Wheels In Motion

Monday, June 5, 2006

This past Monday, U of G President Alastair Summerlee spent the day in a wheelchair to highlight both the daily mobility struggles of people with disabilities and to promote the Rick Hanson Wheels In Motion event this Sunday. While going about his day, Summerlee made some time for a stop at The Cannon office to talk about his experiences in a wheelchair.

“I’ve come across two things: you can’t get coffee by yourself and coming here I couldn’t got off the lift because there was a bit of a gap,” he said about adjusting to the chair as he went about his daily routine. “I also had to think about how I was going to come down here because normally I would have just peeled down the stairs.”

Summerlee participated in last year’s Wheels In Motion and was asked once again to lend participate, and maybe provide a little more promotional support. Inspired by someone in residence who had previously spent the day in a wheelchair to raise awareness, Summerlee thought, “Why not me?”

While Summerlee says that he didn’t do anything physically to prepare for spending the day in a wheelchair, he was probably significantly more rested. “Last year when I was in the race, I was away and I came back home Sunday morning after flying overnight on the ‘Red Eye’ and I got here and did the thing straight off, and I wasn’t too bad. So I thought, maybe I’ll do it again.”

Always the gentleman, Summerlee did openly admit that he cheats. “I actually use my legs as a brake so that when I’m trying to go fast I’m drawing on my legs to push harder and, of course, if I didn’t have the use of my legs I couldn’t do that.”

Summerlee's regular schedule changed quite a bit from a usual day for him, he only had half the meetings as usual on Monday due to travel time in the chair. He biggest challenge was traveling from the University Centre to the President's House for a lunch meeting.

Accessibility is always an issue on campus, spending the day in the wheelchair gave Summerlee a unique opportunity to see from the proper perspective just where the challenges on campus lie for the physically disabled. “We have a very large number of older buildings, on average we have the oldest buildings in the Ontario system, and most of them didn’t have any sense about accessibility issues when they were put up, or at any renovations that have been done. I’ve actually had quite a lot of e-mails from people saying, ‘Try going to this place.’”

As an example, Summerlee pointed to the boardroom in Johnson Hall, in which every access point to the room is a set of stairs. “We get a paltry sum of money to deal with [accessibility] and gradually we’ve been doing a number of things, but we have a heck of a lot more to do.”

As these things go, it all comes down to funding, or rather the lack there of. The province gives the U of G $1.7 million per year for all maintenance, but according to Summerlee, the school needs about $20 million just to get it up to specs. Remember too that this campus houses about a billion dollars in assets, so university administrators face the difficult choice of either fixing a leaky roof or meeting the need to create greater accessibility.

“There are also lots of simple things, like the lift, and when I get back to my office I’m going to call them to come in and recalibrate the lift. So I hope this is going identify not only some of the big challenges, but some of the simple ones too, thinking about them and doing something about them.”

Of course, Summerlee was able to leave the wheelchair behind on Tuesday, but a lot of people aren't so lucky. Summerlee hopes that his day in the chair will raise awareness that a lot little things can be done that will make a huge difference, but at the same time a lot of work, money and innovation is needed to continue working towards making a completely accessible campus for all

Wheels in Motion begins at the University of Guelph campus this Sunday to once again raises money and awareness for people with spinal cord injuries. It begins at noon at the University’s W. F. Mitchell Athletics Centre. Registration starts at 11 a.m and you can participate by either walking, running or riding.

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