Let’s take students’ experiences seriously
Author: Neil Middlemiss- contributor
On May 5, Campion College announced the beginning of its new “Building Enhancement Project,” a $3.3 million project that Campion College President John Meehan says brings the college “one step closer” to their goal of “creating a barrier-free environment for all.” The funding for the project will come largely from Campion’s past and future fundraising efforts, but the province’s Ministry of Advanced Education Preventative Maintenance and Renewal Fund also chipped in $443,000 in funding.
The project aims to improve accessibility by replacing and relocating Campion’s seemingly ancient elevator, opening up the entryways on each floor, and providing more direct access into the building. Almost everyone is struck by the seemingly antiquated elevator in Campion. I spend a lot of time visiting professors and the library at Campion, and I can remember countless incidents where the elevator posed a serious obstruction to students with disabilities. Students in wheelchairs are typically forced to choose between entering backwards or exiting backwards; there is no room to move around at all. Depending on the dimensions of your wheelchair, you may get into the elevator but unable to reach the buttons. The elevator is also especially slow, so students who require the assistance of the elevator are forced to accept that it will take them longer to get to class than for those who can take the stairs. Worse still, Campion offers no computer or library access on the main floor, so students who want to get some real work done in Campion have to go up at least one floor.
Meehan noted that what partially drove the point home for him was when he spent a single morning at Campion in a wheelchair. What is important about this admission is that it underscores how we need to listen to, and take seriously, the experiences of everyone on campus. For students with disabilities, the building at Campion, as currently constructed, presents a challenge whether those without disabilities realize it or not. Those students live through the same challenges, whether the building’s architecture meant to erect and sustain such obstructions or not. I do not need to literally experience the world from the seat of a wheelchair to make choices that respect what that experience is like for someone who really has it.
Everyone on campus has to realize that some students are systematically excluded from a reasonably unobstructed educational experience. This exclusion is psychologically and socially damaging to the excluded and those who exclude. It has to be remembered that, at some level, we designed the building, we built it, and we excluded some human beings, for all their richness and fullness of life, from being thoroughgoing members of our community. In a world of materialist consumerism, where the going price for a sign is apparently one million dollars, any price for removing barriers seems, by contrast, well worth paying.
This is not a financial matter, but simply a moral or ethical matter. It is about the type of communities worth having and living in. I applaud Campion College for finally taking these steps to improve accessibility, but they probably are not enough. To give just one example of how Campion could go further, students with disabilities are often required to take up a separate space in the classroom, or they are forced to wait outside the class while another student or teacher makes space at a desk for them. Again, this is a way of excluding full human beings from being full members of our communities on and off campus. We simply must continue to demand more of ourselves and of each other.