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Maple League Funding Spotlight – Accessibility as a Collaborative Practice

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

Co-Principal Investigators: Dr. Katie Aubrecht (St. FX, Sociology), Dr. Erin Austen (St. FX, Psychology)

Co-Investigators: Dr. Cynthia Bruce (Acadia, Education), Dr. Mary Ellen Donnan (Bishop’s, Sociology), Dr. Jane Dryden (Mount Allison, Philosophy)

The Maple League funded nine projects in 2019/2020 to promote and facilitate collaborative research, innovative teaching, spring and international field study programs, and travel amongst the four campuses. We are delighted to share, in a series called the Maple League Funding Spotlight, progress reports from these projects. We are particularly interested in the insights and impact these funded projects have had on their communities in the time of COVID.

We had a chance to sit down with Dr. Katie Aubrecht and her team to talk about their project and learn more about collaboration across the four universities.

JESSICA RIDDELL (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE MAPLE LEAGUE): The guiding question that animates all our Maple League collaborations is: “what can we do together that we cannot do on our own?” How does this resonate with the project you’ve undertaken?

Katie: Our cross-institutional collaboration and collective work supported the development of an enriched interdisciplinary perspective on accessibility in post-secondary institutions. The project drew on our collective strengths, integrating conceptual and methodological insights from Sociology, Psychology, Education and Philosophy. Everyone brought valuable lived expertise to the project from their professional, educational, service and advocacy work.

Erin: Being able to connect on this research project with colleagues from our four Maple League institutions meant that we could look more broadly at accessibility within small, rural, primarily undergraduate postsecondary institutions and collect data (both qualitative and quantitative) that will allow us to start to identify and share things that are working to improve and promote accessibility, and to identify common gaps in accessibility that may be more easy to address collectively than individually. Additionally, looking at all four institutions we can also begin to identify how provincial accessibility legislation may be impacting accessibility over and above federal accessibility legislation. Finally, being able to discuss accessibility with people outside of your own institution who are working in a comparable setting has been very beneficial.

Cynthia: Access is social and relational, and exploring it as a collaborative practice allows us to mobilize that relational framework as a way of bringing people together in work toward a well-defined collective understanding of what accessibility is and of what we can do together to enhance it on all campuses.

Jane: A lot of accessibility initiatives falter when accessibility champions either graduate or leave for other institutions, or end up being bogged down in other work. It can also seem like there’s a steep uphill climb in terms of work to be done. By joining together the insights and expertise of people across the four campuses, we can get useful ideas for things that might work at our own campuses as well as gaining a sense of support and solidarity about the work of accessibility.

Mary Ellen: There are variations of contexts and regulatory environments between our four institutions which mean that we encounter different challenges at different times. Sharing data about these experiences and about the strategies by which they are resolved can help all of our institutions with effective, proactive, planning. The multi-disciplinary quality of our team similarly brings a wider array of skills and research perspectives to considering accessibility questions than what any single small university has.

JR: How does your project benefit from working and learning in relationship-rich environments?

Katie: Working in relationship with researchers and students from other disciplines and institutions creates exciting opportunities to think differently and creatively about issues and approaches, and experiment with new methods.

Erin: It has been relatively easy to gain momentum on this project and to start thinking about future collaborations. Even though some of us were meeting for the first time through this project, it was easy to connect.

Cynthia: Understandings of accessibility are often quite superficial, and working together allows us to deepen and enrich our understanding along with the understandings of our colleagues of what it means to be accessible on a university campus.

Mary Ellen: The opportunity to work with graduate and undergraduate research assistants from all of the institutions is an especially enriching opportunity for scholars in programs like my own which do not already have an established graduate program. There is tremendous enthusiasm and positive energy being generated around this project thanks to the opportunity to get to know each other and provide mutual support as we share ideas.

Some of the student collaborators from across the Maple League: Tara Martin, Anoia Campbell, Bailey Macdonald-Frizzle, Taylor Merrithew, Julia Anne Connolly, Katherine Waterbury, Seena Katayama.

JR: What kind of impact has your project had – on your own work, on institutional cultures, or beyond the academy?

Katie: This project is laying the foundations for a larger team-based project that will examine accessibility at universities across Canada. The information we are collecting through surveys and interviews will help us understand changes being introduced in response to COVID-19, and capture student, faculty, and staff perceptions of these changes. Project findings will also address a significant knowledge gap related to accessibility in small rural undergraduate universities.

