When Beau Hayward began his journey as a student at U of T, he wasn’t sure how his story would unfold.
One year earlier, Beau was involved in a diving accident and sustained a spinal cord injury that damaged his C4 and C5 vertebrae.
“I dove in the water and struck bottom, resulting in two fractured and one obliterated vertebra,” Beau explains. “I was face down and unable to turn over, which led to drowning. I was found by a friend, who had just learned CPR as a work requirement two weeks earlier, who revived me.”
When Beau woke up in the hospital, he learned that he was completely paralyzed from the neck down. The nature of his injuries meant that Beau would begin using a wheelchair as a mobility device.
Following months of intense rehabilitation and physiotherapy, Beau regained some function in his upper body.
Beau’s experience served as a catalyst for him to embark on a new journey.
Uncovering a new journey
In 2019, Beau decided to follow his childhood dream and enrol as a student at U of T, pursuing an undergraduate degree in history and anthropology.
“I’ve been really passionate about learning history my whole life. Material culture and history are big interests of mine, I actually wanted to be an archeologist when I grew up. So, I decided to take a chance and enrol as a mature student,” he says.
As Beau began his journey at U of T, he quickly learned how to adapt to life as a student with a disability—learning how to get around campus in a wheelchair, locating accessible classroom materials and spaces, and understanding the range of accessible services and supports available to him.
Cultivating accessible spaces on campus
The more comfortable Beau became with his surroundings, the more opportunities he found to help the University build more accessible spaces on campus.
“For example, I have a really hard time getting up steep ramps in my wheelchair. Even if the ramps are up to Code, as a quadriplegic, my hands are closed, so it’s hard for me to push up the ramp,” Beau explains.
To help address this gap, Beau teamed up with Ben Poynton and his team at the University’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Office to find a solution.
“Ben and I worked together on a consultation for a ramp that the University was putting in one of the buildings on campus. I helped provide some insight in terms of my experience and how spaces on campus can be adjusted to suit someone with my needs.”
Engaging with National Accessibility Awareness Week
Building on this momentum, Beau found further opportunities to share his lived experience and deepen the discussion around accessible services on campus.
Earlier this year, Beau was a keynote speaker at the University of Toronto’s inaugural National AccessAbility Week (NAAW) series.
In his session, Your Shape: A Discussion on Physicality, Health & Disability, Beau spoke about his role as a peer leader with U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) and his efforts to create more opportunities for students with disabilities to engage in physical activity. He also discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted his life as a student and the adaptations he has made while living in isolation with a physical disability.
The NAAW series, the first of its kind at U of T, was organized by the AODA Office and its partners and offered key insights and discussions into a range of topics such as inclusive workspaces and Indigenous perspectives on accessibility and disability, as well as centering disability and accessibility in curriculum design for students, staff, faculty, and community members.
Programming like NAAW is just one piece of the AODA Office’s broader goal to cultivate accessible spaces and practices across the U of T community.
The AODA Office’s key mandate is to ensure that U of T is meeting the AODA guidelines legislated by the Province of Ontario. These standards require organizations to create policies and practices that identify, remove, and prevent barriers for persons with disabilities.
“The AODA guidelines are just the beginning and, while it helps to start the conversation, we must go beyond compliance,” explains Ben. “We are working to build a community that not only understands our legal obligations but feels informed and empowered to embed accessibility into their everyday practices. We need to cultivate a community where accessibility is intuitive.”
Read the 2020 AODA Report to learn more about how the AODA Office and the U of T community are working to cultivate accessible spaces and practices across the tri-campus.
Embedding accessibility into everyday practices
The AODA team offer a range of online and in-person AODA trainings, workshops, consultations, and support services for the broader U of T community. These educational opportunities provide a space for members of the University to deepen their understanding of how to integrate the principles of accessibility into their everyday practices.
The Office’s AODA trainings cover topics such as:
- Accessibility and procurement,
- Web content accessibility, and
- Accessibility and language, as well as how to plan and host
- Accessible online events.
To date, more than 19,000 employees have taken the 30-minute AODA module.
Ben explains, “We want to meet people where they are. Many community members are unaware of unsure of the small changes that make a process or event accessible—that’s where we come in. These trainings offer the U of T community a chance to learn about AODA standards in a tangible and applicable way.”
