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October 24, 2002 Mobility challenges don't daunt these students



Teri-Lee Walters

André Faubert

Patrick Lefebvre

Photos by Christian Johnson

by Christian Johnson

Teri-Lee Walters, a 27-year-old second-year human relations student at Concordia University, hates getting caught between doors, alone, in an undersized restroom, in her wheelchair.

“What makes it worse is that some restrooms have doors that do not swing out. When you push them in and the space is too small for the wheelchair to go through, you can be stuck there for quite a while, until someone else comes to your rescue,” she said.

André Faubert, 19, who is in first year psychology, has been stuck in his wheelchair on a lift situated between two sets of stairs in the CC building on the Loyola campus. The first time, he had to be carried by four construction workers who had to be summoned from their work on the new science building. “Lately, the lift has been working very well. In a matter of minutes, security is there to help,” he said.

Patrick Lefebvre, a 26-year-old student in his first year of journalism, said that once, while waiting for an elevator with his mother at the Hall building, she had to ask people to please make space so that he could get in. “People looked at us strangely. Some got out to make space for us. Others didn’t move.”

However, all three students are extremely happy with the environment at the university, “They treat you really, really, really well,” Lefebvre said. “I am surprised.”

Faubert acknowledged that from the first day of class he has been making “tons of new friends. The university has even changed classrooms to meet my mobility requirements.”

He has an inherited neurological condition that has caused a loss of strength in his extremities such that he requires an electric wheelchair. He is studying psychology full-time.

Lefebvre wants to become a TV journalist. “To be honest, I want to go into sports broadcasting. I like sports, and since I can’t play any sports, I think I can talk about it. I am not going to lie to you, I want to work on TV because I want to make lots of money. It’s highly competitive. I know because I have many friends in the media.”

Teri-Lee, who suffered a sports-related accident when she was 13 years old, said, “I came to Concordia because I wanted to work with people.”

She is now involved in organizing an association for disabled students at Concordia. “Students here need a voice — to organize and hold events, to help change attitudes — an association open to anyone, with or without disabilities, learning from each other.” The association has just been accredited by the CSU.

Increasing numbers of people with disabilities are choosing to pursue their studies. They cherish their independence and wish to develop their full potential as human beings. Leo Bissonnette, Coordinator for the Office for Disabled Students, said, “More and more, people with disabilities are successfully being integrated from lower levels of education, right up to the university level.”

Bissonnette said, “More than 10,000 students go through the Hall Building daily. Escalators don’t always work, lighting has to be improved in many areas, elevators are deficient, [but] attitudes and standards are changing over time.”

He believes that the new buildings under construction will reflect great improvements. From the first stages of the design, there has been extensive consultation among the people who will be using them, including a checklist that covers everything from doorknobs to illumination, and from the laboratory facilities to the size and access to elevators. “We have learned a lot in the past 15 years, and we are putting it into practice.”

Bissonette added that the Concordia Office for Disabled Students is highly efficient within a national context. The Office for Disabled Students, created in 1980, is a student-centered facility that offers a range of academic and support services for students with special requirements.

This year, there are 574 students with disabilities. Of those, 278 suffer from learning disabilities, 57 have limited mobility, 40 are visually impaired, 36 have hearing impairments and 118 have other health limitations.

Teri-Lee Walters has a list of goals. She’d like to see “more accessible restrooms to avoid embarrassing situations; larger elevators so that you don’t have to run over other peoples’ toes with your wheelchair; improved attitudes among teachers and other students; eliminating overcrowded classrooms where students with wheelchairs become safety hazards because they are forced to occupy the entrance; and making sure that all main accesses to the buildings have door-opening buttons that are in working order.”

For Lefebvre, who has cerebral palsy and lives on the South Shore, coming to class requires great effort. He can’t take the métro, and the adapted transport for disabled people does not go over the bridges to his neighbourhood, so he has to take a taxi, which costs $100 per day.

The government of Quebec reimburses these costs only for attending classes, doctor’s appointments or going to work. If he needs to go to the library or take part in extra curricular activities, he must pay for his transportation himself, and at those rates, it can become impossible.

Attitudes are a major issue for the mobility-impaired. Patrick has some sad memories from his high school days. “When I came to dating age, some classmates made fun at me. People didn’t think I could have a girlfriend, and it hurt sometimes. I like girls, and I want to be taken seriously when it comes to the opposite sex.”

Leo Bissonnette agreed. “In reality, people are fixed on their own agendas — me first, you later. Individual experience, such as having a disabled person in the family, determines generosity. Our office is continuously working to sensitize students and faculty about people with disabilities.”

In a community environment, such as at Concordia, shared concern is an ideal. “We want to be treated equally,” Walters said. “Times have changed. We have rights. Positive attitudes reinforce positive actions, and communication is a two-way street.”

We are all an accident or an illness away from potential disability, and many of us will become disabled. Walters jokingly said, “People with limited mobility refer to people without mobility impairment as TABs, or Temporarily Abled Bodies.”