More than 50% of TDSB schools have barriers to people with disabilities Talia Ricci , CBC News
Posted: Aug 19, 2021
Toronto teacher Karyn Bugelli says she’s overwhelmed by recent support from her school and neighbours as she adjusts to life in a wheelchair. As Talia Ricci reports, the situation has motivated the TDSB to make the school more accessible – but there’s still a long way to go.
When Karyn Bugelli first learned she wouldn’t walk again, she says one of the first things that came to mind was one of her former students.
“He had something go wrong with his spine and he ended up in a wheelchair. I was instructing him while he waited to get into another school, because Malvern wasn’t accessible,” she said.
Bugelli has worked as both a teacher and a guidance counsellor at Malvern Collegiate Institute in Toronto’s east-end for the past 15 years.
“I remember thinking at the time, what a terrible thing that a Grade 9 student will have to move away from his friends and move to a new school in this day and age.” Now she feels an even deeper connection to that student.
Last October, Bugelli was experiencing what she thought was common back pain – but it wasn’t going away. Tests determined she had a cancerous tumour on her spine. She underwent chemotherapy but eventually had to have the tumour removed. That operation meant she was cancer-free, but would remain paralyzed from the waist down and would have to use a wheelchair.
After being rooted in a school and community she loved for more than a decade, she hoped there was a way she could continue working there, and so did her colleagues. According to data provided by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), more than 50 per cent of its schools are not accessible. Bugelli hopes her situation sparks change so future students and staff can work and learn in accessible buildings.
Bugelli said her principal and colleagues have been very supportive. One even started a GoFundMe to help with renovations to make her home more accessible, which has raised more than $55,000. Multiple messages on the page from former students say Bugelli was their favourite teacher.
“It’s basically overwhelming. It’s an indescribable feeling really. You feel like you don’t deserve it. But you really just can’t believe what people will do to help you out,” Bugelli said. She added that friends, neighbours and colleagues also brought her family meals, offered to walk her dog and continue to send her motivating texts in the morning.
“I think it will be a big learning curve, and I think there’s a lot of barriers I haven’t seen before,” she said.
“But I will now.”
More than 50% of TDSB schools not accessible
In a statement, the TDSB says it has audited all of its schools and created site-specific profiles on their accessibility. During the audit, schools were categorized as either accessible, somewhat accessible, or not accessible.
Accessible is defined as allowing independent access into and throughout the building and providing a barrier-free washroom, while somewhat accessible does not meet the full criteria but provides independent access to the building, a barrier-free washroom on the main level and no level disruptions to entry.
According to the data provided to CBC News, the board found 153 schools are accessible, 114 are somewhat accessible and 276 as not accessible. The TDSB estimates it would cost between $750 million and $1 billion to make all its schools barrier-free to people with disabilities.
Sandy Kaskens, principal at Malvern C.I., says she felt an overwhelming sense of admiration for Bugelli when she received a text from her about whether she’d be able to do her job in a wheelchair.
“Her first communication was about how she can return to work and continue serving the community,” she said. “I thought, ‘Okay, what do I need to do to make sure she can return to Malvern.”‘
Kaskens explained that for Bugelli to get into her office an exterior ramp needs to be installed at the door where the parking lot is located and a stair-lift to access the main floor will also need to be installed. There will also have to be an accessible washroom. Like Bugelli, Kaskens was reminded of students who had to transfer because the high school isn’t fully accessible.
“A process has started, but I am learning that accessibility at TDSB schools is really a massive project. It’s not just Malvern,” she said, adding that she has known for a long time that accessibility needed improvement across the board.
But now the issue feels close to home.
“When someone close to you, someone you’re responsible for professionally, suddenly has accessibility needs, you see the barriers much more.”
Learning how to live in a wheelchair
Bugelli has been staying at the University Health Network’s Lyndhurst Centre. Dr. Anthony Burns, a physiatrist at the facility, says the spinal cord rehabilitation program helps people like Bugelli transition back to home and work, while remaining as independent as possible.
“Here at the centre, as you can imagine it’s an ideal environment, an accessible set-up for people with spinal cord injuries,” he said.
“But it’s a significant transition when they return to the community because, unfortunately, they will encounter barriers, not all of the environments within the home and outside the home will be accessible.”
Burns says part of their program is to help individuals solve problems in these situations.
“When I’m out and about I certainly note people with mobility impairments and some of the challenges they face,” he said.
“I think we have a long way to go, we need to do a better job as a society of increasing access for individuals with impairments to fully engage in the workplace.”
Bugelli says she can’t wait to return to the job she loves. Reflecting on her former student and the road ahead, she says she hopes everybody will be able to attend fully accessible schools in the near future.
“If it starts with me, maybe something good can come out of all this.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she’s not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.