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Champions for access

[Ellen Flanagan]
Ellen Flanagan (OT’14) developed the Access Champions initiative last year to help ensure accessibility and inclusivity at Queen’s University. (University Communications)

A program that started as a one-off is now a key contributor to ensuring access and inclusivity for all Queen’s students and visitors.

Ellen Flanagan (OT’14) developed the Access Champions initiative last year during her second and final year of studies in occupational therapy.

As she explains, the program came together as she noticed that, while Occupational Therapy students receive an excellent education and develop strong ties with the community through their mentorships, they don’t have such close ties with the university community. At the same time she became involved with the Equity Office at Queen’s and was mentored by equity adviser Heidi Penning.

Then the organizers of Homecoming asked for some help making their events accessible.

“Through working with Heidi Penning this opportunity came up that Homecoming last year wanted to have some people to support accessibility,” she says. “So we set up a program for that. It was meant to be a one-off and it was called Access Champions and that went really well.”

The need for the program to continue arrived shortly after, Ms. Flanagan says, as a prospective student with a visual impairment visited campus and after the initial meeting asked for a tour.

That led to the question of who on campus could handle this request.

“We have really great resources on campus for people who identify as having some accessibility need – Disability Services, Adaptive Technology and the Equity Office – but they are all quite tied to their offices,” Ms. Flanagan explains. “So this question mark came up as to who could go for 45 minutes with this student or however long they would meet.”

It was about feet on the ground, she says, and was a grey area that needed to be filled.

The answer, it turned out, was extending the Access Champions program.

Through the program, staffed by volunteer occupational therapy students, any student requiring accessibility support can go to accesschampions.com and fill out an online form that requires very little information and all of it is optional.

Then one or two volunteers will meet the student at the time and location set out and provide the support required.

The services cover a wide spectrum from a student in a wheelchair requiring support during their first visit to a Queen’s building, to a student who identifies as having anxiety but would like to attend a salsa dancing class or a club on campus.

“What you get is one or two OT students who will come and meet you in a really non-medical model kind of way as a student to students and offer some moral support, some guidance with how to access things on campus and essentially just do the thing with you,” Ms. Flanagan says.

The program recently received another boost as Orientation Week organizers requested support.

Ahead of the event Ms. Flanagan provided accessibility training for all orientation leaders and advised the executive on potential issues. The program also was available throughout the week for anyone needing its services.

Through her experiences, Ms. Flanagan says she is impressed with the recognition of accessibility and inclusivity at Queen’s.

“I have to say Homecoming impressed me with the amount of thought they have put into it and how they put this as really important, but Orientation Week was phenomenal this year in terms of thinking about it and trying to put it in place,” she says. “It doesn’t mean we got everything right but we were taking really positive steps forward in considering these things.”

Having completed her studies this year, Ms. Flanagan is no longer at Queen’s. However, Access Champions continues with occupational therapy students taking up the baton.

She believes important changes are being made in the way people understand access.

“Through my studies, one of the really big things we look at is it being the environment that creates the disability. A person who uses a wheelchair can get from A to B but not if we put stairs in between A and B,” she says. “That really opened my mind to thinking how can we change that. Because of my position as a student this program has been about education and changing attitudes.”

For more information go to accesschampions.com.

This story was first published in the current edition of the Gazette. Pick up your copy at one of the many locations around Queen's.