Hart House to include accessible entrance in Arbor Room renovation

Donations being solicited for funding of project

Hart House to include accessible entrance in Arbor Room renovation

Hart House is seeking donations to help fund a full renovation of the Arbor Room, located on the building’s south side, including an accessible entrance. The renovation is part of an effort to increase Hart House’s accessibility, which has already included adding a ramp on the east side facing Queen’s Park.

Hart House Warden John Monahan explained that when the Arbor Room’s last food provider’s contract expired, renovation plans were already in place due to the floor sloping “dramatically towards the centre of the room.” According to Monahan, around the time of that contract expiry, Hart House was undergoing an accessibility review, which recommended more accessible entrances to the building.

“The Arbor Room, being so important and integral to the house, being at the front of Hart House really, right there on Hart House circle, that had always been dependant upon stairs, and therefore was not accessible to everybody,” said Monahan. “So since we were going to be repairing the Arbor Room anyway, we took the opportunity to expand the work to look into the feasibility of creating an accessible entrance into the Arbor Room.”

Monahan said that renovations on classic, neo-Gothic buildings can be expensive. Hart House receives roughly half its operating budget from student ancillary fees and roughly half from business revenue, including room rentals, catering, weddings, and fundraising.

“There are donors, we believe, that share our commitment to making spaces like Hart House more accessible for everybody,” he said. “We would rather have that money to spend on accessibility than have to depend upon the revenue provided by student ancillary fees. We’d rather put that money towards supporting the programs and activities that students really associate with Hart House.”

Students and community members can donate online. The donation page references “maintaining the heritage character of the building” while making it more accessible. Hart House will be working closely with the university’s property management and capital projects departments, recruiting engineers, architects, environmental assessors, and heritage consultants to assist in designing the new entrance.

“100 years ago, people didn’t have the same appreciation or same approach to accessibility as they do now. So we certainly don’t want to sacrifice accessibility at the altar of historical authenticity,” said Monahan. “At the same time, we don’t want to in any way mar the entrance to Hart House with a design that is going to fight with the heritage character of the rest of the building or the other buildings at the university for that matter.”

SCSU report makes recommendations on academic, accessibility rights of students

Report part of academic advocacy campaign led by VP Academics & University Affairs Christina Arayata

SCSU report makes recommendations on academic, accessibility rights of students

Self-declared sick notes, a maximum cap on late penalties, and an extension of the credit-no credit option to the last day of classes are among the recommendations made in a report published by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) to make students aware of their academic and accessibility rights.

This report, titled “Creating an Accessible Campus: Guidelines and Recommendations for the University of Toronto Scarborough – 2017,” is part of an ongoing academic advocacy campaign being led by the SCSU’s Vice-President Academics and University Affairs, Christina Arayata.

The proposal of self-declared sick notes comes in response to the high cost of getting medical documentation, as well as to free up resources from the Health and Wellness Centre used to verify students’ illnesses.

“This is just a recommendation towards the University, it is through meetings and consultation with the administration where we would be able to come up with a pilot/system that would ensure academic integrity is not affected,” wrote Arayata. “Flexible academic policies are already in effect in other institutions like Simon Fraser University or Queens.”

There is also a proposal calling for a maximum five per cent cap on late penalties. According to the report, 68 per cent of students at the Scarborough campus rely on OSAP, requiring them to find part-time jobs, and excessive late penalties — some of which reach 25 per cent per day — force them to choose between assignments and going to work.

The report also suggests extending the credit-no credit deadline to the last day of classes, a process currently in place at UTM. The SCSU believes that doing this would eliminate inaccurate choices made by students predicting their grades two weeks before receiving them. Doing this, according to the report, “has the potential to lessen the load on petitions surrounding this particular area,” which would save resources.

With regard to accessibility concerns, the report includes a proposal of the development of a mandatory policy against the banning of laptops in lectures, as removing laptops “is also mandating the ways in which students can/are supposed to learn in the classroom.”

The report also calls for the university to include the Student Bill of Rights in course syllabi and on Blackboard and ACORN. The inclusion of the bill, which stipulates the right to receive a syllabus in the first week of class, would prevent documented cases where students did not receive a syllabus in the first week of class or received parts of it as the semester progressed.

The report has been presented to the university’s administration, and the SCSU is now “working with the Administration to get these items into actionable items.”

