Memorial University has an Accessibility Problem, Say Students

Broken elevators and other challenges can hinder the academic experiences of students with disabilities Darrell Roberts, CBC News
Posted: Nov 16, 2021

As tuition rises and government cuts continue, Memorial University students with disabilities say accessibility is being left out of the equation.

CBC News talked to multiple current and former students who say Newfoundland and Labrador’s only university has significant barriers that hinder the learning experiences of students with disabilities.

Those barriers include infrastructure issues like broken elevators and doors that don’t open automatically, and broader issues like an overextended disability resource centre and difficulties getting accommodations.

Mandy Penney has been studying at MUN since 2010, and is completing her MBA in social entrepreneurship. Penney, who uses a mobility aid, said she’s experienced problems with accessibility at both the St. John’s campus and Grenfell campus in Corner Brook.

“I think it made it harder to focus on academics because you were so busy trying to make sure there were no barriers in the way,” Penney said.

Penney said her first encounter with a barrier was on a campus tour before she even started classes at Grenfell. She said the tour guide took the group up some stairs, accidentally leaving her behind.

The tour organizer later apologized, said Penney.

“That was my first experience with the inaccessibility,” she said.

Broken elevators and closed doors

At least four elevators at the St. John’s campus are out of order and have been for weeks, including the only elevators that can reach the fifth floor of the Arts and Administration building and the only elevator in the business administration building.

In a statement, MUN spokesperson Sandy Woolfrey-Fahey said repairs are in progress on the business building’s elevator, and the Arts and Administration building should have another working elevator by the spring.

Since there are only two elevator companies on the island, she said, repairs can take longer than in other parts of the country.

“Elevator maintenance and repair is a very specialized trade, and there are very few people available to complete the work which does cause delays,” said Woolfrey-Fahey.

Penney said she got stuck in elevators on multiple occasions at both the Grenfell and St. John’s campuses, and the Prince Philip Drive underpass elevator was the most frequent offender. She said she began going to class extra early in case she got stuck.

“I didn’t have much energy to spend on my papers and assignments because I’m so exhausted from trying to get around campus every day,” she said.

As of Monday, that elevator had an “Out of Order” sign on it, and MUN’s facilities management department said it does not yet have a repair date.

The university has other infrastructure-related accessibility problems, many connected with how old the buildings are.

Rachel Gehue, a biochemistry student currently in her second-last year, said she’s been able to get accommodations for her rheumatoid arthritis but still faces problems moving around campus.

At the St. John’s campus, many doors lack automatic buttons, and accessible washrooms are not available in all areas. Gehue said she often has to ask someone for help when moving through buildings if the doors don’t open automatically.

“When it comes down to accessibility not being thought of and the issues not being fixed or at least not being fixed in a timely manner. That alone can make you not feel welcome,” she said.

Woolfrey-Fahey said new buildings such as the new core science facility are constructed with accessibility as a priority, and facilities management has created a committee to improve accessibility at the St. John’s campus.

Getting accommodations

MUN does have accessibility centres on its campuses, but some students say the centres aren’t able to cover all aspects of accessibility with the resources they’ve been allocated.

Both Penney and Gehue get accommodations, such as extra time for writing exams, through the Glenn Roy Blundon Centre in St. John’s. They both said their experiences have been positive, though they aren’t always able to get help with problems related to physical infrastructure.

Acting manager Jason Geary said the centre is not mandated to look after accessibility-related infrastructure repairs.

“While we try to champion all accessibility needs, we really can’t be experts on architecture or, you know, some of the facilities pieces,” Geary said.

Penney said it can take time for the centre to get back to her, and Gehue said she has had to remind advisors of her mobility challenges on several occasions.

Geary said the Blundon Centre has four advisors who serve more than 1,600 students – and that number increases by 10 to 15 per cent a semester. He said advisors are able to keep up with the workload, though the centre gets busier as the semester progresses, which can leave students waiting for accommodations.

According to Jennifer Browne, MUN’s director of student life, the Blundon Centre was allocated $643,808 in the 2021-22 budget, an increase from previous years.

Geary said the centre’s funding is based on the data it shares with university administration, although it would always welcome more.

“Absolutely, we require additional resources,” he said. “We identify what those needs are, and we try to get whatever resources we can.”

Geary said the funding the Blundon Centre receives is comparable to other Canadian universities. CBC News has asked other universities in Atlantic Canada for comment.

An uphill battle

Some student advocates say government budget cuts create an uphill battle for improving accessibility at the university.

The university’s operating grants have been cut multiple times in recent years, including by $9 million in 2017 and by $20 million in 2015. Last spring, the provincial government announced it would cut the $68 million it gives to MUN to maintain its tuition freeze.

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Antonia Francis, the disability representative for Newfoundland and Labrador’s chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students, said students with disabilities are concerned about how the impact cuts will have on their education.

“When they’re gutting the funding to the university, that affects our students majorly,” she said.

MUN’s new equity, diversity and inclusion vice-provost, Delores Mullings, said the university is committed to creating accessible campuses, though she recognizes the challenges of aging infrastructure.

“We hear that all the time from faculty, staff and students that, you know, there are some places that are not accessible,” she said.

She said she’s currently in the process of putting together a team to do an environmental scan of the university in light of new provincial accessibility legislation coming into effect on Dec. 3.

Andrew Dixon, a disability studies graduate student, said accessibility is broader than just physical infrastructure. He hopes Mullings looks at university policies related to accessibility, but he also acknowledged that money is tight.

“Memorial as an institution is frankly fighting for its life,” he said. “Being an institution under siege makes it difficult to even accommodate this.”

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