Varsity, Woloszansky wrote that, due to a “number of delays” from the Common’ vendors, the contracts were “not able to fit the automated feature to the study rooms before [its] pre-launch.” However, Woloszansky added that, since then, the “study rooms 2-4F on the second floor have been installed with the automatic button features,” and that the Common “plans on rolling this [feature] out to all study spaces [in the future], working with availability of [its] contractors.”

However, even if this problem were solved, some of these study rooms are too small to fit a wheelchair comfortably. In the same email, Woloszanky wrote that 40 per cent of the study rooms along the walls were designed to accommodate two to four people, and the Common’s “large study rooms for 8-12 people are accessible and have been measured by code to accommodate wheelchair users.” Though it’s helpful that wheelchair users can use some study rooms, it’s a shame that they can’t use all of them; private study rooms are the perfect space to participate in a virtual class, to study with friends without disturbing others, and exist without worrying if others are judging you or whether your disability is visible.

The second problem involves the layout of Robarts Common. As mentioned previously, all of the building’s elevators are situated at the front entrance of the building, which opens onto Harbord Street. Woloszanky noted that “there are only emergency stairs on the other end of the Common”; in case of an emergency, “all users in the space would need to travel through the space… or [through] Robarts [Library] where students use elevators to travel between floors.” This design means that students will have to travel to the back of each floor to reach the accessible spots situated there, potentially running into traffic as students cross into the Common through the bridge that connects it to Robarts Library. Adding another pair of elevators to the back of the space would solve this issue.

Additionally, near the building’s Harbord entrance, there are flights of stairs present. Even though there are three elevators located in the same area, these elevators will not offer students access to the raised seating areas that are only reachable by climbing these stairs. Because of this design, those with physical disabilities could be excluded from studying with friends using this space. While the stairs do have black stripes, raised bumps, and cushions, this doesn’t increase accessibility for everyone. 

During our tour, McCluskie agreed that this is an issue, but noted that it was not intentional. Sadly, that’s the truth when it comes to ableism in design; it could be intentional in certain circumstances, but most of the time it is unintentional and simply the result of a design norm which only caters to able-bodied people. 

Exploring the fourth-floor reading room 

This year, the fourth floor of Robarts Library was renovated by the Toronto Architecture firm Superkül. The firm’s principal architect and designer, Meg Graham, showed me around the space in August, before its official September opening.

It’s important to know that Robarts’ fourth floor reading room is only on one floor of the library, and it doesn’t occupy the entire floor, as the majority of Robarts’ fourth floor is taken up by escalators. So, because Superkül was challenged with renovating a room as opposed to an entire building, there were limitations in terms of what features they could make more accessible.

During the tour, Graham identified three important accessibility considerations the firm made when designing the reading room: acoustics, lighting, and ergonomic multiple usage of the space. 

To create a space that was suitable for quiet studying and reduced the overstimulation of sounds, the firm installed metal and wooden panels, which have acoustic properties. They help muffle periphery sounds as they travel through the air. Similarly to Robarts Common, the renovators of the reading room also installed carpets to minimize the sound of travel.

In terms of lighting, every desk in the reading room is accompanied by a controllable lamp. Although students cannot adjust the brightness of these lamps, having the option to use them is beneficial for students who are sensitive to light. 

These aren’t the only accessible lighting features in the reading room — throughout the space, there are light therapy zones, which are light boxes that mimic outdoor light. Research has shown that light therapy zones can be effective in treating psychiatric disorders — this includes Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depression that is triggered by the change of seasons each year and one that 10 to 20 per cent of the Canadian population may suffer from. Light therapy zones can also be used to treat insomnia, which is a common sleep disorder that a study published in the National Library of Medicine predicts that 7.7 per cent of university students suffer from.

Finally, there are adjustable seating arrangements throughout the reading room. Most chairs are removable. This gives students the choice to use standing desks, while giving those who use wheelchairs the ability to raise or lower some of the tables that they’re working at.

Apart from the three features highlighted by Graham, there are consultation rooms that allow students to speak to a librarian, including the Accessibility Librarian, for additional support. Each room is also temperature controlled for those on the spectrum.

When seeing this room for the first time, I’d initially praised the railings around its staircases because I knew that they would help individuals with eyesight problems avoid the concrete — the material that the staircase is made of — and to help to prevent wheelchair users from getting stuck underneath the stairs by forcing wheelchair users to travel around the railings instead of under the railings. 

However, when observing further, I noticed that these railings do not help individuals avoid accidentally bumping into the concrete, especially if they are tall. Individuals with low vision or balance issues, or even some with a spectrum disorder may not have the spatial awareness to avoid it. I wish the guardrail was higher and had multiple rows of metal to act more like a fence. Though it may disrupt the simplicity of the design, I would argue that it’s worth compromising for the space to accommodate all students.

In response to this critique, Woloszansky wrote that although the guardrail’s design is “up to code for universal design,” the university is “always willing to make amendments that benefit [their] users.”

