Ashton Forrest says her experience as someone with a disability at Western University has been frustrating.
The master’s student uses a mobility scooter and encounters numerous barriers a day on campus. They range from physical ones, like trying to fit her scooter in narrow spaces just to access food services, to experiences with others, such as students moving her scooter without asking because it’s, “in the way.”
While she recognizes the university is a long way from eliminating these barriers, she says it is moving in the right direction. The university is adopting a set of recommendations from a report commissioned by its Student Experience department that addresses issues in its academic support and engagement department, including accessibility on campus.
“The report was, for me, extremely validating,” Forrest said. “A lot of the recommendations in there are things that I and other students who have disabilities have said over and over again.”
The report contains 48 recommendations and calls for a more comprehensive approach in the way the university approaches accessibility.
“Accessibility is not defined by accommodations and access ramps,” said Jennie Massie, Western University’s associate vice president of student experience. “An equitable, thriving campus really builds a culture where students with disabilities know that they matter, that they belong and that Western is a place that they can thrive.”
Massie said the university is taking immediate action with certain recommendations including, establishing a student advisory committee to help inform the implementation of the recommendations, recruiting someone to lead programming for students with disabilities and ensuring that students with disabilities are recognized as an equity-deserving group in the university’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) framework.
There needs to be an understanding that accessibility is not a nice thing to have, it’s a human right.-Ashton Forrest, Western University student
Forrest has been tasked with co-leading the student advisory committee. She believes having input from student with lived experiences will be paramount in making real change happen at Western.
“We have so many departments that deal with equity, diversity and inclusion, human rights and accessibility, yet they rarely reach out to students to hear what is going on, what we want, what we think our priorities are, what would help us be successful and thrive,” she said.
“Having this committee with students with a wide range of disabilities and experiences and backgrounds, we’re hoping, will help the Western community understand what our priorities are.”
The report also calls on the university to ensure its programming and services are implemented using an intersectional lens that takes into account each student’s particular experiences and factors such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, something students like Forrest and others have lauded.
“Here we have this report where the school is saying ‘We’re going to try and move forward and improve things on campus,’ which is really a rare undertaking,” said Lauren Sanders, a student outreach coordinator with University Student Council’s Accessibility Committee. “I think an important thing to focus on is how vital it is to have a report like this even created for this community … who is commonly underserviced and underrepresented.”
Sanders and Forrest said that while the report is still missing some specifics, it’s a good starting point to one day having a truly accessible campus.
“I think once we start thinking of people with disabilities as people who are deserving of human rights, who deserve to thrive and have equal access to all aspects of community life, … we can start moving in that direction of changing the culture,” said Forrest.
“There needs to be an understanding that accessibility is not a nice thing to have, it is a human right. It’s a need to have.”