Erin: Our project is still ongoing, so this is difficult to say at this point, but so far we have identified limited academic resources on accessibility as it relates to post-secondary education (at least as available through traditional literature searches through our library holdings). We expect that the data we collect through surveys will allow us to identify what is working and what is not, and what accessibility champions on each campus believe is needed to improve accessibility. This data will be rich with information that we can use going forward at each institution and together as the Maple League of Universities. This data will likely also be valuable to postsecondary institutions outside of our region that are similar in size.

Cynthia: I think it has people thinking and talking about accessibility more broadly than they often do. We have engaged multiple stakeholders in a process that allows us to strengthen collective commitments to accessibility – it is everyone’s responsibility.

Jane: My own institution (Mount Allison) is currently doing a significant EDI survey, led by a Presidential task force. The fact that this research project is also going on in parallel is helping to keep disability and accessibility in view as priorities for EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) initiatives.

Mary Ellen: I am hopeful that gathering and disseminating our data will help raise the profile of key people who are dedicating their careers to making universities more accessible, while providing the opportunity for a larger portion of university communities to understand the benefits of campuses becoming more accessible. As Erin noted, we are just at the beginning, but it seems there is room for improvement and compiling the information about service gaps can help generate momentum to resolve those issues as quickly as possible.

JR: Has the global pandemic affected your project and/or your understanding of collaboration? If so, why? If not, why?

Katie: When universities closed, we continued to connect – working, but also listening and sharing struggles, survival strategies and humour. The pandemic highlighted qualities that are not always associated with ‘good’ research, but should be: persistence, empathy, patience, and kindness.

Erin: The pandemic delayed our ability to conduct interviews and delayed the release of our surveys on each campus. The ability to connect remotely, however, meant that our team could continue to collaborate.

Cynthia: I would say it has delayed the process of distributing surveys and engaging participants in interviews. There were initial pressures for us all related to a rapid shift to virtual course delivery, and we had to think carefully about the most helpful time to approach faculty, staff, and students to participate. However, it has also led us to think more substantively about accessibility in the now largely virtual environment.

Jane: The pandemic has made our project seem more urgent, but also presented challenges, such as navigating the difficulty of all the demands on our time and the difficulty of carving out clear time for work. All of this is multiplied when it means that multiple people have to find time for each other! However, it is also immensely gratifying to share the experience of working during this strange time with the others on the team.

Mary Ellen: There were, indeed, delays but I also really benefited from the online meetings by which we are keeping the process going. I have been a fan of collaborative work for quite a while prior to this project but simultaneously developing the online skills required for distanced collaboration and for pandemic teaching accelerated my literacy with the current technology. This could be really useful if and when more small, rural and Northern communities get the quality of web access which will allow north/south communications to happen instantly, with a lower carbon footprint and more affordably than by long distance travelling.

JR: Can you share any advice to others who might be interested in collaborating across institutions?

Katie: Supporting student leadership and peer-mentorship was a highlight of our project. Providing students with a scaffold to connect and engage with one another and the larger team builds their confidence and helps to foster a shared sense of community. We learned so much from the students and were continually impressed by their curiosity and all that they achieved.

Erin: Connect early and connect regularly. Leave room/time to discuss institutional practices (e.g., each institution had slightly different REB [Research Ethics Board] requirements, different start dates for classes, etc.).

Cynthia: The process of having PIs in the same university was really helpful from an organization perspective. I would suggest that keeping the team a manageable size is helpful. Also try to keep the project reasonably contained – it can be a great foundational piece of research for a larger project.

Jane: Doodle is great. Also, be sure to check in with team members about what forms of technology are more/less accessible to them.

Mary Ellen: There is an exciting synergy to working with colleagues from different disciplines as well as different institutions. It can ‘clear out the cobwebs’ and provide fresh perspective.

Interested in learning more? Here is a brief description of the project:

The overarching goal of the project is to assess and improve accessibility within the university sector in Eastern Canada by generating evidence about current accessibility policy and practice in Maple League Universities. The project involves a review of knowledge, policy and practice, with a focus on accessibility as collaborative practice. As part of this project, we will also conduct interviews and accessibility surveys with various stakeholders on each campus; one survey will be designed to include accessibility experts and/or champions, while another survey will be designed specifically for students. Information from the surveys will identify accessibility practices currently in use on each campus, as well as practices that are being considered. This data will also identify common accessibility needs that are not currently being met, as well as the tools or types of support needed to fill those gaps. The project will also capture perceptions of the potential impact of COVID-19 responses on accessibility. This information will be crucial in supporting knowledge and implementation of accessibility legislation in a new, dynamic and evolving context.

Contact us:

For more information, check out the project’s Instagram @collab4access or our website

For more information on funding opportunities, visit:

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