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Malhotra & Folkes: Universities must start to prioritize accessibility

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Malhotra & Folkes: Universities must start to prioritize accessibility

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News that a student with a wheelchair couldn’t access the stage for his convocation reflects poorly on post-secondary education.

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Recently, many people with disabilities were taken aback to read news reports of a disabled law student who was unable to cross the stage for his convocation at the University of New Brunswick. The ramp’s incline was too steep for his wheelchair. Worse, it was reported that the student, Blair Curtis, had made significant efforts to reach out to the institution months in advance but to no avail.

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Instead, he was offered an option to be pushed up the ramp, which robbed him of his dignity and independence. He only had the chance to access the ramp two days before his graduation ceremony, which did not leave enough time to address his accommodation needs. All of this is an embarrassing failure for the university that reflects badly on how the needs of disabled students are generally prioritized in university life.

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Convocation marks a momentous occasion for all students and, in the case of law students, reflects additional years of long, hard study. It is a time for families and friends to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduate by seeing them cross the stage. It is entirely inconsistent with the values of equality and human rights enshrined in Canadian law to prevent a disabled student from accessing a graduation ceremony with the same dignity and respect as other students.

Convocation ceremonies have made significant changes to reflect the diversity of Canadian society. We now regularly allow Indigenous people to wear traditional attire at Convocation ceremonies and include Indigenous customs, ceremonies and symbols to better include students. Additionally, more institutions have hired professional name readers, ensuring students with unfamiliar names do not have the humiliation of their names being incorrectly pronounced on one of the most important days of their lives. These are important developments that reflect the reality that Canada is a diverse, multicultural society. Yet somehow the same priority is not accorded to wheelchair users. This needs to change.

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Unfortunately, this failure reflects much deeper problems at post-secondary institutions. For too long, physical accessibility has taken a back seat to other institutional priorities. In an era of cuts and fiscal constraints, accessibility for students with all manner of disabilities is too often regarded as an afterthought, as the incident at the University of New Brunswick poignantly reveals. While the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandates accessibility for institutions in the United States, Canadians are left only with the option of filing a human rights complaint. As too many disabled people know, such a complaint could languish for years without any effective resolution. It is also far too slow to deal with an event such as a graduation. Disabled people deserve much better.

In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) promises accessibility for all Ontarians. Since its enactment in 2005, it has set out standards in areas such as customer service, information and communications, employment, transportation and the design of public spaces. The AODA is a true advancement that all Ontarians should be proud of. It holds the potential to break down barriers and allow people with disabilities to thrive. Yet, guidelines for post-secondary institutions have still not been passed. In 2022, the AODA Postsecondary Education Standards Committee released the guidelines. We need to ask why it is that the Ontario government has not moved forward on this despite the recent Legislative Review of the AODA authored by Rich Donovan. In this report, Donovan highlights the slow progress of AODA compliance.

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The situation at the University of New Brunswick is merely an illustration of a deeper problem: the needs of students with disabilities are not a priority. Accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. University administrators should commit to more accessible university services to ensure no student has to experience what Blair Curtis did.

Ravi Malhotra is a professor of law at the University of Ottawa and is authoring a book on disability rights and time. X-Twitter: @RaviMalh . Rebecca Folkes is a second-year law student at the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa.

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