Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) recently launched the first phase of a major initiative that aims to allow all visitors, students, faculty and staff with disabilities equal access to the university’s building and resources.

Following the principles of Universal Design, Georgetown is focusing on improving accessibility and inclusivity of programmes, classrooms, study and testing spaces, events and course content. Significant additions to the library’s space and IT resources place Georgetown’s library as the first academic library that is also open to the public in Qatar to be completely accessible to visitors with physical, visual, or hearing impairments.

GU-Q’s Learning and Disabilities Specialist Dr Candice Render was responsible for organising the recent accessibility changes on campus, together with colleagues from across the university, in particular Steven Heath and Clair Wait in Facilities Management, Frieda Wiebe, Director of the Library, Maya Primorac, Director of Events and Protocol, and Moamer Qazafi, Director of Communications. She said:

Whether its through Assistive Technologies that allow people with physical, hearing, visual or learning disabilities to gain access to our library collection of over 50,000 publications, or through our building design that allows access to anyone in a wheelchair, Georgetown is committed to ensuring that every guest and member of Qatari society has the opportunity to pursue personal development, and become an important contributor to Qatar’s national development goals.’

The changes include the introduction of larger computer screens and enlargement software for those with sight impairment, and scanning and reading devices that will allow visually impaired visitors to hear their chosen book, magazine, or any printed text, through headphones. Currently, faculty and staff are undergoing training for the newly launched Assistive Technology software. Both the software and the training were provided by Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center), a non-profit organisation established by the Supreme Council for Information and Communication Technology (ictQatar) dedicated to connecting people with disabilities to information and communication technology.

GU-Q began its Universal Design initiative in the fall of 2012 to bring awareness of issues regarding accessibility and inclusivity. This included a comprehensive facilities assessment by Mada. In 2013, Learning and Disabilities Specialist Dr Candice Render took over the initiative from Dr Anne Nebel, Director of Academic Services and Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, and began meeting with department heads to discuss their specific accessibility issues.

Candice works with all students to enrich their learning, including those with physical and learning disabilities, to ensure they are provided academic support, and access to programmes and facilities in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and University policy. She said:

These initial meetings really produced wonderful feedback, and gave us a thorough list of the accessibility issues we wanted to tackle. So I first worked on prioritising that list to make the most impact with our effort, such as working with the communications team and facilities team to come up with a wheelchair route map that is now available online…we also worked with an accessibility specialist who is himself physically disabled, who conducted a thorough facilities analysis of our building. With the help of Clare Wait, Director of Facilities Management, who reported the list of suggestions to Qatar Foundation, so things are moving forward, and we hope for even more positive changes in the future.’

Some of that future work includes switching out heavy metal doors for sliding glass ones, push buttons to open and close classroom doors, and specially designed fully accessible bathrooms on each floor. The Library director, Frieda Wiebe, said:

We are proud to say that the Georgetown Library is the first fully accessible public library for visitors with disabilities in Qatar, and we hope this accomplishment, as well as the accessibility improvements that have been made throughout the building, sets a trend for other important facilities and resources in Education City and the local community.’

As a result of GU-Q’s push for better access for the disabled, Education City has recently introduced a dedicated van equipped to transport riders with special needs. Georgetown also convenes a working group each semester of disabilities services providers from all Education City schools as well as Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) staff to continue to make GU-Q’s spaces accessible and welcome to as many people of diverse needs as possible. Future Georgetown plans include supporting projects with the GU-Q student club, AMAL, a group that focuses on disabilities issues.

The full range of accessibility options can be found on GU-Q’s website.