When Sarah Anderson arrived early to her evening class at the University of Winnipeg (U of W), the classroom door was closed. The university was virtually empty that night, she says, and she was alone in the hallway.
Most students in this situation would likely enter the classroom and take their usual seat. Anderson, who uses a power wheelchair, couldn’t open the classroom door on her own.
Anderson is now the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) community liaison director, and she’s spearheading the More Than a Door campaign. Launched in November by the UWSA, the campaign is in the process of installing and activating more than 100 accessible doors across the U of W campus.
The closed classroom door serves as a reminder for Anderson that “as a disabled person, you’re kind of at the mercy of others’ kindness.” She says this lack of fully accessible university spaces impacted both her ability to attend classes and her sense of autonomy and dignity. She wasn’t alone.
“I took a barrier that I had for myself, and I decided to reach out. If it was a problem for me, it was a problem for more than just me,” Anderson says.
Yet, the onus often falls on disabled students to educate others about their needs. Anderson and the many other students in similar situations regularly have to work harder to receive what able-bodied students receive without question.
For Anderson, representation holds the promise of greater understanding and the potential to drive change.
“Disability is not something that I think that you can advocate through a textbook understanding of it,” she says. “It takes living with it or knowing someone closely that lives with it to be able to advocate meaningfully and powerfully to these issues.”
Dr. Pauline Greenhill, a disability-studies professor at the U of W, says barriers continue to impede the “full participation of students, staff and faculty with disabilities on campus.”
“For example, there’s the irony that the disability-studies office ... (is) located on the fourth floor of Graham Hall. It’s accessible for those with mobility issues only by an elevator that regularly breaks down,” Greenhill says.
Since the disability-studies program was founded in 2010, it has never once had a tenure track or even term faculty hire, Greenhill says.
“Every year, we ask for a position in disability studies. Every year, the administration refuses.”
Increasing the number of accessible doors on campus is just one step in making education accessible to students with disabilities.
For Anderson, the campaign “is not about doors. I want that to be clear. It’s about independence. It’s about dignity.”
“It’s both being a valued and recognized member of our community. Every silver button (that opens an accessible door) is a reminder that we’re acknowledged and that we’re heard and our needs are being matched at the institutional level,” Anderson says.
For Anderson, the campaign is a challenge to those without disabilities to “recognize that the most impactful barriers are often the ones that are right in front of your face.”
The More Than a Door campaign is still in the process of installing and activating accessible doors in 18 buildings on the U of W campus. For more information, visit theuwsa.ca/morethanadoor.
Published in Volume 77, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 5, 2023)