Post-secondary education should be accessible for everyone, but for students with disabilities this often means facing additional barriers when attending their classes.
Accessibility challenges can include physical limitations on campus like stairs or manual doors, additional costs in services like interpreters or health equipment, and a lack of services or programs at their post-secondary institution to support students in classes.
However, the Accessibility Services at Kwantlen Polytechnic University offer various services and equipment to students with permanent disabilities or a combination of learning difficulties to achieve academic success. One support KPU provides is Access Exams, which gives accommodations for tests, mid-terms, finals, alternative formats of readings or textbooks, transcribing services, and helping students apply for disability-related funding.
They also provide services through the university’s library computers for students who have a vision or perceptual disability. The libraries at the Surrey, Richmond, and Langley campuses have designated computers that have a voice-activated screen reader software called JAWS, a screen magnification software called Zoomtext, and a print enlarger station.
Accessibility at KPU campuses
KPU’s Services for Students With Disabilities Policy includes a yearly review of physical access requirements by the director of facilities and the coordinator of services for students with disabilities to ensure the university is following British Columbia’s accessibility building code, a government document that is regularly updated to ensure places like restaurants, retail shops, and post-secondary institutions are accessible to everyone last updated in 2020.
KPU’s policy went into effect in 1995, and was last updated in 2006.
Joshua Mitchell, the associate vice president of student affairs, says he is unsure why the policy hasn’t been changed since then, but that it is in the process of being updated and is expected to be completed near the end of 2023.
He says Accessibility Services as a department became part of Student Affairs in 2016, and over the years they have been more focused on service provision and individual student learning accommodations.
“It’s going to be important that we do really thorough work with reviewing that policy,” says Mitchell. “The landscape has shifted quite a bit since 2006.”
“Knowing the size of our institution, we’re five campuses now, we have significantly more students now.”
Updating the policy will be completed in various stages, he says. The first stage is the initial research phase where a policy development team at KPU will look into other institutions, organizations, and legislations to see what they’re doing to improve KPU’s policy.
Once complete, Mitchell says they will then contact key groups at KPU, such as the Kwantlen Student Association, the Disability Inclusion Group (DIG), and the President, Diversity and Equity Committee (PDEC) to hear their perspective on the policy and if any improvements are needed.
PDEC and DIG are groups at KPU dedicated to promoting diversity and equity within the university community through policies and procedures. For students interested in attending, PDEC’s next meeting will take place on June 9 from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, and the DIG on June 16 from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm, both virtual. Students can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com for more information on how to attend virtually.
After the policy development team talks with the groups, they will consult with the public, including KPU students, faculty, and staff to hear their thoughts on the policy.
Students who are directly impacted will be contacted early on in the policy process by Accessibility Services, Mitchell says.
“It’s a [big job] doing policy work, especially policies where we likely have a lot of feedback,” he says.
“We are genuinely excited to take on this work. There are a number of individuals at KPU, and not just within student affairs and the Accessibility Services Department, who are real champions around accessibility issues.”
Over the years, KPU has made a number of changes to improve accessibility at its five campuses. Since 2018, the university’s Facilities Services have completed more than 20 projects installing or upgrading the buildings to make them more accessible for the KPU community.
These projects include upgrading elevators, installing hands-free motion sensors on exterior doors, and adding wheelchair ramps on campus. All the installments and upgrades are done by Facilities Services and follow B.C.’s accessibility building code.
These installments and upgrades meet the building code requirements by providing elevators at every campus with two or more storeys, so students can access all building levels to enter classrooms and study spaces. For entrances, the building code says they must be at the street level and are “equipped with a power door operator” such as a button or automatic door sensor.
When there is a washroom that is not accessible, the code states there has to be one within 45 metres from the one that isn’t. However, many bathrooms at KPU have at least one accessible washroom stall.
David Stewart, the executive director for the Facilities Services at KPU, says they determine updates through professional experts like the Rick Hansen Foundation which completes audits at the university to see if anything at campus needs to be updated, fixed, or changed.
The second way is through their knowledge of those guidelines to meet the proper standards for accessibility, Stewart says, and there are a few deciding factors that help Facilities Services determine changes to campus buildings.
