Haley Branch garnered thousands of likes and retweets this month, after posting a Twitter thread demonstrating some of the barriers and accessibility issues she regularly encounters navigating the UBC Vancouver campus.
According to Branch and others, physical obstacles and faulty doorways are only the beginning of improvements the university needs to make to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities.
Across eight tweets, Branch’s thread showed photo and video evidence of being unable to pass through “accessible” doors while in a wheelchair. She concluded with a plea, “@UBC do better.”
Branch said her Tweets were a way to express the frustration and exhaustion that students with disabilities feel every day at the university -– and elsewhere.
“The spaces on campus were not built thinking about diverse bodies and minds,” she said.
Trying to enter the building I teach in. The video shows me pressing the button to open the door and it not working. I had chose this door because the laneway to the other “accessible” door was blocked by vehicles #InaccessibleAccessibility 2/ pic.twitter.com/wMYoCgoVjk
— Haley Branch (@HaleyABranch) November 4, 2021
While mainly receiving support from Twitter’s disability community, the thread also caught the eye of UBC’s Centre for Accessibility Director, Janet Mee.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Hoping to work with you on a resolution.” Mee responded via her personal Twitter account.
According to Mee, the Centre for Accessibility services the individual needs of around 4,000 UBC students who register as having accessibility barriers – physical and otherwise – to learning.
Mee could not say whether Branch’s concerns had been addressed directly, but that the Centre for Accessibility was “trying to locate” those barriers by the photos. As of Nov. 23, only one of the doorways Branch identified at the beginning of November had been fixed.
Geography PhD candidate Corin de Freitas said the efforts of the centre and the university leave a lot to be desired.
“It is exhausting to be a disabled graduate student at UBC because you are constantly raising these issues. It’s exhausting to actually put in that work that [the university] should be putting in.”
De Freitas said the root of the problem is how university spaces were originally conceived.
“Every time you encounter a barrier like that, you’re reminded that you are an afterthought. That your needs aren’t what the university anticipates. The best you can hope for is to be an exception and have your needs met through retrofits.”
The Centre for Accessibility reports that, between 1994 and 2021, UBC invested $14.17 million on projects involving improving accessibility in existing buildings on the Point Grey campus.
“New buildings are currently designed to meet the Rick Hansen Foundation Gold Certification for Accessibility,” Mee wrote in a statement, referring to the private accreditation charity. Critics say the foundation largely serves as a PR badge on top of compliance, which is already mandatory by law.
To date, six UBC buildings have been registered with the Rick Hansen Foundation and only the university’s Aquatic Centre has received a gold certification.
When it comes to individual barriers, Mee says the Centre for Accessibility has recognized that the centre’s lack of presence on Twitter is itself a “gap,” but encourages students to also try traditional routes.
“We would never suggest that this student shouldn’t use their voice to raise a concern about the university, so of course that is absolutely one way to raise a concern. There are others.”
De Freitas said there is currently no university substitution for the shared experiences, wealth of information, and academic community built on Twitter.
“Because universities are so hostile towards disabled people, disability Twitter has actually become this incredible space of disabled knowledge production … It’s a place we go for ourselves. We go to organize. We go to learn from each other.”