December 3, 2013 - 1:45am

Fourteen community organizations will gather at Vancouver Island University’s (VIU) Nanaimo campus for an information fair Dec. 3 to raise public awareness about services and programs available to assist people with disabilities.

The event, open to the public, is part of the United Nations worldwide observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme this year is Break Barriers, Open Doors: For an Inclusive Society for All.

“Everyone is invited to come see the community resources and technological advances available to assist persons with disabilities,” says Debra Hagen, Coordinator of Disability Services for VIU. “At VIU, we feel it’s important to be part of this international day of observance.”

The department provides a range of equipment, services and other forms of support to help students be successful, regardless of their disability. These include interpreters for students with hearing impairments, note takers for students with visual impairments, a range of electronic devices and computer programs, or quiet rooms for writing exams.

“It’s all about improving access to education," adds Hagen. “We’re trying to level the playing field for all students.”

A total of 637 students are registered with VIU’s Disability Services department, including Goabaone (Gee) Montsho, who lost his eyesight at age 15 due to a medical condition called optic atrophy.

“Being legally blind isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person,” says Gee, an Anthropology student who arrived at VIU from Botswana three years ago.

“At a young age, I had to be brave, courageous, and willing to take on new challenges. Now I hope to inspire others. Anyone can overcome life’s obstacles.”

VIU’s Disability Services department provides “fantastic” support to students, says Gee.

He attends classes with a person who takes notes, and dictates his answers to a scribe during exams. He uses a computerized screen reader called Jaws to send and receive emails, to study, write papers and read in his spare time. VIU Disability Services staff scan textbooks or book chapters and convert them to PDFs.

Gee also benefited from Orientation Mobility Training through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. “They trained me how to walk to and from classes using a walking stick,” he says.

“At first, the stairs (at the Nanaimo campus) were challenging but I’m used to them now.”

When not attending classes, Gee gives back to the community by writing articles for VIU’s student newspaper, and volunteering as a Peer Success Coach for VIU’s student ambassador program.

“I enjoy helping students with academic challenges find ways to improve their grades,” says Gee. “I love giving to others. It gives me great satisfaction.”

According to Hagen, technological advances, even in the last two years, have made a world of difference for people with disabilities.
“As one example, students with hearing impairments can use smart pens which are called Livescribe,” she says.

“It looks like a regular pen but has a built-in recorder. The student takes notes in class on special paper, and later uses the pen to tap on key words to play back that part of the lecture.”
Another device called a UbiDuo helps students with hearing impairments communicate with others when no interpreter is available. “We have three on campus,” says Hagen.

“One is in the library and two are in the Disability Services area, with one of those available on loan to students. Each UbiDuo consists of two wireless units, each with a keyboard and a screen. If no classroom interpreter is available, people who are hard of hearing can type on the keyboards to communicate with others.”

Despite the fact that over a billion people or 15 percent of the world’s population has some form of disability, Hagen says there are still stigmas and stereotypes to overcome.

“For that simple reason, we know we have many students across Canadian campuses who do not disclose that they have a disability,” she says. “They are afraid of being stigmatized or discriminated against. This is especially true for students with ‘invisible’ disabilities such as mental health issues, learning disabilities and others. That’s the whole purpose of events like International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

"Hopefully it will help increase awareness and break down some of the barriers students face.”

International Day of Persons with Disabilities takes place at the VIU Nanaimo campus Dec. 3, from 11 am to 2 pm, in the upper cafeteria, building 300. Everyone is welcome.
For further information, please contact


Janina Stajic, Manager, Vancouver Island University P: 250.740.6288
E: Twitter: @VIUNews

Tags: In the Community

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