By Dan Rubinstein
Photos by Dwayne Brown, Chris Roussakis and Mike Pinder
Every year, starting on the last Sunday of May, Canada celebrates National AccessAbility Week.
The event, which runs from May 26 to June 1 this year, is “an opportunity to recognize the efforts of Canadians who are actively removing barriers and ensuring persons with disabilities have an equal chance to participate in all aspects of Canadian society,” according to organizers with Employment and Social Development Canada.
“The increased social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities has positive economic and social benefits, for persons with disabilities, for business, the economy and society in general. When persons with disabilities can access meaningful employment, resources and services, Canada’s economy grows. Businesses have the chance to welcome more customers, service satisfaction improves and workplaces reflect Canada’s diversity.”
During National AccessAbility Week, accessibility and inclusion are promoted in communities and workplaces across the country.
“By bringing Canadians together to recognize the valuable contributions of persons with disabilities, we are strengthening the collaborative effort needed to create a country that is fully accessible and inclusive.”
The ideas National AccessAbility Week advances are central to the mission of Carleton University, which is taking tremendous strides to enhance its reputation as the most accessible university in the country and possibly the world.
Carleton’s leadership in this area, from student support services and research to collaborative projects with government and industry, has roots in the university’s birth after the Second World War as an educational springboard for returning soldiers.
But Carleton’s work on accessibility has become increasingly sophisticated and ambitious over the years, and now encompasses a wide range of unique programs and services that are changing the conversation about disability — or, more accurately, ability — in Canada and beyond.
Showcasing Research During National AccessAbility Week
The entire Carleton community, including faculty, students, staff and alumni, has played a role in building the university’s reputation in accessibility.
Systems and Computer Engineering Prof. Adrian Chan, a biomedical engineering researcher with expertise in sensor systems and assistive devices, is a key contributor as director of Carleton’s Research and Education in Accessibility, Design, and Innovation (READi) training program.
Launched in 2017 with a $1.65-million grant from NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience CREATE program, READi is the first interdisciplinary post-secondary accessibility-training program offered in Canada.
The READi program provides professional training primarily for students in information and communications technology and engineering and design to prepare for markets expanding around accessibility requirements.
“We’re looking at this not only as skills development, but also an effective learning opportunity,” says Chan.
“We want it to be an integrated approach that involves community stakeholders. There’s this sentiment that when we’re designing, it should not be just for someone, it should be designed with them. All good design should be like that.”
Creating an Inclusive Environment and Culture
The Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities (PMC) remains a central part of Carleton’s longstanding effort to create an inclusive and supportive environment and culture.
Since the early days of accessibility at the university, when underground tunnels made it easier for people with physical disabilities to travel between buildings during the winter and the unique 24/7 Attendant Services program for students in residence was launched, the PMC has expanded into a hub for about 1,800 volunteers who serve about twice that number of students, performing duties such as notetaking, tutoring and transcribing audio.
Raymond Cho, Ontario’s minister for Seniors and Accessibility, praised PMC volunteers and the university’s efforts more broadly at an event on campus in April, during which he called Carleton “Canada’s number one accessible university.”
The culture of accessibility at Carleton goes far beyond the tunnels and PMC, of course, and includes flagship programs such as the READ (Research, Education, Accessibility and Design) Initiative and the David C. Onley Initiative for Employment and Enterprise Development.
The READ Initiative was established to highlight, celebrate and cultivate Carleton’s expertise, leadership and collaboration with the community to create greater accessibility and a more inclusive world.
It supports increased program emphasis and facilitates academic programs, course offerings and training expertise in accessibility, disabilities and inclusion, and advances research to inform applied development and design in accessibility across disciplines and sector.
The $5-million Onley Initiative — a product of the READ Initiative — is an Ontario government-funded partnership between four post-secondary institutions in Ottawa to develop knowledge, resources and tools to support students with disabilities in their employment readiness and career aspirations.
“Accessibility is one of the key strategic goals for Carleton,” says Boris Vukovic, director of the READ Initiative. “It is also a priority for many other post-secondary institutions, community partners, provincial jurisdictions and, with the passing of the Accessible Canada Act, the federal government.
“The number of Canadians identifying with a disability is now at 22.3 per cent, due to a more inclusive representation of different disabilities, including non-visible categories, and the progress in our society toward greater understanding and reduced stigma to self-disclose,” he continues.
“Our aging population experiences an even higher degree of disability, at 45 per cent for those over 75 years of age. At all age levels, persons with disabilities benefit from advances in accessibility of built environments, products and services.”
Providing Solutions to Barriers
On the research front, Carleton faculty and students provide solutions to barriers and create opportunities for full participation through the design of spaces, technologies, products and transportation, explains Vukovic.
In terms of policy, institutions and businesses can benefit from Carleton’s expert guidance to further embed accessibility in their organizational and accessibility-related policies and procedures.
“The greatest challenge to accessibility are still the negative attitudes, stigma, and lack of understanding and expertise,” adds Vukovic.
But by working with a wide range of partners, Carleton is developing and co-ordinating education and training in accessibility from the perspectives of the built environment, health sciences, engineering and design, mental health, disability studies, policy and law, teaching and learning, and other areas.
Moreover, “addressing the persistent and significant gap in employment rates between Canadians with and without disabilities is a national priority,” says Vukovic. “There are many employment initiatives at the provincial and federal level that can benefit from collaboration and create more co-ordinated services, which in turn will be used to build up a movement to promote employment of persons with disabilities in Canada.
“Now is the time to address employment gap, because at Carleton, we’ve done the research to determine that our students with disabilities graduate on par with the general population.
“Accessibility crosses disciplines and industries as an integral thread to the fabric of our society. Carleton can help bridge the divide between bastions of knowledge and our community by connecting post-secondary institutions with organizations at the municipal, regional, provincial, national and international level to serve collectively as a catalyst for societal change.”
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