There are many reasons Carleton is touted as the most accessible university in Canada—from underground tunnels to accessibility projects in Uganda to the Dedicated Access Fund that supports improvement in physical accessibility on campus.
At the Art of Access event on Oct. 7, Carleton is celebrating its accessibility achievements and looking to the future as it marks the 25th anniversary of the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities (PMC) that started it all.
“Twenty-five years later is a little hard to believe, but here we are and we still remember Paul really well,” PMC Director Larry McCloskey says of the centre’s namesake.
Paul Menton, who was a Carleton grad and a quadriplegic, became the university’s first co-ordinator of the program for the disabled in 1981. He laid the foundation for many of the services in existence today that give students with disabilities an equal opportunity to succeed at university.
Although he died of liver cancer at just 37, Menton left behind an important legacy. In January 1990, Carleton opened the PMC to honour his work and continue breaking barriers for students with disabilities.
Today, the centre supports more than 2,200 students with disabilities through academic accommodations, attendant services, assistive technology, counselling and more. It’s seen a more than tenfold increase in students since 1990, made possible by the help of 1,200 student volunteers.
“We were a sideline, peripheral issue that has now become pretty mainstream in terms of university and societal thinking,” McCloskey says.
Whereas in the past students with disabilities had to fight for academic accommodation and services, today the Carleton community is proactive in offering support.
That shift in attitude has helped create new programs like the Research, Education, Accessibility and Design (READ) Initiative. Since 2011, READ has brought together the expertise of each department and discipline at Carleton to tackle accessibility projects not only on campus, but as far away as Uganda and Jamaica.
“When we view Carleton as being a leader in accessibility, we’re not just thinking internally,” says Dean Mellway, director of READ. “We’re trying to make an impact on accessibility inclusion for everybody.”
PMC has also expanded its services to tackle a broader range of disability issues. Ninety-two per cent of students using the centre today have non-visible disabilities like learning difficulties or a psychiatric diagnosis.
The From Intention to Action (FITA) program, created in 2010, is a first-of-its-kind program that provides 12 weeks of one-on-one counselling to students in academic difficulty who may also be tending towards a mental health diagnosis.
The program has boosted student graduation rates, McCloskey says, and is being piloted at the University of Toronto and Humber College this year.
Overall, students with disabilities are now graduating from Carleton at the same rate as the general population, thanks to the work that Menton started in the 1980s.
It’s a positive step, but they’re not celebrating just yet.
“When they leave the door,” Mellway says, “they’re being employed at less than 50 per cent of the general population.”
The PMC’s next goal, he says, is helping students gain valuable work experience before graduation, so they’re ready for the real world. And while education is now more accessible for students with disabilities, McCloskey and Mellway know there’s work to be done outside Carleton’s walls.
“We’re changing that attitude here in our culture,” McCloskey says. “We want to change that attitude in the greater culture.”