The Office also provides one-on-one AODA consultations with U of T staff, faculty, librarians, and departments, providing feedback and solutions to community members interested in learning more about how they can embed AODA standards into their websites, projects, classrooms, and community spaces.
Over the past year, the AODA Office has also worked to develop an accessibility toolkit that provides resources, supports, and best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The toolkit, Returning to Campus during COVID-19: Keeping Accessibility in Mind, offers guidance on masks and face coverings, in-person learning, service animals, and washroom access.
Supporting students through Accessibility Services
Along with its focus on AODA compliance, the AODA Office also works in close partnership with U of T’s Accessibility Services to help support students like Beau as they navigate life on campus.
When Beau began his journey at U of T, he was guided by Michelle Morgani, Accessibility Advisor on the Accessibility Services team.
Among many other services, the Accessibility Services team helps connect students to learning supports, and residence accommodations as well as bursary funding that helps cover the cost of accessible devices and adaptive software like e-readers, accessible keyboards, and laptops.
In Beau’s case, Michelle worked to set him up with an Educational Assistant who helps support him in his classes: taking notes, coordinating accommodations, and making sure the classroom space is accessible to his needs.
“I can’t say enough good things about Michelle, she really helped me through my entire journey as a student,” Beau explains.
She also connected Beau to a work study position with the Sports and Recreation’s Diversity and Equity team, working to advance opportunities for students with disabilities to take part in accessible sports and recreation.
Michelle says she is deeply inspired by Beau’s journey.
“He is incredibly motivated to make change,” she explained. “I have to give him that credit because I’ve even seen the growth he’s made over the last few years.”
“The fact that Beau has embraced his new lifestyle and has become so passionate to create an accessible campus for all students is pretty inspiring. His passion to create spaces for all students, and the dedication to accessible sports/activities is something to be admired,” she added.
A comprehensive approach to accessibility
The ongoing partnership between the AODA Office and Accessibility Services offers a comprehensive approach to cultivating accessible spaces for students, staff, faculty, and community members at U of T.
It offers students like Beau the opportunity to lead and guide accessible practices on campus and create more opportunities for students with disabilities to thrive.
Beau’s latest passion project is working to create an accessible sports program for student with disabilities. Earlier this month, he worked with Sports and Recreation’s Diversity and Equity team to organize the University’s first-ever accessible Bocce tournament.
“Bocce is such an inclusive sport to me—I feel like literally anyone can play it,” Beau shares.
“I wanted to keep it as open as possible so that anybody, even someone who wouldn’t even know what bocce is, could just get a sense of it, feel it out, and maybe it becomes something they end up loving.”
Beau is also working to organize an accessible ski trip, re-introducing himself to a passion he’s has had since childhood.
“The freedom you feel on the hill is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I loved skiing and snowboarding growing up, I really want to share that experience with others with disabilities and have them experience the same thrill—I’m stoked for it!” he added.
Beau hopes to deepen his impact on campus, working to find and solve accessibility issues where they arise.
“One thing I have noticed is that many of the classrooms on campus are not accessible,” he explains. “Sometimes there is no space for me and my wheelchair and I end up kind of having to put myself in the aisle and people have to awkwardly skirt around me,” he explains.
“It would be really cool if people with disabilities like myself can go into classrooms and offer insight into how we can make these spaces more accessible,” he explains.
“Considerations like accessible seating, how wide should the aisles be, how can we make sure an Educational Assistants have space to sit with their students during lecture—all of these factors make a big difference in the lived experience of a student with disabilities.”
Beau hopes to work alongside Ben and the AODA Office to help find ways to make classrooms and community spaces more aligned with the needs of students with disabilities. Indeed, through initiatives like Transforming the Instructional Landscape, the University is already finding intentional ways to address classroom accessibility.
“My office’s work with community members shows how embedding the lived experience of disability into the design of our spaces leads to truly inclusive design,” Ben says. This is something we want to do in a more regular and recognized way, in as many spaces as possible.”
Beau adds he hopes he can continue his ongoing collaboration with the AODA Office and the broader U of T community, working to create tangible change on campus and beyond.
“I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made so far. It really has been a phenomenal journey, working to find ways to improve U of T for the better. I hope to keep pushing forward and creating spaces for more people to thrive and feel more included on campus.”