Justice is Blind

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On July 11, SFU student Anthony Janolino tripped over a discarded hose in the Shrum Science Centre. Now, he’s making it his mission to bring on-campus accessibility issues into the spotlight.

This isn’t the first time that Janolino, a visually impaired student, has encountered problems getting around SFU’s Burnaby campus. After repeatedly struggling to navigate the campus’ staircases, bridges, and slopes, Janolino decided to stand up for his own needs and those of other visually impaired students on campus.

He recounted an incident in 2010, when a folded up rug was left in front of the stairs near the Highland Pub going down to the bookstore in MBC. “I almost swan dived down that,” Janolino told The Peak.

Such hazards are typical of those Janolino says he encounters on a daily basis. These include chairs, tables, and objects that obstruct pathways, lips on tiles and uneven surfaces, stairs of mismatched heights, and a lack of proper signage in construction or out-of-service areas.

Janolino claims that SFU has been late to respond to reports of hazards on campus since he began attending the university in 2009.

“Other problems that I’m finding are things that are changeable,” said Janolino. “For a while, in 2011, I was ending up going into out of service elevators where they would put just a sticky note on the door saying ‘out of service.’ They wouldn’t even put on the yellow caution tape. It’s a lot of sloppy things like that.”

Even when such issues are addressed, the warning signs may be placed at head or neck level, where they can’t be detected by canes. Similarly alarming are overhanging trees or gutters, which Janolino’s cane cannot find.

The 2006 British Columbia Building Code recommends that pathways be free from obstructions for the full width of the walk to a height of not less than 1,980mm. In the AQ alone, one can find trees hanging over walkways as low as four feet from the ground.

Janolino says that last summer, he was forced onto the road because of overgrown trees near Residence. “I did file my reports and told people, nothing was being done, so I resorted to chopping them up myself,” said Janolino.

The university response

Janolino claims that SFU has been late to respond to reports of hazards on campus since he began attending the university in 2009. The July 11 incident proved no different, when he found himself passed around from contact to contact until being called by Anne Carchesio, an SFU safety assistant, five days later.

“The fast response doesn’t happen,” explained Janolino. “There’s been repeat incidents, there have been things that have been left for a while, nothing is really happening.”

Carchesio pointed Janolino in the direction of TJ Aujla, SFU’s environmental health and research safety (EHRS) coordinator, who agreed to accompany Janolino on a walking tour of SFU’s Burnaby campus to examine the hazards on campus. 

“He pointed out a lot of areas of concerns that I wasn’t aware of previously,” Aujla told The Peak. “Each concern that he pointed out was valid, and would require a response from EHRS and the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD).”

Aujla said that EHRS is hoping to make a coordinated response with the CSD and Facilities Services to address Janolino’s concerns. “With his recommendations, we can move forward,” he said. “It helps having the people with concerns, like [Janolino] did, provide recommendations. These are concerns that he’s very familiar with.”

For the director of the CSD, Mitchell Stoddard, a coordinated effort is the key to making a difference on campus, especially when different hazards fall under the purview of different departments. Currently, the CSD is a frequently used channel by which students report hazards on campus; the CSD can then connect with Facilities, Housing and Residence, or other organizations to handle the issue.

Stoddard explained how a reported hazard is handled: “If it’s a high risk situation, then we’re going to notify whoever can address that high risk situation as soon as possible. If it’s something else, then it’ll go through other channels and we will make a determination.”

For example, CSD recently received a message that pointed out a potential head-strike issue across from Starbucks on the stairs down towards the bus loop. “Literally, we got notified of it, and within the same day we contacted facilities, and they had a temporary barrier up. Within that week there were formal bars around that would allow a cane to detect it,” said Stoddard.

“The majority of [hazards on campus] that can be readily addressed are addressed well,” Stoddard continued. “Where we struggle and scratch our heads, the walkway across the pond [being an example]. My understanding is that’s been looked at several times in the past, trying to find a way to create something that gives the right kind of signal to everybody without actually making the problem worse.”

Janolino has himself complained about the koi pond’s design to the university before. However, “they said that if they did some changes to it, it would wreck the architectural design,” Janolino reported.

This tension between art, architecture, and functionality is a constant theme on the Burnaby campus, which, as a half century old building, was built without considering the accessibility issues that we face today.

“Erickson loved horizontal planes,” Stoddard said. “The way the university was designed almost 50 years ago doesn’t lend itself to the kind of awareness that we have about the needs of a diverse community or student body.

“I do think there’s always an aesthetics balance, but the aesthetics can’t trump the functionality.”

For Stoddard, the next logical step is working towards formalized, systematic changes in how the university addresses accessibility issues. “In the same way the university has adopted sustainability [. . .] I think the next level is to see the university consider [. . .] accessibility as an item that needs to be signed off [on].

