“It was a giant pit,” said Sarah Mueller. “It had steps, but they were hard to see because they were the same colour as the carpet that lined the whole pit. And the walkway around it was narrow. There was no way I could get my electric chair around it.”
Mueller, chairperson of the SCDSB’s Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC), was recalling a visit to a school library a few years ago. The reading pit, a large sunken area in the library, was a popular feature found in several schools that were built in the 70s and early 80s—a feature that the SCDSB is in the process of filling in at these schools to create more accessible spaces.
The AAC is a team of community members and staff who advise the board on matters relating to facility and service accessibility. A key part of finding out what issues students and staff with accessibility needs face are the Accessibility Audits. Members of the AAC plan two or three audit days each school year to get a first-hand look at how people get around in a school. Each of these days includes a visit to two or three schools – depending on the school needs.
“Newer schools tend to be faster as they are more accessible than the older schools,” Mueller says. “They aren’t without their issues, but overall they are quite good.”
Some of the issues can be quite small, like putting the soap dispenser too high in a washroom or needing to install D-ring door handles instead of round ones. Some issues have been larger, such as filling in the reading pits.
“School boards across the province have a duty to remove and prevent barriers against people with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code,” said Doug Mein, AAC vice-chair. “It is also essential that existing disability barriers in schools be removed without creating new ones at the same time.”
The group starts their audit from the moment they get to the school—how accessible is the parking, are the ramps visible and at the right grade. They visit the office, check signage and look for possible obstacles. Do the stairs have strips for people with low vision? Would students using mobility devices, or on crutches, be able to navigate the cafeteria?
“It’s important for us to go out to the schools to see directly how accessibility is being handled,” says AAC member Albert Stein. “If we don’t visit the schools, we’ll never know how things work for those with accessibility issues, be it mobility, vision, hearing or other needs.”
The group visits classrooms, the library, gym, washrooms, the staff room—everywhere a person might go in the school. Once the audit is complete, a report is written and submitted to SCDSB staff for review and action as needed. A member of the board’s Facility Services team goes along on the audit to respond to questions and take notes.
“Our goal is to be as accessible as possible,” says Steve Parker, SCDSB Manager of Design and Construction. “Our newer schools meet, and often exceed, the accessibility standards set out by the government. Some of our older buildings do require a lot of work to become accessible, but we work with staff at these schools to ensure that anyone with accessibility needs can learn and work in a safe, welcoming environment.”
Parker adds, “The work the AAC does helps us by providing us with insight from the perspective of someone using the accessibility features at one of our schools. We value the work the committee does—it’s important to ask our community members how our schools and facilities work for them.”
“I find it great to go back to a school we have audited in the past and see that they made changes that the AAC recommended,” Mueller adds. “It shows the importance of having these audits. And, it feels good to know that we make a direct and positive impact on school communities.”
In addition to the audits, the AAC meets regularly to discuss accessibility issues and opportunities for staff and students, and writes the SCDSB Multi-Year Accessibility Plan which outlines the measures that the SCDSB will take to identify, remove and prevent barriers at schools and other facilities.
To learn more about the AAC, or to read the Multi-Year Accessibility Plan, visit http://scdsb.on.ca/Board/Pages/Accessibility-Standards.aspx