Fix­ing the win­dows be­fore build­ing the doors

$208 mil­lion in­fra­struc­ture project si­lent on ac­ces­si­bil­ity mod­i­fi­ca­tions

The McGill Daily - - Commentary - Brit­tany Orav-lakaski Com­men­tary Writer

On March 2, it was an­nounced that Mcgill is re­ceiv­ing $75.86 mil­lion through the Post-sec­ondary In­sti­tu­tions Strate­gic In­vest­ment Fund (SIF), on top of which they will re­ceive $5.1 mil­lion from the Que­bec gov­ern­ment. The SIF, pro­vided through In­no­va­tion, Sci­ence and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Canada (ISED), aims to pro­vide Cana­dian post-sec­ondary re­search fa­cil­i­ties with up to $2 bil­lion in fund­ing over the next three years (start­ing in 2016 — 2017) to­wards up­grad­ing and im­prov­ing their re­search fa­cil­i­ties, as a means to “at­tract and re­tain tal­ented peo­ple, boost in­no­va­tion and build a sus­tain­able econ­omy.” ISED col­lected project pro­pos­als in the spring of 2016, and the grants are awarded on a rolling ba­sis. Upon read­ing through the list of projects as listed in the McGill Re­porter ar­ti­cle, I hoped that the Uni­ver­sity would fi­nally di­rect some money to­wards the cam­pus ac­ces­si­bil­ity ren­o­va­tions that mem­bers of the com­mu­nity with mo­bil­ity re­stric­tions so des­per­ately need (see: “A Cul­ture of Ne­glect.” Jan­uary 23rd, 2017). Yet as I worked my way down the list, there was a no­tice­able ab­sence of any­thing re­lated to ac­ces­si­bil­ity-re­lated in­fra­struc­ture projects.

The SIF web­site in­cludes a list of ap­proved in­vest­ment ar­eas, and in­cludes, “Ren­o­vat­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing space to pro­mote re­search and train­ing to ad­vance sci­ence­based pol­icy-mak­ing in ar­eas such as dig­i­tal an­a­lyt­ics, bio­science, wa­ter se­cu­rity and health” as an area for po­ten­tial projects. If in­vest­ment funds can be di­rected to­wards ren­o­va­tions sur­round­ing the qual­ity of a re­search build­ing, then by the SIF’S def­i­ni­tion, plans that cen­ter on build­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity for peo­ple with mo­bil­ity im­pair­ments should be in­cluded. Many stu­dents with mo­bil­ity im­pair­ments may make the choice not to at­tend Mcgill al­to­gether, be­cause of the no­to­ri­ous in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity of its cam­pus. Mak­ing our build­ings ac­ces­si­ble would sup­port re­search by at­tract­ing the peo­ple — the very highly-tal­ented and highly- qual­i­fied peo­ple — that the pro­gram is look­ing for, but who cur­rently deem it phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble, or at least in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, to come here.

Now, some may at­tempt to ar­gue that the grant dic­tates where the fund­ing is sup­posed to be spent. When asked about the mat­ter, Jean Ouel­let, Di­rec­tor of Project Man­age­ment at Fa­cil­i­ties Man­age­ment and An­cil­lary Ser­vices, stated that, “only ex­penses di­rectly re­lated to up­grades of re­search and in­no­va­tion fa­cil­i­ties are el­i­gi­ble for fund­ing un­der the SIF pro­gram, so mak­ing build­ings more ac­ces­si­ble is un­for­tu­nately not cov­ered. How­ever, one of our big­gest projects funded out of the SIF pro­gram is the re­con­fig­u­ra­tion and up­grade of a large por­tion of the Ste­wart Bi­ol­ogy Build­ing. We will take this op­por­tu­nity to make the build­ing more ac­ces­si­ble.” How­ever, when the De­part­ment of In­no­va­tion, Sci­ence and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Canada was con­tacted, they did not in­di­cate that these lim­i­ta­tions ex­isted in the el­i­gi­bil­ity guide­lines for the Uni­ver­sity’s projects.

