Access lab revamped for students with disabilities

Special to Western NewsThe Linda and Walter Zimmerman Access Lab provides a revamped, brightened and modernized space for the roughly 3,000 students with disabilities at the university. The lab is located on the ground level of The D.B. Weldon Library. Ashton-Nicola Forrest, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Philosophy (centre), is overjoyed with upgrades made to the space.

At one point, it was a darkroom. Later, it turned into a room where librarians counted coins from photocopiers. It also served as a storage closet. And then, more than a decade ago, with few changes to the space, the small room on the ground level of The D.B. Weldon Library, became an access lab for students with disabilities.

“I remember when we first got that space provided to us by the library. It was dark and dingy,” said Wendy Dickinson, Acting Associate Director of Services for Students with Disabilities at Western. “We worked with the University Students’ Council (USC) and got some money and equipped it with technology students didn’t have access to anywhere else. It worked fairly well, but it was dark and not welcoming. It didn’t have an automatic door opener for the longest time.”

Today, with support from former Western staff members Linda and Walter Zimmerman, that same space has been revamped, brightened and modernized to improve accessibility and comfort for the roughly 3,000 students with disabilities at the university. Officially opened last week, the room reflects the Zimmermans’ support in its name – The Linda and Walter Zimmerman Access Lab.

“All students would report – disability or not – that study space is hard to come by. This room was needed, but under-utilized because it wasn’t a good place to be. Now, it is a space to be envious of and says to students with disabilities, ‘We not only value you, but we have a space for you to work with your peers and mentors,’” Dickinson continued.

The room features numerous upgrades. Its ceiling was raised to make it feel bigger. Its walls were painted to make it brighter. It features adjustable and dimmable lights for students who are visually impaired or may have suffered a brain injury; a CCTV system to magnify print; speech-to-text and text-to-speech software installed on modern computers. There are whiteboard tables, height-adjustable desks, ergonomic keyboards and chairs; and cushioned seating.

And because the room lacks a window, there is a plan to include a video feed to outside, she added, so students can see weather conditions and have a sightline of campus.

Currently, the lab is open during regular library hours. Students using the lab are issued a key to the space for three hours at a time.

“Our history with students with disabilities on campus goes back to the early 1980s,” said Linda Zimmerman, who worked at the Computing Centre as an Arts & Humanities Specialist and volunteered to read with students with disabilities on campus.

“We always had respect for how much extra effort students with disabilities put into their education. We’ve really been inspired by them and the effort, dedication and courage it takes to undertake a university program when you are facing your own challenges. It was something that always stayed with us. So, when it came time to do something special for Western, this was an area we presented as a priority.”

Walter Zimmerman, who worked as a reference and subject librarian, was particularly inspired by Alexandra Papaiconomou, a blind student he met in 2001. Zimmerman helped Papaiconomou with research throughout her Sociology and History undergraduate and master’s degrees. He also helped her complete an inaccessible application to law school. Today, Papaiconomou, who graduated from Western Law in 2012, works at Cohen Highley LLP in London.

Her story of perseverance and dedication has stayed with Zimmerman. He wanted to help other students like her.

“We are hoping it would be an inviting place where a student can feel they can invite their professor and TA to show the technology they are using to make their education possible,” Linda added. “Sometimes, if you are just aware to put the course notes in one format so they are accessible, it could make a big difference to the student. It’s part of the teachers’ learning experience, as well.”

Ashton-Nicola Forrest, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Philosophy, was diagnosed with scleroderma – an autoimmune disease that affects the skin, blood vessels, muscles, and internal organs – as an undergraduate at Western. She is overjoyed with the changes made.

“I tried to use the room before; the computers were not working properly and they were out of date. It was dusty, dark. I couldn’t print in this room and I have issues with walking. The space is a big difference. Now they have an access door – when I first came, there was no access door, which defeated the purpose of a space for students with disabilities,” Forrest said.

“I used to have to abandon my scooter and hope no one sits on it, or moves it or takes things off of it. The space has been redesigned, so I can bring and charge my scooter here. I like how it can be a community space not just a space to sit alone. I have circulation issues, and the padded seats are a good option for me.”

Forrest has spent years advocating on and off campus for issues of gender, race and disability.

“There are lots of things to fight for. It’s frustrating when you don’t have a space on campus suited for your needs as a student with a disability,” she said, noting she hopes the three-hour time limit on the room is reconsidered.

“If we’re going to make it comparable to all students, if all students who are able-bodied can hold down stakes for eight hours, or sit at a computer for 24 hours during exam time, the same should be set for this space. It is a space where you can do group projects and people shouldn’t take over the room, but there are ways to negotiate around that. If we’re going to commit to accessibility for all, we need equal availability for all.”