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Dr. Timothy Ross headshot

How research and social justice go hand in hand

With more than a decade of experience studying accessibility and inclusion, it's fitting that Dr. Tim Ross is filling Holland Bloorview’s newest position in the Bloorview Research Institute (BRI) as a Social Justice, Diversity and Inclusion Scientist.

“When you stop and think about people who require the use of mobility devices, and the number of community spaces they cannot access —for example, restaurants with inaccessible entrances, seating, or washrooms—you realize that their exclusion continues to persist and many people just view it as normal, perhaps even acceptable,” he says.

“And I find that deeply troubling.”

Drawing on his background in urban planning, geography, sociology, and disability studies, Dr. Ross hopes to tackle ableism across our community environments, services, and systems. He aims to do so through improvements to policies, designs, and high-level decision-making.

And Dr. Tom Chau, the Vice President, Research & Director of the BRI, is excited to have Dr. Ross on board.

“I’m thrilled that we now have a planning scholar within the disciplinary mix! Dr. Ross’s research program emphasizes issues of social justice and accessibility, with an interdisciplinary approach that values the experience of children, youth and families,” says Dr. Chau.

“I look forward to witnessing the many productive collaborations that he will build at Holland Bloorview!”

Four Ways Dr. Ross Plans to Advance Research and Community Inclusion

1. Education Access

By talking to kids and their families, Dr. Ross hopes to answer questions like:How do kids go from the door of their home or their school to the sidewalk or to the vehicle? How do they experience trips inside the bus or a parent’s vehicle? And what about accessible parking?

He hopes that answers to these questions will help schools find proper solutions that advance more equitable and inclusive education access.

“During a previous study, one parent noted they had an arrangement with the principal of the school where their child would arrive 15 minutes late to school each day, because the family couldn't access the site due to parking lot traffic and parked school buses blocking the accessible parking spaces. And another family said that they picked up their children early to avoid crowded hallways,” says Dr. Ross.

“Losing 15 minutes at the start of every school day adds up to 75 minutes per week. So, you're looking at a disturbing amount of classroom time being lost over the school year because the school relies on the families of kids with disabilities to adjust their schedules instead of addressing a broken parking design. How is it an acceptable practice?”

2. Transportation and Mobility

On top of school travel, Dr. Ross also plans to study air travel for children and youth with complex medical needs.

“It’s an activity,” according to him, “that produces exceptionally exclusionary experiences for a lot of people.”

“Whether an airline or airport is responsible for accessibility services is sometimes unclear and miscommunicated, and the families are the ones left to struggle with that. Plus, during some flights people are separated from their mobility devices. These are big problems,” he says.

“And let's not forget that many airplane washrooms remain inaccessible, leaving some people unable to use them during flights.

3. Accessible Playgrounds and Inclusive Play

Along with his colleagues from the BRI and the University of Toronto, Dr. Ross is hoping to improve the accessibility of playgrounds to create more opportunities for inclusive play experiences.

Currently, only some playgrounds in Canada have accessible equipment and very few are designed to be fully accessible and inclusive. This is changing thanks to Canadian Tire Jumpstart, which is implementing such playgrounds across Canada. These playgrounds offer musical and sensory components, double-wide wheelchair ramps, safe and accessible play surfaces, and play equipment that can be accessed independently.

“They've got equipment that serves all children, but they've implemented designs that make sure kids with disabilities can be present and equally participate,” he says.

He also wants to ensure playground surroundings, like the pathways, areas, and facilities leading up to playground spaces, are also accessible.

“We're trying to see how these playgrounds are being experienced and how we can advance the designs to make them more inclusive. It’s not just about if kids with disabilities can play. We must consider if the children and their families can actually stay at the playground. For example, when visiting a playground, can they access washrooms, water, and protection from sun or rain?” he says.

“And we need playground designers, builders, and municipalities that are involved to think about playgrounds in this way.”

4. Addressing Institutional Ableism

Dr. Ross also wants to talk to a range of people from the hospital, including clients, families, practitioners, and policymakers, about their experiences and what they view as ableist values and practices. 

If you ask him for specifics, one example Dr. Ross offers is the process families of kids with disabilities must go through to make their homes and properties accessible.

“Iknow one family that applied to get a parking pad for their accessible van. And it took a year. They had to survey the neighbours to make sure [the neighbours] were okay with them getting a parking pad and they also had to attend a Committee of Adjustment meeting to get permission. Requiring this amount of work for an absolutely necessary accessible home project is unjustifiably burdensome. Plus, there is the challenge of paying for construction costs” he says.

“We need to identify ableist practices and processes within our institutional organizations and start working towards addressing them.”

In much of his research, Dr. Ross plans to talk directly to kids as he finds understanding their lived experiences is crucial to informing and advancing changes.  

"Much of the work that I'm doing is focused on understanding and voicing the experiences and perspectives of kids and their families because we need their input. It's integral to the work of any organization. Who’s better informed about their experiences, needs, desires, and their rights than them?” he says.

“That’s why, through my research, I aim to ask kids and their families what they view as challenging so that we can investigate their challenges and work toward identifying solutions—not just within Holland Bloorview, but outside as well.”

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