Liza Arnason, Assistant Dean of Student Life, Community Outreach and International Experience at UTSC, said that although conversations are underway, significant progress toward the implementation of the recommendations will not be made until the winter semester.

Understanding mental health services at U of T

Students, know your rights

Understanding mental health services at U of T

A 2016 survey conducted by the Canadian Association of College & University Students Services estimated that nearly a fifth of Canadian post-secondary students struggle with mental health. The University of Toronto is certainly not an exception to this; its intense, competitive academic atmosphere can leave students feeling isolated.

The spontaneity of symptoms of mental health issues can make it difficult for students to complete their work on time or plan with professors for adjustments.

Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, told The Varsity, “The administration’s primary focus is academic excellence, sometimes at the expense of students’ well-being. U of T was one of the last universities to start taking mental health issues seriously.” Memmel added that things are slowly improving, but the university’s “instutitional priorities” remain a barrier.

U of T is obliged to follow the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and it has committed itself to following the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s guidelines on accessible education. Internally, the university’s Statement of Commitment Regarding Persons with Disabilities states that “the University will strive to provide support for, and facilitate the accommodation of individuals with disabilities so that all may share the same level of access to opportunities, participate in the full range of activities that the University offers, and achieve their full potential as members of the University community.”

If you are a student struggling with your mental health, you are guaranteed fundamental rights to make education accessible. The following rights represent only a portion of those afforded to you.

You have the right to register with the Accessibility Services office on your campus. While you are required to provide documentation of your disability and its related functional limitations, you do not need to disclose your specific diagnosis to instructors.

You may have the right to make-up tests, extensions on coursework, alternative evaluation formats, and exam rescheduling. These adjustments are made on a case-by-case basis depending on your condition and recommendation from documentation from health providers.

You have the right to use service animals and support persons on campus. Possible exceptions are service animals being prohibited from areas where food is stored and served, and when their presence endangers another person’s health and safety.

You have the right to access Health and Wellness Centre services, which include individual psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and group therapy. Students with disordered eating also have the right to access a dietician on campus.

Finally, whether or not you have accessibility needs, you have the right to file a petition for extensions on term work and final exams or for other special circumstances. UTM and UTSC students can file with their registrar offices, and UTSG students can file with their faculty. If your petition is denied, you have the right to appeal.

For students who feel their rights have been violated, the Office of the Ombudsperson serves as an impartial, confidential, independent, and accessible third party. They analyze problems, identify possible solutions, and provide advice on how to proceed.

Memmel mentioned the UTSU’s recently-launched online help desk service, which aims to connect students to the right resources and provide one-on-one consultation for any academic, financial, or service issues they may experience.

Additionally, the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) has formed a mental health coalition with the goal of presenting “a more student-focused and holistic set of recommendations to the University to address student stress and distress, and to advocate for better resources and supports for students.” Both the University College Literary and Athletic Society and the UTSU have mental wellness commissions, and the engineers’ Skule has a director dedicated solely to mental health initiatives for students in its faculty.

For crisis situations, more information on resources, or advice on dealing with mental illness, students can access Good2Talk, a helpline dedicated to student mental health, open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.

Disclosure: Joshua Grondin is the Associate to the Vice-President External at the UTSU.

A campus of hurdles

Three student perspectives on accessibility issues at U of T

A campus of hurdles

The University of Toronto remains inaccessible to its students in a number of ways. Below, Comment contributors reflect on access to campus spaces, note-taking through Accessibility Services, and the need for comprehensive and detail-oriented accommodation.

Providing notes to those who need them should be a shared effort

Considering the number of laptops you see in any given class at U of T, you’d think that finding a note-taker would be pretty easy. This is false. I am 17 credits into my degree and, at my personal estimate, about 60 per cent of my courses have had note-takers. That means the other 40 per cent of the time, if I’ve had to miss class for disability-related reasons, I am without notes. Certain professors agree to send their personal lecture notes to make up for the gap, which I am very grateful for, but often I am left with nothing.

To be a note-taker, a student must simply upload their notes to the Accessibility Services website. If notes are handwritten, they are scanned and uploaded. If a student puts in a request for a note-taker in a given course, the instructor receives notice and is required to pass it on to the students — after that, their job is done.