The SIF des­ig­nates its fund­ing to projects that sur­round ei­ther the scale, qual­ity, or en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity of the in­fra­struc­ture in ques­tion. Their web­site states that these mod­ern­iza­tions would help, “strengthen the de­vel­op­ment of highly- qual­i­fied, tal­ented peo­ple, per­form­ing world-lead­ing re­search, and gen­er­at­ing new break­through ideas.” If we think of “mod­ern­iz­ing” as ‘mak­ing ac­ces­si­ble’ (which, we should), these projects would more than qual­ify for the grant-money. What bet­ter way to “strengthen the de­vel­op­ment of highly- qual­i­fied peo­ple” than al­low them a way to com­fort­ably ac­cess the build­ing! You know that peo­ple who re­quire the use of wheel­chairs, canes, or other mo­bil­ity sup­ports are sci­en­tists?

If, for some in­com­pre­hen­si­ble rea­son, there is in fact fine print that ex­cludes us­ing the funds to­wards ac­ces­si­bil­ity ( yikes!), or per­haps if the projects are not open to sig­nif­i­cant al­ter­ations now that the ap­pli­ca­tion process has been com­pleted, then so be it. But here’s an­other thought: the SIF pro­gram is a grant that ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions must ap­ply for. If the ap­pli­ca­tion for this grant is any­thing like the highly vied-for, (and even less fi­nan­cially re­deem­ing), So­cial Sci­ences and Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Coun­cil grant (SSHRC), then the process is in­cred­i­bly gru­el­ing. De­spite this, the ad­min­is­tra­tion found it worth their while to go through the lengthy process of an ap­pli­ca­tion that would ne­ces­si­tate highly de­tailed fi­nan­cial and lo­gis­ti­cal fore­sight in or­der to se­cure the grant; and, low and be­hold, it worked! But here’s the thing: there are also grants for im­prov­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fers the En­abling Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Fund, which pro­vides cap­i­tal costs for con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tion to im­prove the phys­i­cal ac­ces­si­bil­ity and safety for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in their com­mu­nity and work­place. It has of­fered grants to Uni­ver­sity of Water­loo, Car­leton Uni­ver­sity, and Al­go­nquin Col­lege. As it turns out, Mcgill has not ap­plied for the grant since it was re­jected in 2007 - 7 years ago! Fur­ther­more, through the Gov­ern­ment of Canada’s News Re­lease on the fund­ing, it ap­pears that McGill “and uni­ver­sity part­ners” will be foot­ing the rest of the $ 127.63 mil­lion that re­mains on their stated $204.2 mil­lion bud­get for the nine projects. So even if we are lim­ited by the pa­ram­e­ters of the fund­ing con­di­tions, surely Mcgill could have used some of its own money, which it is clearly will­ing to spend de­spite claims of “aus­ter­ity,” to­wards ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

I’m not say­ing the fund­ing isn’t an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity, or that the projects in ques­tion are un­de­serv­ing. The issue is one of pri­or­i­ti­za­tion. Ev­ery move made by an in­sti­tu­tion like Mcgill is cal­cu­lated. The money is found for “mod­ern­iza­tion,” but seems to go miss­ing for ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Take the new “Har­vard-like” build­ing signs. Frankly, I would hope that we care far less about the moder­nity of our build­ings signs than the abil­ity of our fel­low class­mates, col­leagues, and pro­fes­sors to be able to safely and con­fi­dently ac­cess the cam­pus. For all the em­pha­sis Mcgill is cur­rently putting on be­ing “cut­tingedge” and “in­no­va­tive,” it’s kind of a won­der it didn’t think to fo­cus on get­ting peo­ple into the build­ings in the first place.

Rahma Wiry­omartono | The Mcgill Daily

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