So, is Robarts accessible? 

The short answer is no. When I asked Kurdi which architectural project she was most proud of in terms of accessibility, she answered that there isn’t one. Sadly, I understand why. There are many chances for accessibility features to be forgotten during the building design process, such as accessibility being sidelined during the stage when architectural firms are bidding for projects. When those features are left out, institutions later face the cost of integrating accessible features into old buildings.

In our interview, Kurdi made it clear that accessibility is not a checklist. Some architects and designers may be genuine in their intention to include accessibility, but might still approach accessible features as an item they need to cross off. But accessibility extends beyond what we can physically see; what is accessible for someone may not be accessible to someone else. 

Good accessibility is integrated seamlessly into the design of a space. Accessibility done poorly sticks out like a sore thumb. It is like when you put on a shoe slightly smaller than your feet — you just know it isn’t working. You can’t ignore it. 

The hard truth is, despite the legislation’s very necessary presence, we can’t rely on the AODA for guidance without risking treating accessibility as a checklist. 

Instead, Kurdi strongly encourages architects and interested parties to establish an accessibility commissioner, whose role would be to inspect buildings to ensure that they are accessible before the space becomes open to the public. Most importantly, an accessibility commissioner would hire people with disabilities to use these spaces and report any problems that they experienced. 

The hidden benefits and importance of accessibility

In our interview, Kurdi highlighted the many hidden ways in which improving accessibility can benefit the general public. Firstly — and, arguably, most importantly —  accessibility is one of the key safeguards against ableism. “[Ableism] is as bad as racism” was one of the most revolutionary phrases that Kurdi said during our interview. It’s revolutionary because I don’t think we recognize what it truly means. 

Out of the many stories Kurdi told me, the one I distinctly remember, is how someone asked her: “So what percentage of housing should be accessible?” Kurdi responded by asking, “What percentage of housing should be for Black people?” By responding in that way, Kurdi was emphasizing that this person was asked a ridiculous question; housing should be accessible for everyone. It shouldn’t be a feature that a select portion of the population has to earn. We wouldn’t think twice about creating safe spaces for people of various races, so why do we have second thoughts when creating spaces for accessibility needs? 

Second, accessibility is a positive investment into our future. About 22 per cent of Canadians have either a temporary or permanent disability. But even our society’s perceived “ordinary” individuals may experience a situational disabling of their abilities sometime in their lives. For instance, cognitive impairment is a side effect of being drunk, and elderly people tend to have mobile impairment simply because of aging. 

This is not to say that everyone will eventually become disabled or identify as disabled; rather, it’s to demonstrate that the disabled community is far more vast than we may assume it is. As a member of the disabled community, I want you to know this: we are not a “minority population” in terms of size, but we are a marginalized community that our world’s main population has forgotten. 

Finally, though potentially costly at face value, accessibility is often a more sustainable building practice. Kurdi explains that the costly reputation of making a building accessible is only true if the implementation of accessible features was done after the fact during renovations. If the building had incorporated accessible features within the pre-planning of the design for the building, it would have been cheaper to do so, and far more sustainable. On average, renovations generate approximately 60 pounds of waste per square foot; when we remodel or renovate, we destroy the building, producing more waste and using more materials than needed. 

What can we learn?

Through my tours, interviews, and research, I’ve learned that Robarts Library and U of T have clearly tried their best to make the library’s new spaces accessible — and I’m excited to note that these efforts are continuing with new renovations. Robarts Library is once again collaborating with Superkül to redesign Robarts Libary’s fifth floor. By the time this article is published, Superkül will have met with U of T’s Innovation Hub to get student feedback about their designs. 

Beyond new projects, Woloszansky wrote that the U of T libraries know that they “are not going to know everything, so [they] have made the space as flexible as possible and always welcome feedback from [their] users.” They know that accessibility must remain flexible to accommodate individual needs, which is a massive step in the right direction of creating accessible spaces. 

“Robarts Common[s] is just one part of the much larger offering of diverse spaces we hope to offer in all of our libraries,” Woloszansky continued. She mentioned that the university built a family space in Robarts Library to accommodate users with children, that it built a dedicated meditation space, and that it renovated and removed the turnstile door to the main Robarts entrance to add more accessibility. “We genuinely want to learn and find different ways to accommodate our unique student needs,” Woloszansky wrote.

Despite its few issues of inaccessibility, Robarts Common and the library’s fourth floor demonstrates U of T’s promise of making its community more accessible. In the next year, the university will be making strides towards various construction projects. 

At UTSG, the Landmark Project will add new walkways, gardens, landscaping, and public seating, therefore improving accessibility to the St. George campus. When the project is finished, an underground parking garage will house 60 electric vehicle parking spots and 300 bike spaces below King’s College Circle. At UTSC, an Indigenous House and new residence building have both broken ground, and a renovation to the campus library is in its early stages. At UTM, construction of the New Science Building is underway. 

I, for one, am excited to see how these projects improve our university, for all the members of its community.