More effort from all parties is necessary to ensure students get the notes they need. If no one volunteers following the sharing of the notice, it then becomes my job to pester the instructor. I am very unapologetic about my disability, so it puts me in an uncomfortable position when I’m apologizing to a prof for nagging them. Beyond that, I don’t want to have to make time so that my basic rights as a student can be met.

By nature of having a disability, I’m arguably working harder than a regular student to achieve the same levels in my work. The two minutes it takes for a student to upload their notes saves me a lot of unnecessary stress. Admittedly, Accessibility Services provides little incentive to attract volunteers beyond a nice little certificate. However, the good karma will do you wonders in your next life, and you can also put it on your Tinder profile to show the world that you are a good person. Swipe right for caring about others.

Elspeth Arbow is a fifth-year student at Innis College studying Cinema Studies and Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health Studies.

Committing to accessibility means being attuned to the finer details
Conversations about accessibility tend to centre on salient concerns like doors not having automatic-open functions or buildings lacking elevators. What aren’t discussed as much are the arbitrary, near-imperceptible ways in which environments assume full mobility. Most architectural sites are constructed with able-bodiedness in mind; accessibility concerns are an afterthought, if they are acknowledged at all.

Disabled people are frequently reminded of this process of construction as we navigate the university campus, and it is a continuous cause of frustration. Ableist assumptions underlie every facet of man-made space. The Koffler Centre has a wheelchair ramp and automatic door fitted to the side entrance, but if I want to replace my TCard, I’ll have to stand in line. At the beginning of the semester, hundreds of people stood in line at the TCard office. With wait times potentially reaching several hours, no chairs were made available, nor was any sort of ticket-number queue system implemented as a more accessible option.

Accessing almost every service at UTSG similarly assumes the ability to stand, wait, and walk for as much time is needed. To consult with a registrar’s office representative at Wetmore Hall of New College, a student has to stand at the four-foot-high counter. And if, God forbid, a student wants to grab a coffee, they had better be willing and able to stand in line for as long as necessary.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005 mandates that certain accessibility standards be implemented in built environments. The university has been taking steps to meet them, but the act only deals with that which is overtly and generally inaccessible, without offering a full environmental critique.

In an attempt to conform to legislative accessibility standards, the first-floor classrooms at Sidney Smith Hall were fitted with automatic doors, and some of the desks were made wheelchair-accessible. Yet the podiums at the front of the rooms can only be reached by stepping onto a platform. It is these kinds of ableist assumptions that underlie false attempts at addressing environmental accessibility concerns — that spaces only need to be accessible insofar as is mandated legally, and insofar as moral righteousness demands.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year student at New College studying Middle Eastern Studies and Equity Studies.

With respect to campus heritage buildings, barriers to access remain pervasive

University of Toronto students may feel marginalized when they cannot access their classes on campus. While the university is diligent in providing students with maps of all three campuses and issuing building access notices, many places on campus remain physically inaccessible to members of the student body.

As a public institution, the university has a legal obligation to adhere to the amended guidelines set forth in both the Design of Public Spaces Standard and the Ontario Building Code Amendments. However, both pieces of legislation apply only to the construction of new or extensively renovated buildings. Heritage buildings, which exist in abundance at U of T, pose various structural constraints that hinder the capacity to conduct major renovations. Such constraints leave many buildings without elevators, accessible washrooms, ramps, and powered doors.

A heritage structure like Teefy Hall, built in 1936, possesses none of these features. Convocation Hall, opened in 1907, has no elevator.

Even when the basic building blocks of physical accessibility are available, barriers remain. It is up to the university to ensure that all accessible entrances are maintained throughout the winter months. Students also remain reliant on the presence of adequate visible signage indicating the precise location of accessible entrances, especially when they are not visible from the street. All in all, the current state of affairs could deter students from registering for courses taught in specific buildings.

Regardless of structural constraints, the university must find alternative solutions to render its heritage buildings more accessible to all students. Installing powered doors and ramps, for instance, likely has no bearing on the structural composition of the building. Simple additions such as these recognize and accommodate the needs of students with accessibility concerns, thereby encouraging greater inclusivity.

Vittoria Di Paola is a student at U of T.

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

The Accessibility Services volunteer note-taking system is not hitting home for many students

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

Note-taking is a recognized accessibility need for students with progressive hearing loss, deafness, poor vision, ADHD, and various other learning, sensory, and physical disabilities, disorders, and impairments. This service is an essential accommodation for departments that have historical and existing systemic barriers to entry for disabled students, such as sciences, technology, engineering, math and architecture (STEMA). 

