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Creating an accessible learning environment

By Laura Barron | May 15, 2014

Coming to university can be an overwhelming experience for any new student. For students with disabilities, the transition from high school to university can seem all the more daunting.

First-year student Monica Oake has used a wheelchair since she sustained injuries in a car accident as a small child. Ms. Oake comes to Memorial from the small community of Long Island, in central Newfoundland. With a K-12 school population of four students – including Monica and her younger sister, Laura – the transition to a university with more than 18,000 students has been a significant adjustment.

Despite the shift, Ms. Oake has felt welcome and supported at Memorial. She and her parents applaud the services available, as well as the individuals and teams who have helped to accommodate her throughout her studies.

“The accommodations have made things easier for me,” said Ms. Oake. “Everyone, the lab instructors, professors and the Blundon Centre have been super accommodating.”

As part of her introduction to Memorial, Ms. Oake and her parents met with the team at the Glenn Roy Blundon Centre, a division of the Counselling Centre. The Blundon Centre provides and co-ordinates programs and services that enable students with disabilities to maximize their educational potential. Their team also works to increase awareness of inclusive values among all members of the university community.

In the spring and summer of 2013, prior to her first semester in the fall, the Blundon Centre gave Ms. Oake two personal tours of the St. John’s campus. The tours included several routes for Monica to travel throughout campus, and helped to familiarize her with the resources on campus. The Blundon Centre, led by manager Ruth North, also collaborated with an occupational therapist, the carpentry shop in Facilities Management, the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Biology to examine classrooms and labs in order to ensure Ms. Oake’s wheelchair could be accommodated.

“The greatest thing, I think, has been the labs. In my chemistry lab, for example, the benches were really high, so they put something underneath, so I can reach it, and it can be tucked away when I’m not there. And my lab instructor, Jenny Kim, she has been great. If I needed extra time with assignments, she gave it to me. That was really good. If I needed something, everyone was really supportive and helpful.”

“People are incredibly supportive across our campuses,” said Ms. North. “There are faculty and staff who have invested a lot of time, interest and concern, and who genuinely care about creating an accessible learning environment for students. It’s a team of people who make learning possible for students. It is the carpenter who builds the laboratory accommodations, the lab instructors and professors who support students, and it’s the departments, faculties and schools who work together to create an inclusive learning environment. Also, in the new Accommodations for Students with Disabilities Policy, there is more of an emphasis on partnership and collaboration in providing accommodations. It’s not just the Blundon Centre; it’s a collaborative effort.”

While the Blundon Centre provides services and supports for students with disabilities year-round, they also work to accommodate students with temporary disabilities.

First-year engineering student Evan Kearley broke his leg just prior to the beginning of his first semester. As he prepared to begin Orientation 2013 in a wheelchair, unaware of the supports available on campus, the Office of the Registrar let Mr. Kearley know that the Blundon Centre could help him navigate through campus and set up any wheelchair access he might need. A last-minute email to the Blundon Centre helped to prepare him for orientation and for his first semester on campus. For Mr. Kearley, the Blundon Centre helped to make it possible for him to participate in classes and to travel between classes.

“One of the big things was, when I had registered for my courses originally, there was a chemistry lab I needed to take for engineering, and the lab wasn’t wheelchair accessible, so I couldn’t actually get in there. So, they ended up building a wheelchair desk in the chemistry lab to make it accessible. That was one major accommodation because, that way, I could actually participate in the lab and finish the course. Same thing with the other rooms I had classes in. I originally had one class in the Education building, 10 minutes after I had a class in the Science building. It’s hard enough running between classes, but in a wheelchair, 10 minutes isn’t enough time, so they moved one of my classes to the Engineering building, which was much easier to travel to from the Science building.”

While Mr. Kearley’s request for accommodation took place just days before classes commenced, the Blundon Centre was still able to co-ordinate the accommodations he needed to pursue the courses required for his program. For new and current students, Ms. North recommends they get in touch with the Blundon Centre as early as possible, in order to allow for time to consider requests and to look at which accommodations can be put in place at the university. Students at Grenfell Campus may contact the Learning Centre and those at the Marine Institute may get in touch with Disability Services.

“Certainly, the earlier students contact the Blundon Centre, the better,” said Ms. North. “We do everything we reasonably can to facilitate accommodations for students with disabilities so they have an equal opportunity to achieve their educational goals. The key thing is to get in touch as early as possible when requesting an accommodation.”

Ms. Oake also recommends that new students introduce themselves to the team at the Blundon Centre before the semester begins.

“That way, it’s not so overwhelming when you do need accommodations,” she said. “University is a big change. It takes a while to get used to, but it is pretty fun. I find getting around campus really good. There are wheelchair buttons everywhere to open doors, and if they’re not working, they are quickly fixed the next day. If something doesn’t work, you can just ask someone. Everyone is really nice.”

While Ms. Oake is living in St. John’s during the academic semesters, her father has moved into the city with her, to ensure she is supported at her home away from home. While at school, Ms. Oake navigates campus on her own, though she feels supported by the faculty, staff and students she is working and studying with. She looks forward to her sister joining her at Memorial in a few years, bringing another bit of home to her life as a university student.

Ms. North emphasizes that helping students feel comfortable and supported on campus are top priorities for the team at the Blundon Centre.

“We know each of the students who use the Blundon Centre’s services,” said Ms. North. “They’re not just a number; we know them by name.”

Memorial’s Blundon Centre, in partnership with individuals and teams across the university, is committed to student success. Memorial’s students, faculty and staff are working together to support inclusive education based on the principles of equity, accessibility and collaboration.

“Memorial is a great place to study,” said Ms. North. “We offer services that are comparable to those offered at campuses across the country and beyond. We offer a wonderful, supportive team of people here who genuinely care about students.”

For more information on the Blundon Centre and the Accommodations for Students with Disabilities Policy, visit mun.ca/blundon