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Revamped and ready

Access lab modernized for students with disabilities

by Adela Talbot, BA’08, MA’11 | June 26, 2018

Students working in the new access lab.
Linda and Walter Zimmerman's generosity helped improve accessibility and comfort for the roughly 3,000 students with disabilities at Western. In recognition of their support, the recently opened space reflects the Zimmermans in its name – The Linda and Walter Zimmerman Access Lab.

At one point, it was a darkroom. Later, it turned into a room where librarians counted coins from photocopiers. It also served as a storage closet. And then, more than a decade ago, with few changes to the space, the small room on the ground level of The D.B. Weldon Library became an access lab for students with disabilities.

“I remember when we first got that space provided to us by the library. It was dark and dingy,” said Wendy Dickinson, Acting Associate Director of Services for Students with Disabilities at Western. “We worked with the University Students’ Council (USC) and got some money and equipped it with technology students didn’t have access to anywhere else. It worked fairly well, but it was dark and not welcoming. It didn’t have an automatic door opener for the longest time.”

Today, with support from former Western staff members Linda and Walter Zimmerman, that same space has been revamped, brightened and modernized to improve accessibility and comfort for the roughly 3,000 students with disabilities at the university. In recognition of their support, the recently opened space now reflects the Zimmermans in its name – The Linda and Walter Zimmerman Access Lab.

“Our history with students with disabilities on campus goes back to the early 1980s,” said Linda Zimmerman, who worked at Western’s Computing Centre as an Arts & Humanities Specialist, and volunteered to read with students with disabilities on campus.

“We always had respect for how much extra effort students with disabilities put into their education. We’ve really been inspired by them and the effort, dedication and courage it takes to undertake a university program when you are facing your own challenges. It was something that always stayed with us. So, when it came time to do something special for Western, this was an area we presented as a priority.”

Linda’s husband, Walter Zimmerman, worked as a reference and subject librarian at Western’s D.B. Weldon Library, and was particularly inspired by Alexandra Papaiconomou, a blind student he met in 2001.

He helped Papaiconomou with research throughout her Sociology and History undergraduate and Master’s Degrees. He also helped her complete an application, which had been in an inaccessible format, to law school. Today, Papaiconomou, who graduated from Western Law in 2012, works at Cohen Highley LLP in London.

Her story of perseverance and dedication stayed with Zimmerman, motivating him to look for a way to help other students like her.

“We are hoping it will be an inviting place where students feel they can invite professors and TAs and introduce the technology they are using to make their education possible,” Linda added. “Sometimes, if you are just aware to put the course notes in one format so they are accessible, it could make a big difference to the student. It’s part of the teachers’ learning experience, as well.”

The access lab features numerous upgrades. Its ceiling was raised to make it feel bigger. Its walls were painted to make it brighter. It features adjustable and dimmable lights for students who are visually impaired or may have suffered a brain injury; a CCTV system to magnify print; speech-to-text and text-to-speech software installed on modern computers. There are whiteboard tables, height-adjustable desks, ergonomic keyboards and chairs; and cushioned seating.

And because the room lacks a window, there i s a plan to include a video feed to outside, so students can see weather conditions and have a sightline of campus.

Ashton-Nicola Forrest, who is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, was diagnosed with scleroderma – an autoimmune disease that affects the skin, blood vessels, muscles and internal organs – as an undergraduate at Western. She is a regular in the lab and is overjoyed with the changes made.

“I tried to use the room before; the computers were not working properly and they were out of date. It was dusty, dark. I couldn’t print in this room and I have issues with walking. The space is a big difference. Now they have an access door – when I first came, there was no access door, which defeated the purpose of a space for students with disabilities,” she said.

“I used to have to abandon my scooter and hope no one sat on it, moved it or took things off of it. Now the space has been redesigned, so I can bring and charge my scooter here. I like how it can be a community space, not just a space to sit alone. I have circulation issues, and the padded seats are a good option for me.”

The lab is open during regular library hours. Students using the lab are issued a key to the space for three hours at a time.

Prior to this year, the average annual use of the access lab – over eight years – was 427. Since its completion, the lab was used more than 710 times this past academic year, representing a 60-per-cent increase in the lab’s use since upgrades were made.

Philanthropic support, like that of the Zimmermans’, is incredibly important in helping students with disabilities achieve their personal, academic and professional goals, said Dickenson.

“All students would report – disability or not – that study space is hard to come by. This room was needed, but under-utilized because it wasn’t a good place to be. Now, thanks to this support, it is a space to be envious of and says to students with disabilities, ‘We not only value you, but we have a space for you to work with your peers and mentors.’”

For more information, or to support students with disabilities, please contact Wendy Dickenson, Acting Associate Director, Student Development Centre, at 519.661.2111 x82147 or whdickin@uwo.ca


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