Yes we can: U of T students create prize-winning IDeA project for accessibility

Photo of Santos and Bruno
Sara Santos and Natasha Bruno, the student innovators behind “Humans that CAN” (photo by Nick Iwanshyn)

Stairs and narrow doorways are not the sole barriers to accessing sport and physical activity spaces. Once up the steps and through the doors, stereotypes and prejudices still obstruct the way.

For U of T Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education recent graduate Sara Santos and fourth-year student Natasha Bruno, increasing accessibility means taking down attitudinal as well as physical barriers to participation. They are strong believers in the principle that no single barrier to accessibility should take precedence over another.

The duo were third-place finalists in the Innovative Designs for Accessibility (IDeA) competition, winning $1,000. Their submission comprises a series of posters with “can” statements –such as one from a U of T student with hypermobility disorder, a condition that can cause joint pain, who wished people would see what she is able to do instead of concentrating on what she cannot: “I sometimes use a cane but I CAN dance.”

Focusing on the word “can,” Santos and Bruno are hoping to shift attention away from stereotypes about disability and instead emphasize individuals’ various levels of ability in sport and physical activity.

“We need to be aware of the different struggles individuals face,” says Bruno of the wide spectrum of physical challenges.

Individuals have varying levels of ability that can fluctuate on a daily basis, says Santos. Common perceptions about what disability looks like and questioning whether or not someone requires accessibility accommodations prevents some individuals from requesting them altogether, their project says.

The basis of their IDeA submission stems from Santos’s research for her undergraduate thesis project entitled "Student narratives surrounding accessibility within physical activity and sport spaces." The statements from Humans that CAN are derived from her interviews with U of T students who identified as having a physical, sensory or intellectual disability.

“Our project is really about illuminating the voices of individuals with disabilities versus having able-bodied individuals speaking on behalf of them,” says Santos. These personal stories will hopefully remedy some incomplete representations of ability that can present a significant barrier to participation, she says.

The practical and cost-effective method of displaying statements from personal stories on posters was inspired by the format of the Change Room Project. This awareness-raising measure for the LGBTQ experience in change rooms was initiated by one of Santos’s thesis co-supervisors, Associate Professor Caroline Fusco of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education.

Read more about the Change Room Project 

“Accessibility should be part of everything we do,” says Santos. She and Bruno had their first taste of developing innovative solutions for more accessible spaces through a course that is mandatory for kinesiology undergraduate students, called Adapted Physical Activity. The course is taught by Assistant Professor Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, who had co-supervised Santos’s undergraduate thesis project and who is currently supervising Bruno’s.

Santos is now wrapping up her Student Narratives project, and hopes to get her paper published so that her findings can be available to a wider audience. The duo believes that a greater awareness of subtleties in personal narratives and a broader definition of disability can improve how we share and govern spaces.

“We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet,” says Santos, regarding the state of accessibility at U of T. 

Santos and Bruno hope that their posters will soon appear in spaces across all three U of T campuses, cultivating a more accessible atmosphere.

IDeA is an Ontario-wide competition for undergraduate students, supporting the goal of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) to make Ontario the most accessible province by 2025. Created by the Council of Ontario Universities in partnership with the Government of Ontario, it is now run by Universities Canada.

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