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Disability accessibility of the built environment for an inclusive higher education

Disability accessibility of the built environment for an inclusive higher education

By Dr. Mahtot Gebresselassie

In the social model of disability, it is the built environment that has a disabling effect on individuals with impairment. The built environment includes buildings and roads. Its inaccessibility limits disabled individuals’ access to education, employment, healthcare, entertainment, political participation, and many other aspects of life.

As a professor, I think about the accessibility of university campuses, especially in relation to our institutions’ efforts towards diversity and the inclusion of previously underrepresented groups. People with disabilities are one such group. All the challenges higher education faces in recruiting and retaining underrepresented groups are present when it comes to disabled members of our community. In addition to social barriers, people with disabilities face obstacles in the built environment. Higher education institutions need to consider making campuses accessible to people with disabilities as part of their work towards diversity and inclusion. Even when universities are committed to diversity and inclusion, barriers in the physical environment create a challenge to achieving that.

Stock photo ID:954196976. Photo credit: kovaciclea

My introduction to disability issues and accessibility was in university in my first architectural design course. It made a deep impression on me, and the way I see the built environment was changed.  In my research work I focus on accessibility of the digital and physical environments that pertain to transportation. I include disability accessibility in my teaching too. I want to provide my students the same opportunity I was given as a student.

My graduate transportation course at EUC lends itself to that very well. Given the large size of the York campus, a significant amount of travel is required using exterior paths whether it is from parking lots to classrooms, the subway stops to office spaces, one building to another, or the lab to the gym. I assigned students to do an audit of the exterior paths of travel using the Toronto Accessibility Design Guidelines as a checklist. I chose the university’s campus for two reasons. First, the location was convenient for all students as they are on campus for their classes. Organizing for a team tour would be much easier. Second, auditing their campus would give many students the opportunity to explore the environment they are familiar with through a new perspective: a disability perspective. Unless, they have or someone important to them has disabilities, people may not appreciate the many barriers that exist in the built environment.     

I divided the campus into five sections as seen in the map. Each section was assigned to a team of five students. Using the Toronto Accessibility Design Guidelines, students did an audit of their assigned sections. The groups were free to choose what to focus on in their respective audits. During the last class of the semester, each group presented the findings. One of the requirements of the assignment was to recommend suggestions when there is deviation from the design guidelines. Their work was comprehensive and thorough.  

As you will read in their summaries of findings in this month’s EUC Research Update, there are parts of the exterior paths of travel that are in accordance with the design guidelines and others that are not. The lesson here is that barriers exist. Their elimination would remove the disabling aspects of the environment for disabled members of the university to move around on campus more easily in their respective roles either as faculty, staff, or students.

Notwithstanding the challenges of retrofitting to make campuses accessible, the built environment’s accessibility is a prerequisite for diversity and inclusion in higher education.  


Dr. Mahtot Gebresselassie is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC). She is an architect, urban planner, educator, and social-science researcher. Her research focuses on Uber and Lyft and transportation equity in relation to people with disabilities and low-income earners.