University of Ottawa student receives accessibility award

University of Ottawa student Elsa Lalonde was awarded the Dr. John Davis Burton award on Oct. 26 for her contributions to accessibility.

The award was endowed in Burton’s memory in 1992 by his family, students, and friends as he was a champion and advocate for persons with disabilities, according to Carleton’s website.

Burton taught in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa and co-ordinated programs and services for deaf students as well as students with learning disabilities, at Algonquin College and Carleton University, according to the press release.

The award is given to students from Algonquin College, Carleton University, La Cité Collégiale, and the University of Ottawa for their work on accessibility, and requires an application.

“I was very happy but I was also honoured to be receiving such an important award,” Lalonde said. “I am also grateful that the John Davis Burton selection committee has recognized my work and believes in my ability to honour the legacy of Dr. Burton.”

Lalonde, a third-year criminology student, co-chaired last year’s national youth accessibility forum. She also works at the the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) and said she has raised over $40,000 for the Canadian Tire Jumpstart charity and the Parasport Jumpstart Fund.

She also volunteers with the Spinal Cord Injury Ontario’s Peer Connections program and is currently involved in building a completely accessible playground in her hometown of Rockland, Ont.

Lalonde said her own experience with disability plays a “major role” in her work.

Lalonde was paralyzed from the hip down after a skiing accident at the age 12 and now uses a wheelchair. She also suffered severe brain trauma, and said she doesn’t remember much of the incident.

“It was a slow process being integrated into society,” she said, after being out of school for two years. “It has an impact on your everyday life and you just have to learn to live with it and live with the challenges.”

Lalonde said she turned to sports such as rowing and volleyball as it helped her accept her condition.

“It’s helped me enjoy life more rather than feeling like my life is over because I’m in a chair,” she said.

Facing other people’s attitudes was her biggest challenge, according to her.

“Seeing that people were treating me differently . . . that led to a lot of frustration and it still does, to be honest,” Lalonde said.

She said the experience educated her on the challenges people with disabilities face.

“Now I’m able to recognize how we are excluding people from society and how we can change that,” Lalonde said.

Currently, Lalonde is also pushing for her university to re-establish an Accessibility Committee.

“It is absolutely ridiculous for the University of Ottawa, a national capital university, to not have a committee when they have committees [for everything else],” she said.

Lalonde also filed a human rights complaint in May about the school’s administration after the university didn’t respond to her requests for accommodation multiple times in what she considered a timely manner.

For example, she said the school didn’t provide her with wheelchair-accessible classrooms at the start of semester after she requested them. It took four more classes for it to be moved to an accessible room.

She said she would like for the school to improve services and accessibility for students with disabilities.

“All I want is the school [to] recognize that inclusion of everyone is important and that everyone has the right to education and that hopefully no one else will have to go through not being able to go to school because of having a disability,” she said.

Lalonde said there’s potential for more accessibility in the future and that everyone should have the same rights and level of access as able-bodied people.

“It’s just common sense. Everyone should have the freedom of doing what they want and achieving what they want, even if they have a disability,” she said.

Photo by Aaron Hemens