For example, note-taking services for students with low vision allows for better contextualization and interpretation of math, equations, graphs, diagrams, and code languages, a necessity for disabled students for whom STEMA classes may otherwise be inaccessible. Lack of access to notes, especially in the STEMA fields, often means that disabled students have to switch out of those subjects. 

It is therefore imperative that lecture notes, textbooks, exams, quizzes and all class materials are made available in alternative formats in order for disabled students to have equitable access to education.

At the St. George campus, the note-taking program is administered through Accessibility Services. The program relies almost entirely on volunteers; students in the same class as those in need of notes are asked to sign up as note-takers with Accessibility Services. In return, volunteers receive a certificate from Accessibility Services. If the volunteer takes on note-taking positions for multiple classes, they may be eligible for co-curricular record accreditation through U of T. 

The current volunteer note-taking program has over 1500 volunteers and serves over 1200 disabled students. Fortunately, U of T provides volunteer note-taking as one way to level the playing field for registered students with disabilities.  

However, the volunteer system has many limitations that create additional barriers for students with disabilities. One of the first challenges of this system is that it is dependent on professors making an announcement in class in order to recruit volunteers. Many professors do not make this announcement, make it only once, or fail to adequately emphasize the pressing need for volunteers.

In addition, reliance on a volunteer-based system — as opposed to hiring paid note-takers — frequently leads to a lack of consistent note-taking in class. Rather than submitting and uploading lecture notes after every class, note-takers often submit and upload their notes every few weeks. Thus, lectures notes are not uploaded in a timely manner and students often do not have access to the lecture materials prior to midterms, course assignments, or labs. 

Lecture notes are often shared in formats that end up being inaccessible; for example, handwritten notes that are not readable by screen readers are virtually useless to students who need to access them.

In addition, it is rare that tutorial notes are provided to students, as it is not required for volunteers to share notes from non-lecture based class sections. In fact, there is no formal mechanism in place for students to be able to request note-taking for tutorials, labs, or field courses if they require them.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE).

Not having access to notes promptly after lectures take place makes it difficult for students with disabilities to absorb lecture material and work through it in the sequential manner necessary for complete understanding, or to learn through the framework in which the material is intended to be taught.

In sum, due to the inconsistent submission of lecture notes, lack of guidance for note-takers, and failure to provide note-takers in non-lecture based learning spaces, disabled students are placed at a significant disadvantage. As a result, rather than levelling the playing field, the note-taking system at U of T systematically leaves disabled students behind and struggling to catch up in their courses.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE). Funding through this grant is decided on a case-by-case basis using a standardized application. 

While all students with disabilities requiring note-takers should, in theory, be able to get funding for this service, there seems to be an uneven distribution of this government-allocated money. At U of T, many students who have received funding for note-takers repeatedly advocated for this service prior to being approved.  

Across the province, we find that some universities and colleges consistently pay for note-takers while others, including U of T, do not. Inconsistencies also exist within U of T, which raises questions about how Ministry funding is being allocated to students. If it has been determined that a student requires note-takers, why is funding for note-takers not being provided? What are the reasons for relying on a volunteer-based note-taking program?

While U of T is is considered a publicly-assisted institution, education here is still framed through notions of meritocracy, competition, and performance. From this perspective, competition is regarded a necessary precursor to research innovation. Within the context of accessibility needs, this competition-driven system has significant consequences for disabled students. In the case of note-taking, disabled students are represented as having an ‘unfair advantage’ or a ‘competitive edge’ over their peers when they receive lecture notes from a classmate.

These unfounded perceptions lead to both professors and non-disabled students de-valuing the importance of note-taking services and, at the same time, create an even more hostile classroom environment for disabled students. Programs that are inaccessible remain inaccessible, while the lack of support often pushes disabled students out.

Without a broader discourse on equity and a reconceptualization of classroom accommodations as accessibility needs, the conversation remains focused on individual needs. Such an approach cannot lead to meaningful structural changes. In order to have a note-taker system that works for disabled students, it is urgent for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and U of T to begin to engage with disabled students and to center our needs.

Chandrashri Pal is a Board Member and the current Vice-Chair of Students for Barrier-free Access. Nadia Kanani is the Advocacy and Volunteer Coordinator at Students for Barrier-free Access.