Students talk accessibility at SFU

Photo courtesy of SFU

In a push to improve the organization’s accessibility, the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) hosted an open forum for students to engage in accessibility dialogue.

Held over two days, the sessions saw a handful of student participants who gathered to discuss issues and brainstorm solutions to help accommodate the needs of a diverse student body.

SFU student Micaela Evans, who coordinated the event, was hired on by the society as the temporary Accessibility Project Worker. She will be working until the end of the month to put together a final report of her assessments and suggestions on how to address accessibility needs that are not being met.

Items of discussion at the focus group included revising SFSS Food and Beverage Services (FBS) policies, creating spaces for students with disabilities in the new Student Union Building (SUB), ensuring that clubs and Departmental Student Unions (DSU) make accessibility considerations, and putting a scent-free policy in place.

Conversations around the FBS addressed a need to better account for students with allergies and dietary restrictions. Participants shared their varied experiences and said that they have found it to be inconsistent. Evans said she will work on trying to firm up policy around this so it is not “changing all the time. I don’t think that’s very fair,” she added.

“Equity should be more important, because that means that everyone is on the same playing field.”

Micaela Evans,

Accessibility Project Worker, SFSS

They expressed a desire for venues dedicated to accommodating sensitivities, such as ‘nut-free,’ or entirely vegan restaurants. It was also suggested that SFSS food establishments keep a list of the ingredients that go into each of their items as well as possible cross-contamination information available to consumers upon request.

The focus group saw the SUB as a place to create safe spaces for students with accessibility needs. Some suggestions included a space with low sensory stimulation — a “zen room” — for people to escape foods or scents to which they are allergic, as well as overstimulation from things like fluorescent lighting and excessive noise. It was also brought up that there is a lack of 24-hour safe space for those who do not identify as women.

Evans remarked that Build SFU has expressed a willingness to dedicate space for disabled students, given that students expressed a desire for it and that Students United for Disability Support (SUDS) could grow its membership.

She commented that both SUDS and the SFSS Accessibility Fund Advisory Committee suffered from a lack of participation, saying that the committee does not meet regularly, only when specific items are brought to the table.

Aside from her final report, Evans is also compiling an event guide for clubs and DSUs that will help them make their events as inclusive as possible. She explained that while the SFSS can make suggestions, there is not a lot they can do yet to hold groups accountable for accessibility issues.

Evans noted that the SFSS website also needs some work: “Websites need to be looked at from a dyslexic standpoint, from a screen reader standpoint.” She explained the challenges of ensuring that screen reader programs will recognize and voice all words on the page for the visually impaired, also mentioning that it could prove difficult for students who struggle with dyslexia.

Much of the discussion centred around students’ experiences with SFU’s academic protocol and the physical layout of the campus. Students expressed a desire for professors to keep accessibility in mind when structuring their courses and suggested that the university provide optional education for faculty. One large concern was the challenges SFU poses for those with physical disabilities; It was also noted that there seems to be a lack of accessible pathways and safe zones for emergency drills.

While the SFSS cannot directly effect changes such as these, Evans intends to share the data they have collected with the university and give voice to the participants’ suggestions to the administration.

To conclude, Evans remarked upon the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘equity.’ She explained that equality is about everyone having the same tools, while “equity should be more important, because that means that everyone is on the same playing field.”