'Stuck at the back row': Western student wonders why renovated classroom doesn't have a ramp

A Western student who relies on a mobility walker is wondering why two newly renovated classrooms weren't both equipped with an accessibility ramp.

Student who uses a walker must either get help down the stairs, or sit apart from his classmates

Jeremy Grace stands outside the main entrance of two lecture halls at University College at Western. At these entrances, the stairs are a barrier. Each of these rooms has a second entrance. Both have stairs, but only one has an accessibility ramp. Grace could sit in the top row, but that would leave him separated from his classmates who tend to sit close to the instructor. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Fourth-year film student Jeremy Grace was excited to get back to class for his fall semester at Western. 

His enthusiasm was more than the usual September high that comes with a return to school after a summer away. 

Grace was looking forward to having some of his classes in newly renovated lecture rooms at University College. Renovations often — though not always — bring accessibility improvements that are essential for Grace, who has cerebral palsy and relies on a four-wheel walker to get around.

To travel down the halls, he pushes the walker with one leg and shifts his weight forward on the handles, gliding for a few feet at a time, almost as if he was on a skateboard. But the gliding ends when Grace rolls up to a set of stairs. If there's no ramp or elevator, he must rely on his able-bodied classmates to get up or down. 

As a fourth-year student, Jeremy Grace wants to get the access problem fixed so other students aren't stranded by the same sets of stairs. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Film screenings for Grace's program were moved this year to two newly renovated classrooms at University College: Numbers 1401 and 1405. 

Almost identical, the two rooms are miniature versions of auditorium-sized lecture halls with rows of seats that start at the back and slope down to a lower level. Each room has two entrances: A main entrance that opens to the lower level and an upper level with the door opening to the top row of seats. 

For Grace, the main entrances to the rooms aren't an option because they must be reached by a set of four stairs.

Room No. 1405 presents no problems because its top entrance has an accessibility ramp that runs beside the stairs. That's not that case next door at Room 1401 where there are stairs at the top entrance, but no ramp. 

"So one is accessible, one is not," he said. 

Grace could sit in the back row, but that would leave him isolated because his film classes tend to be small in size. The students often sit close to the instructor in the bottom rows. 

Getting down the stairs in Room 1401 means Grace has to get a hand from one of his professors or classmates. 

He doesn't have trouble finding someone to help, but he'd rather not have to ask. 

"I shouldn't have to do that," he said. "To have to struggle to get to class seems bizarre to me." 

Grace is in disbelief that an accessibility ramp was added to one — but not both — of the rooms during summer renovations.

"To me, renovation means that you're making something better, you're improving it," he said. "If you're going to renovate it, renovate it fully."

He was so confounded, he posted on Twitter a photo of himself stranded at the top step. 

The caption reads: "Lovin' the new University College renos... #WesternU."

The tweet caught the attention of administrators, who posted a reply from the @WesternU account.

"We are continuing to work hard to bring this historic building up to date with today's accessibility standards," it said. "While this room is accessible from the back, you are correct, the front of the room is not accessible."

The university also offered to meet with Grace to discuss the problem, and he plans to take them up on the offer.

'Stuck at the back row'

Grace does take issue with the tweet's statement that the room is accessible from the back. For Grace, leaving him with a choice between asking for a lift down the stairs or sitting apart from the group doesn't count as "accessible."

"Technically yes, the top entrance is accessible, but I'm stuck in the back row," he said. "If I was to take a picture it would show my classmates in the front row, and me at the back. It would be awkward. To really join in the learning, I would have to go down a number of other stairs and that's not possible without help." 

Grace is a pleasant guy, but he's also persistent. Last year he waited 11 months after asking for an automatic opener to be installed on a heavy exterior door that was giving him problems. 

A Western spokesperson wasn't available Wednesday to speak to CBC News about Grace's concerns or to answer why a ramp was added to one of the classrooms, but not the other. 

Grace says his intention isn't to harangue or embarrass Western administrators. Instead he simply wants to point out the accessibility gaps so they can get fixed.  He doesn't want other students stranded by the same sets of stairs after he graduates. 

"My hope is for awareness, and to make this room accessible in the future," he said.

The two lecture halls are located beside each other. Both were recently renovated but only one has a ramp at its back entrance. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.