KPU, Accessibility and You
Featured / November 18, 2014
Making campus more inclusive for students with disabilities.
By Monica Mah
Post-secondary schools should be a place that is accessible to everyone. At Kwantlen Polytechnic University, there are a number of services available to students with disabilities, but is it enough? In their mission statement, KPU says that they promote a “barrier-free environment that facilitates equal opportunities for persons with disabilities.” When it comes to the topic of an inclusive KPU, opinions vary greatly on whether or not adequate inclusive services are being provided.
One example is the Services for Students with Disabilities department, which provides access to information, equipment loans and other services in order for students to achieve academic success. They offer support through things like course and exam accommodations, interpreting, alternate format books/texts and drop-in information sessions. They assist over 1,000 students with a wide range of disabilities such as learning, physical and mental.
Kimberley McMartin, the Kwantlen Student Association’s Students with Disabilities constituency representative, says that KPU has done a pretty good job making the school accessible for students that are disabled, but feels “it’s mostly from an institutional perspective.” She feels that much of the accessibility was potentially done through an able-bodied person, or someone with training, who would have a different perspective than someone living with a disability.
There remain, for example, infrastructural things throughout the school that are inaccessible. One example is the tables outside of GrassRoots that have bolted down seats making it inaccessible for students using wheelchairs. Leah Godin, the Langley campus representative for the KSA, worked with McMartin to create a disability audit for the GrassRoots, specifically addressing the need for a ramp to the stage.
“The whole point of college is to grow and to mature and learn new tools and techniques to take with us through life,” says McMartin.
McMartin believes the programs KPU has are useful, but that there’s always room for improvement. Her plans for the future include things like accessibility audits, improving elevators for those who are visually and hearing impaired, advocacy so students with disabilities know their rights, and disability training for tutors in the learning centre. There’s software for those with disabilities on all the learning centre computers but she “wants to take it a step further and put this software on all computers in the library, because every computer should have that.” She’s currently in the planning stages of possibly putting together workshops “not only for people with disabilities but those that are able-bodied as well,” and she aims to inform people on how to handle certain situations and educate them about the different aspects of disabilities.
“There’s always new people coming in and new disabilities being discovered every day,” she says.
Room for improvement
However, Fiona Whittington-Walsh, a faculty member at KPU, feels that KPU’s programs have a tendency to alienate those with disabilities, leaving some feeling isolated and singled out which “creates a lot of barriers for students.” She says that although they do have a policy for things like note-takers, they leave it up to the students to get the help they need, rather than having a policy that allows all students to access the same information equally.
“The university has promised to accommodate [students’] requirements and nothing has been done about it,” says Whittington-Walsh. She believes that it shouldn’t be up to the students, and that it’s the university’s responsibility to supply services that don’t single people out. Specifically, she suggests that all events at KPU should have sign language interpreters to make sure students feel included and can participate freely. “It shouldn’t be down to the students to get the help or services they require,” she notes.
To improve the services KPU has already, Whittington-Walsh suggests that students in the disability programs be involved in events on campus—for example, hosting film events with closed captions or screening descriptive videos.
“If we’re making an inclusive environment,” she says, “people shouldn’t have to ask.”
A growing program
Conversely, the SSD has an array of future plans for KPU. Susanne Dodson has been the director of SSD since 1990 when the program was just beginning.
“There were around 60 students when the SSD first started,” she says, “and [now it] has grown to just over 1,000 students.” There are approximately 280 people working for SSD as either paid employees or volunteers: peer note-takers, support people, interpreters for students with hearing loss, providers of Braille, and captionists. The SSD promotes their services through things like open houses, counsellors’ conferences and department meetings.
“KPU is one of the best institutions in the province for their ability to keep up and provide access for every student with a disability and that welcomes all types of students,” says Dodson. She notes that KPU has made efforts over the years to figure out what areas can use improvement, putting resources in where needed. They’ve hired more staff, offered different resources and worked to keep up with new technology in the library and learning centres. “We’re always looking forward and coming up with new ideas and new ways to meet the challenges. I’m about a fair process and equal opportunity and I will ensure that that is there for [students]. I feel very privileged to do this for [students].”
“Two important goals for the next few years is to focus on mental health services, what we can do for students with mental illnesses, and that Kwantlen participates in the universal design practice,” she says.
Looking forward: Universal design
One of the goals for SSD is to enable the university to adopt a universal design meant to benefit all learners. The universal design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design,” according to the Centre of Universal Design. For example, with KPU’s current policy on note-takers the instructor makes a request to the class for a volunteer peer note-taker, and that person then makes copies of their notes for the student with a disability. Under the universal design model, the instructor would likely post their notes online for all the students, or offer participation grades to those who post their own notes for the rest of the class.
This goal of implementing a universal design that encompasses all students for all different learning abilities is to ensure no one is singled out, and to further improve the inclusivity of KPU. This can be accomplished by providing access to all students in every way possible to make learning easier and more accessible. This universal design will mean that students have the services already available when they are needed.
The SSD has seen many changes and improvements during its relatively short history. However, there are many new obstacles to face that weren’t there before, and information that hasn’t been entered into the equation is being uncovered now. This will be a challenge that the SSD will tackle over the next few years with the hope of creating a more equal, inclusive KPU.