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U of M student says quadriplegics shouldn't have to pay gym fees

As Manitoba’s accessibility plan deadline looms on Dec. 31 for public sector bodies, a University of Manitoba student pushes for one quick fix.

Andy Fenwick, a fourth-year U of M student, thinks the school should scrap gym fees for quadriplegic students.

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski/For Metro / Metro

Andy Fenwick, a fourth-year U of M student, thinks the school should scrap gym fees for quadriplegic students.

Andy Fenwick has spent much of his four years studying at the University of Manitoba pointing out snowed-covered wheelchair ramps, inaccessible washrooms and broken elevators — or lack of elevators — to staff.

He said the university is usually receptive and takes his cues to heart – they previously let him pour over the school’s blueprints to point out trouble spots.

But there's a lingering issue Fenwick said he hasn’t been able to iron out with staff for about two years.

The mandatory sport and recreation fee charged to students includes a gym membership for the school’s Active Living Centre — the 100,000 square-foot space opened in 2015.

The fee costs full-time students about $154 per year and there is no opt-out provision for quadriplegic students, he said.

“They’re paying $150 a year towards a service that they cannot use at all,” said Fenwick, a 21-year-old politics and economics student who is the accessibility commissioner for the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Federation of Students. He gets around in a wheelchair.

While Fenwick is still able to use the gym, a quadriplegic friend (who’s now graduated) was irked by the situation.

John Danakas, the executive director of public affairs for U of M, said the sport and recreation fee is meant to encourage active living and covers a range of services and maintenance costs, which is why opt-outs aren’t available.

“This isn’t a gym membership, this is a tuition levy. It’s approved by students, intended to support funding for all recreation and athletic programs at the university,” he said.

“One of the benefits of the levy is that students can access the Active Living Centre for free. Another of the benefits is they can attend all Bison sports games for free. But it’s a levy… in the same way that there’s a library levy that all students pay regardless of whether or not they access the library,” Danakas said.

It’s a clash Fenwick said he would carry into the New Year, when he also hopes to open the school’s first student-run Accessibility Centre.

“I’ve met with (university staff) quite a bit and they’ve used arguments like, ‘the gym makes our campus more prestigious,’” he said. “York University, Carleton University and University of Toronto all offer opt-outs from their gym pass for persons living with disabilities and they’re the most prestigious schools in Canada. So to use the prestige argument was a pretty bad argument.”

The Dec. 31 deadline is fast approaching for public sector bodies including universities to publish their multi-year accessibility plans, in accordance with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act established in 2013.

Jackie Gruber, the school’s accessibility lead, couldn’t comment on specifics, but acknowledged there is room for improvement at the university, which she hopes the accessibility plan will usher in.

“This is a university approach to how we want to make our campus more accessible and it can’t happen overnight,” she said.

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