Services have had to make big changes to thrive in the last two years. Photo: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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Commissioners provide details of their services’ returns

The student services for the University of Ottawa’s student body have had a turbulent past two years due to a student union transition in 2019, and then a global pandemic shifting everyone online for the 2020-21 academic year. 

Student services have had to shut down their in-person events, with volunteers and coordinators alike scrambling to adjust to new, unfamiliar circumstances. However, with a new hybrid semester under wraps, several services are returning and prepared to accommodate the student community.

Starting from square one

The Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) is a relatively new service, only properly opening in 2019 when Willow Robinson, the current coordinator and then-volunteer coordinator was left in charge: before, she said, they only existed in name.

“We had absolutely nothing. People were coming to us being like ‘I volunteered with you’ and I had no information of if they [did] actually volunteer with us,” said Robinson. “I [couldn’t] find any paperwork, it’s like the previous person just took all of our stuff and then decided to shred it. There was nothing.”

She went on to describe how her priority was rebuilding the CSD’s reputation, which came with difficulties due to the issues of the student federation at the time. Robinson also relied on online comments for help.

“One of the things I didn’t know was that our accessibility policy for the entirety of [the] Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) wasn’t written by a disabled person,” she said. “It shouldn’t have come as a shock to me because the CSD wasn’t run by a disabled person in the first place, so how could they have possibly thought to even consult with a disabled person for their disability policy?”

Online access only

Fortunately, many services, such as the CSD, were already prepared for the sudden transition to online-only, as that’s where they started in 2019 when they came to formation.

“We’ve done fantastically over the virtual semester,” said Robinson. “The thing is, with people who have disabilities, especially mobility disabilities, [we] don’t show up during the winter semester. But what I can do is ensure that people who can show up still have that kind of community base.”

“As a disabled person, I saw [the pandemic] coming from a mile away when people started getting sick a lot. Then I went, ‘okay, let’s move all of our minimal stuff online and then on top of that, let’s look at some stuff that’s new that we can do online’ to support people.”

The Pride Centre was also prepared for the online transition, as they had already established several social media sites for patrons, such as an ongoing Facebook page and Discord server.

“On a positive note, [COVID-19] did force us to consider accessibility and online spaces as a platform to grow our services,” said Matthew Bromley, coordinator of the Pride Centre. “It’s been a really big boom for us because, for the Pride Centre, one of the things that our community needs is safe spaces, of course.”

Both centres thrived through the virtual semester due to their pre-existing online accommodations for students who couldn’t physically attend their services. However, other services with more social events had struggled to adjust.

The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) student services commissioner, Amina El Himri, said that through their annual services report, the student centres with “tangible” resources were untouched during the pandemic while those with events experienced a “drastic” decrease in engagement.

“This taught us that during hard times, students’ interest in events (especially virtual ones) decreases compared to their need for tangible programs that help them,” said El-Himri. 

“Learning this allowed us to shift our focus and time investment and we’re already seeing great results.”

However, accessibility appears to be the biggest challenge for centres to get more adjusted to, including compatibility technology and closed captioning.

“Using the space of an online event is very different from in-person events, and suddenly you need to think about things like  ‘what about folks who need close captions? What about folks who need a sign interpreter?,’ ” said Bromley. “Things you would have to consider also in person, but they’re kind of more glaring to folks who don’t have those situations pop up in online spaces.”

Plans for promotions 

The Pride Centre aims to host more hybrid events throughout the year, allowing for students out of the country or otherwise unable to attend a different means to participate.

“We want to try to make it so any in-person event that we have to offer it as a live stream recording. We started our Twitch stream so we started to move towards the process of live streaming events and stuff like that. It’s been a learning process but it’s kind of a fun thing to learn,” said Bromley.

“There are [also] a lot of students that do prefer to be on campus and have to be on campus and, of course, we’re completely following COVID rules that everyone who comes to the university has to be vaccinated in the centre, [and] you must have a mask on.”

In regards to service initiatives, Robinson has been working with different faculties — such as science and engineering — to ensure they’re as accessible to students as possible, with arts as another goal.

“I’m working currently with the faculties in STEM to make their entire faculty more accessible for students with disabilities so that they can have less microaggressions when joining those faculties,” she said. “Right now, my goals are to get STEM fully accessible by 2022.”

El-Himri said the student union has been working closely with communications teams to make sure student services are using social media to the best of their abilities to promote their services to students.

“The transition to a virtual setting at first was very challenging last year especially with having many services that rely on [an] in-person presence like Foot Patrol or Bike Coop. However, that actually allowed us to invest more time learning about universally accessible services especially through the virtual setting,” she said.

“The hope is to continue offering hybrid services even without a pandemic as a hybrid centre is an accessible centre.”