“If you ask me relative to five years ago, ‘Are we moving in the right direction?’ Yeah, we’re moving in the right direction and things are coalescing. Does that mean that there’s not a lot of work to do? No, there’s a lot of work to do. But I think now you’re starting to see groups come together that can move those kind of things forward.” 

For now, Stoddard hopes that the students will take the initiative and bring these accessibility issues to the university and the community at-large. “I think having more students with disabilities having conversations with this office, but then be willing to have them on their own, as their own entity, I think that’s powerful and I would like to see more of that,” he concluded.

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The blind leading the blind

On Thursday, July 17, in conjunction with the SFSS Accessibility Fund Advisory Committee (AFAC), Janolino took four SFSS board of directors members on a similar tour of SFU to experience the various hazards visually impaired persons encounter on campus. The catch? All members of the tour were blindfolded.

Arts and social sciences rep Brady Wallace and health sciences rep Ayla Kooner were blindfolded and assisted by members of The Peak, while at large rep Jeremy Pearce and VP finance Adam Potvin were blindfolded and given canes.

Pearce, who sits on both Students United for Disability Support (SUDS) and AFAC, said of the multitude of hazards, “We were blown away.”

The four, led by Janolino, walked from the Dining Hall to the Renaissance near the bus loop, navigating stairs, uneven tiles, gutters and overhanging trees at head height, and an array of objects such as chairs and tables blocking main paths.

“The way the university was designed almost 50 years ago doesn’t lend itself to [. . .] the needs of [the] student body.” – Mitchell Stoddard, director of the Centre for Students with Disabilities

Halfway through the tour, as Potvin cautiously made his way up the AQ stairs, he said, “There’s a lot of random crooks and corners, I feel like I’ve turned a million times. There’s so many edges.”

Walkways with shifting edges, which are a staple feature at Burnaby campus, were particularly challenging. When visually impaired persons navigate paths, Janolino explained, many use the “shoreline” technique, in which they track their cane along the edge of the walkway. Without an even edge, navigation is hindered.

The four were most concerned when walking across the koi pond bridge. “I’m terrified. This was my biggest fear,” said Pearce, approaching the pond. 

“The AQ pond is a place you can have a lot of trouble with,” explained Janolino. “Blind people who are not as mobile as me, you have to teach them specific skills to get through that [. . .] because the general ways will not protect you getting through that pond. You either avoid all the way or memorize a specific motion to make sure you don’t fall in. And go very, very slowly.”

The four participants took approximately 15 minutes to cross the pond bridge. Wallace and Kooner narrowly avoided falling in, eventually having to crawl across. 

Janolino, who has himself fallen into the koi pond, had previously suggested to the university that they might install tactile tiles, similar to the textured tiles that mark the end of skytrain platforms, which would signal the edge of the pond pathway to visually impaired visitors. However, as of yet, no changes have been made.

The participants reached the end of the walk after an hour and 15 minutes, with minimal scrapes and bruises. Upon removing her blindfold, Kooner exclaimed, “Why do we have water things everywhere?” Wallace echoed her, saying, “Why do we have rocks that come out of the middle of nowhere?”

Potvin and Pearce were left somewhat stunned after the experience, one which Pearce feels everyone should have to go through: “You know that age old saying ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’? [. . .] I would encourage the people in charge of making decisions for the university to go outside and do what we just did, ‘walk a mile in his shoes’ so that they can understand these issues first hand.”

Refusing to turn a blind eye

In an attempt to offer SFU students with disabilities an easier way to report hazards and accessibility issues on campus, SFU’s Accessibility Fund Committee is launching an awareness campaign centered around their feedback form on the SFSS website.

The society hopes that students with accessibility issues will use the feedback form to report issues commonly faced on the Burnaby campus, so that the SFSS can take these issues to the university for consideration.

“Obviously it is a little embarrassing and demeaning to have to come into the [general] office or any office and talk about a problem that you’ve had with our campus,” said Pearce. “So, through this anonymous feedback form, any student would be able to anonymously post whatever accessibility issue they are having on our campus.”

However, SFSS members are confident that changes can be made. “It’s really just a lot of little, simple things that can be done, but need some pushing,” said Potvin.

Although the SFSS is only responsible for society space — namely, within the MBC — Potvin said that the AFAC is hoping to take “more of a lobby stance” throughout the next year. To promote awareness, they plan to host events similar to the blindfolded tour. 

Although SFU president Andrew Petter responded with hesitation to SFSS president Chardaye Bueckert’s invitation to participate on a similar walk, he did say that the university will be following the SFSS’ initiatives closely.

Though it may be a while before students like Janolino can walk across Burnaby campus unimpeded, the steps being taken for visually impaired students bode well for the future.

“It seems as though this year is filled with really proactive people from the SFSS as well as [university representatives] in our school,” Janolino concluded. “It seems as though there’s a bunch of people in different positions right now that could be really essential and pivotal to the situation, that could make it happen this time around.”

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