Facilities Services have a long-term maintenance plan that they submit to the government. When the plan is returned to the department, the government will point out if there is anything that needs to be replaced.
For example, when elevators are due for replacement, Stewart says Facilities Services will bring them up to the current B.C. Building Code and go beyond the requirements using guidelines from other organizations.
Other factors that determine changes are if any issues or observations are brought up by Facilities Services staff, in addition to feedback from the KPU community like students or the KSA.
Stewart says that elevators, washrooms, ramps, and hands-free doors are the major changes that the Facilities Services are working on at KPU’s campuses.
Although there are a lot of changes underway at all five campuses to improve accessibility, the department’s target is to focus more on the Richmond and Langley campuses to get them caught up with upgrades at the Surrey campus.
Throughout this year at the Richmond campus, Facilities Services plan to upgrade the elevators with enhanced accessibility features such as operator buttons lowered to wheelchair and scooter accessible heights, and audible messaging to indicate floor levels.
Richmond campus will also see hands-free automated exterior door installations, modernizing the south exterior wheelchair ramp, and improving the Wilson School of Design fire alarm system to warn people with disabilities.
The other campuses will see upgrades in elevators, washrooms, hands-free exterior doors, and installations of accessible tables in classrooms like height-adjustable work surfaces.
“I have been in it for 25 years. I do it because I love it…. I feel good about the work I do, because I am able to impact people’s lives in a positive way,” Stewart says.
Advocacy for students from the KSA
While attending post-secondary, other barriers that students with disabilities can face are fewer opportunities for scholarships and receiving honour roll. If a student is taking less than nine credits in a semester, oftentimes they can’t receive academic achievements to celebrate their success.
B.C. universities, including KPU, acknowledge a 40 per cent course load or six credits as full-time for students with an approved permanent disability and an “approved appeal for a reduced course-load.”
When Lesli Sangha was elected onto the KSA last year, she always wanted to support and advocate for students with disabilities.
Last year, Sangha served as the mature students representative and advocated with previous students with disabilities rep Jaya Dhillon on the KSA Council for better access to scholarships for students with disabilities. They also advocated for making the Online Self Service for awards more accessible to students with disabilities and easier for students to opt-out of the U-Pass.
Now re-elected as students with disabilities rep, Sangha says she is also part of DIG and PDEC to be involved with different KPU committees and ensure that she can “bring a students with disabilities voice to those decisions.”
While still in the process of advocating for better access to scholarships and improving KPU’s Online Self Service, the KSA is working to increase student accessibility on campus and advocating for better access to co-ops for students with disabilities.
KPU offers Employment and Community Studies, which used to be known as Access Programs. This program provides work and volunteer experience in various fields for adults with permanent disabilities or a combination of learning difficulties. However, not all students with disabilities can get into the program. People interested have to undergo an interview process and satisfactory English proficiency, assessed by departmental guidelines.
KSA Secretary Jeremy Law says that part of the advocacy for better access to co-ops for students with disabilities is ensuring that people who are offering co-ops understand the level of accessibility needed for people to access these programs.
“We know that co-ops are so important for students to get into the industry that they want to after graduation,” Law says.
“Not all students may be able to work nine to five, Monday to Friday, and not every student may be able to stand at a desk. Not every employer necessarily has an accessible workspace.”
In addition to co-ops, the KSA is also advocating to increase accessibility on campus for students to still wear masks for those with compromised immune systems to have the benefits of in-person classes.
“Not just COVID, but just getting even the flu can be very concerning for some students,” Law says. “This allows for more students to feel comfortable engaging in spaces and speaking with other students and using these university spaces for their benefits of studying or attending classes.”
Sangha says they are looking at ways the KSA website can have more accessible features such as increased font size and audio options to read what’s on the screen.
“This is what I value. I value equal access to all, we shouldn’t have barriers for anyone,” she says. “We need to ensure that we are supporting students in the best way possible, so that everyone has a really positive student experience.”
Sangha hopes to work with KPU Accessibility Services to create pamphlets that can be placed across the campuses to spread more awareness to students about what support is available to them.
“It’s not just the focus on students with disabilities, these changes benefit all students,” Sangha says. “Whatever we can do to ensure accessibility or inclusiveness that benefits everyone, it benefits our full KPU community.”