Carleton establishes itself as a world leader in accessibility

Rick Hansen, a tireless advocate for disability rights and long-time supporter of Carleton’s accessibility initiatives, spoke about how the summit represents a milestone on the road to a truly accessible and inclusive world at the accessibility summit held in July. (Chris Roussakis photo)

Carleton University established itself as a world leader in accessibility at the 2014 International Summit on Accessibility with many of its initiatives and programs setting examples for other organizations and institutions worldwide.

“The passion and dedication I saw at the summit to create accessible and inclusive communities was very evident,” says Suzanne Blanchard, Carleton vice-president (Students and Enrolment). “The diversity of our participants has brought the conversation about accessibility to a higher level.”

A key victory for the summit is the work it has created for those dedicated to making a difference, says David Berman, a Carleton grad and accessible design expert.

“I know that it doesn’t end at this summit, I know that most of us are leaving this summit with more work,” says Berman, “and I know that this summit ends when every project that came out if this summit ends.”

The conference, held in Ottawa from July 12 to 15, has inspired collaboration between like-minded people that would have otherwise never been possible, he says. Experts from various fields such as business, technology and education got a chance to combine their knowledge and passion and come up with ideas about the most innovative and effective steps forward in the evolution of a truly accessible world.

“Together, we’re inventing the future,” says Berman. “Our children will grow up in a world where inclusiveness is just all they know.”

Carleton’s efforts on this front include a specialized program that focuses on providing support at the university for students who may be suffering from mental health issues. From Intention to Action (FITA) is a program developed by the Paul Menton Centre (PMC) and provides individual support for students who are concerned about their mental health or are feeling overwhelmed by university.

“Awareness campaigns are really important and up the game in terms of expectation, but we actually have to meet that expectation and FITA is our attempt at doing that,” says PMC director Larry McCloskey.

With more than 250 participants last year, results show the program helped significantly improve students’ mental health and attitudes towards their education.

“The conclusion that we’ve arrived at is that it’s possible to increase access and to improve mental health and prevent problems,” says John Meissner, an Ottawa-based psychologist who helped develop the program.

McCloskey and Meissner gave a presentation on FITA that engaged summit delegates in a brainstorming exercise to work collaboratively to overcome issues of mental health in post-secondary institutions and welcomed them to adopt FITA’s model.

Carleton is also making itself more financially accessible with the launch of a new scholarship for students with disabilities and funded by the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW).

The Susan Scott-Parker Scholarship, announced on July 14, is valued at $1,000 and will be awarded to a student recommended by the PMC. Scott-Parker is a Carleton grad and an expert in the field of business and accessibility. She hopes that colleges and universities across Canada will adopt similar initiatives.

But Carleton’s work as a leader in accessibility extends far beyond campus.

In 2012, members of the School of Industrial Design teamed up with Carleton’s CanUgan Initiative to provide assistive devices to Ugandans with physical disabilities in order to meet their mobility and communication needs.

CanUgan is part of Carleton’s Research, Education, Accessibility and Design Initiative (READ), which, along with the PMC, is responsible for the majority of accessibility initiatives at the university.

The project’s most successful innovation yet is a hand-powered tricycle. This locally-designed and built device has solved the mobility challenges and, in turn, the financial needs of many Ugandans.

“Big companies and corporations do not consider the actual needs of the world’s majority population because they’re not seen as viable consumers because they’re sustaining themselves on $1.25 a day or less. Of course, people with disabilities represent the poorest of the poor in these countries,” says Carleton industrial design professor Bjarki Hallgrimsson.

 

He and other members of Carleton’s CanUgan Initiative stressed the importance of making locals part of initiatives in order for projects to be sustainable. They also urged delegates to adopt these practices in any similar initiatives their organizations might undertake.

The International Summit on Accessibility was the first-ever event to bring together some of the world’s most innovative thinkers in the field of accessible and to address barriers in all aspects of life for people with disabilities.

The final word was given to Rick Hansen, Canada’s advocacy leader for disability rights as well as a longstanding supporter of Carleton’s accessibility initiatives.

He says that, although the work is far from being done, a large gathering of so many like-minded, passionate, and knowledgeable people is a milestone on the journey towards a truly accessible and inclusive world.

“I tend to compare this summit to one that I helped put together a long time ago called Independence ’92,” said Hansen. “I think this conference would be aptly named interdependence–interdependence being that signal of strength, maturity and the capacity of how we’ve evolved to not be alone in our fears and self-determination, to recognize that together we are stronger and that no one gets anywhere on their own.

“Imagine the magnitude and the potential inside of that notion.”

 

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