11th September 2012
In-person and online accessibility training available for orientation leaders from all faculties
By Alison Shouldice, Features Editor
This year was the first that Arts and Science frosh group leaders were informed of special accommodations needed by their first-year students before Frosh Week began. (Tiffany Lam)
The Orientation Roundtable has provided Frosh Week leaders with additional training in the hopes that they will be better prepared to deal with accessibility issues.
This year, approximately 50 Frosh Week leaders from various faculties signed up for an opt-in accessibility training session, which extends on the basic mandatory online training traditionally provided for all faculties.
According to Head Gael Aanjalie Collure, 2012 was the first year Arts and Science Frosh Week leaders, Gaels, were directly notified of any special accommodations needed by their frosh. The information was provided confidentially to them prior to Frosh Week.
“In previous years it would have been the responsibility of the Gaels to find out from the first years telling them about it … or we would train them to try to read the vibes they were getting if there was one person who wasn’t participating as much,” Collure, ArtSci ’13 said.
Many orientation weeks at Queen’s involve numerous physical components, leaving some to feel excluded.
When Justine Fehr’s Gaels put up 50 photos online from Frosh Week, she noticed she was only in one of them. Fehr, ArtSci ’13 missed a significant portion of her Frosh Week due to her condition.
At age 16, she was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition and had an internal pain pump inserted into her body that regulated the distribution of the medication.
Although not visibly disabled, Fehr feels pain on a daily basis and also deals with intermittent flare-ups. The pain pump, which is located in her spine and abdomen, creates physical limitations that barr her from taking part in certain activities.
Fehr encountered many physical challenges during her Frosh Week in 2009 that impeded her ability to fully participate in each event.
“When we were doing the Shinerama stuff in the gym on the bleachers, I ended up having to just excuse myself because standing on bleachers that are bouncing while everyone’s cheering … it’s really uncomfortable,” she said.
During residence orientation, the ban on bringing bottled water into the stands left her in a difficult situation.
“I had thought ahead and brought all my water because I had to take my meds and didn’t know before I got to the stadium that we weren’t allowed water bottles,” she said. “So it got dumped, and I had no money and no way to take my pills.”
Although these events took place three years ago, she still remembers how some of them left her feeling excluded. Seeing the photo album her Gaels posted was “disheartening,” she said, since she felt many members of her frosh group didn’t recognize her as part of the group.
According to the Orientation Roundtable (ORT), a form is distributed to incoming frosh and NEWTS before Orientation Week, which allows them to identify any special needs or accommodations during the week. The form is then passed onto ORT members who can arrange special accommodations through Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS).
Fehr said she received and filled one of these forms before Frosh Week began, however when she arrived the first day of orientation, it was clear her Gaels knew nothing of her illness.
“I don’t know if that was a lost in transit sort of thing. They didn’t seem to have any idea of what I was talking about.”
While her Gaels responded positively and did their best to accommodate her needs, the nature of the activities themselves was beyond what they could change.
Since she had been diagnosed several years earlier, Fehr wasn’t cautious about telling her frosh leaders about her pain, but this may not be the case for all students.
“I know if I had been a year or two younger coming into school, I probably wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to tell my Gael about it. The fact that my information wasn’t passed on from the Roundtable to my Gael, it would have made a huge difference in that scenario.”
According to Hannah Davis, director of IT services, accessibility and sustainability for ORT, faculty planning committees take part in accessibility training, but it’s not mandatory for frosh leaders to take part.
“Training your [frosh] leaders about accessibility is less important [than orientation committees], because at that level, they’re not planning things,” Davis, PheKin ’14 said.
ORT guides each faculty’s orientation committee to plan events to be as accessible as possible, but they don’t have a say in how they end up.
“We’re not there to tell [each faculty] what to do or anything like that. We’re just a resource to help them,” she said.
Going through Disability Services rather than ORT or ASUS helped Courtney Weaver, ArtSci ’14, get comfortable prior to Frosh Week.
Weaver, who has mild asperger’s syndrome, contacted Disability Services before Frosh Week. They arranged to have her meet her frosh leaders beforehand in order to quell her worries.
Once informed, she said they did a good job making this special arrangement for her.
“Disability Services was very good about it, but you have to make your request known first,” she said.
If she hadn’t had the opportunity to meet her Gaels beforehand, Weaver said she’s not sure the same type of vigilance would have been paid by her Orientation Week leaders. Founder of Queen’s InvisAbilities, Julie Harmgardt, ArtSci ’12, has concerns regarding the ORT special accommodation forms.
“I’m not even sure where those go to be honest. I’m really curious to know if they’re actually taken into consideration. Are they given to the frosh leaders?”
ORT was not available for comment on the issue.
Harmgardt started Queen’s InvisAbilities in 2009 to raise awareness about invisible illnesses on campus. She herself was diagnosed with arthritis when she was in her second-year at the University.
Although she hadn’t been diagnosed when she first came to Queen’s, after her diagnosis she looked back and realized how inaccessible some Frosh Week events were.
“A lot of the activities I found with Frosh Week are very physical. They’re based on people running, people sprinting, diving and all these very physical things. There’s no way I could have ever done that,” she said.
Running during Commerce frosh events is one of the most troubling activities, she said, as it plays such an integral role in the faculty’s orientation events. “What would we do? That’s all they do all day. They run. So automatically you’re labeled as weird because why aren’t you running,” she said. “Or if you attempt to run, you’re hurting yourself.”
Harmgardt said the unsanctioned consumption of alcohol during frosh week can pose a problem for students who can’t drink due to their condition or medication they may have to take, according to Harmgardt.
“A lot of people I’ve spoken to say that was one of the most awkward experiences in residence,” she said.
Because of this, students with illnesses may feel like they need to disclose their condition to people they don’t yet trust, she said.
Harmgardt acknowledges that while there’s no simple solution to accommodate everybody, the amount of activities that involve physicality in Frosh Week should be reduced.
According to Heidi Penning, Equity Officer at the University’s Equity Office, by law, all orientation leaders must take accessibility training, as outlined in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
However the online training may not result in optimal learning, she said.
“What we’re hoping to achieve with the online is to pique people’s interest (in accessibility issues),” Penning said.
The Engineering Society (EngSoc) requires that one FREC from each frosh group take the in-person training.
“We make sure to notify that person if there is someone who needs special accommodations,” EngSoc Orientation Chair Andrew Turvey said.
Turvey, Sci ’14, said there is no set accessibility policy for EngSoc frosh events, but they do make special accommodations for those who need them.
“We encourage frosh to stay within groups,” he said. “But we do find other constructive ways to get involved, whether that’s cheering or playing a more logistical role for the event.”