Kian Merrikh was about 10 when his family left Iran a year before the 1979 Revolution deposed the former Shah and installed the Islamic Republic.
Since then, followers of the Bahá’i faith in that country have been persecuted, including being barred from pursuing post-secondary education, he says.
Merrikh was recently appointed U of G’s inaugural accessibility officer in the Office of Diversity and Human Rights (DHR). In his newly created position, he aims to help make the University community more accessible and inclusive by continuing to remove barriers for people with various disabilities.
The paradox is not lost on him.
“Here I am, a Bahá’i, working towards making education accessible for everyone,” he says. “I think somehow I am now in a role of actively upholding human rights. Where the Bahá’is are being denied education in Iran, I’m doing the very opposite of that in Canada, and I’m very proud to have that opportunity.”
In addition to Merrikh’s appointment, campus members are marking Global Accessibility Awareness Day today (May 21) and preparing to host the annual Guelph Accessibility Conference later this month.
Merrikh’s work is driven partly by government regulations. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), enacted in 2005, is intended to make Ontario barrier-free by 2025.
Five main areas are especially pertinent to university campuses: information and communications; transportation; employment; public spaces; and customer service.
At Guelph, an accessibility steering committee is working to co-ordinate compliance with provincial law.
Merrikh says the law is intended to ensure accessibility for all users rather than accommodation on a case-by-case basis. “It’s not just that we want to meet compliance requirements but that we want to do the right thing because we want to have an inclusive community at Guelph.”
Along with that steering committee, various campus groups are looking at aspects of accessibility.
An information and communications subcommittee has working groups looking at web, document and library accessibility. A built environment steering committee based in Physical Resources also reviews accessibility to campus buildings.
Library staffers, for example, plan to make all electronic reserve reading material used in courses — roughly 1,200 of them on campus — both accessible and copyright-compliant.
“The accessible readings benefit all users since they are also free of annotations and underlines and are searchable,” says Athol Gow, manager, Library Accessibility Services.
The library provides this service to course instructors at no charge.
Gow says such resources should be available to all library users as a matter of course. “You shouldn’t have to ask or feel that you’re imposing.”
Adds Heather Martin, manager, E-Learning and Reserves: “We wanted to benefit everyone in the class and everyone who takes a course from now on.”
As U of G’s new accessibility officer, Merrikh aims to raise awareness and serve as a resource for various groups.
With this year marking the 10th anniversary of the AODA, he says, “it’s a good time to reflect on where we were and where we’re going.”
He says it’s his job not to enforce compliance but to provide information for other units and individuals. “It’s the community that is going to make all of this happen. My role is more of a catalyst for co-ordinating activities, serving as a resource person and compliance reporting as required to the government.”
Earlier, accessibility issues had been addressed by other members of the office, says Jane Ngobia, assistant vice-president, DHR.
“As an institution, we are committed to equity and accessibility beyond compliance. It became apparent that we need a staff member who spends more of their time on accessibility,” she says. “We needed someone who can speak the language of equity beyond compliance.” She says the University has improved physical accessibility to campus buildings and helped faculty members with universal instructional design, a process to ensure that instructors consider potential needs of all learners.
Merrikh has worked on campus for about 15 years, most recently as manager of marketing, communications and learner services in Open Learning and Educational Support.
He says his new position combines the right mix of academic and managerial expertise for him. It also allows him to more directly integrate his personal values with his work.
“I have come to realize I have an intrinsic drive to help people live fuller, richer lives,” says Merrikh, who serves on the spiritual assembly of the Bahá’is of Guelph. “Accessibility is a very important aspect of human rights.”
On May 26-27, about 300 people from across Ontario are expected to attend the seventh annual U of G Accessibility Conference. Called “Choosing Bridges Over Barriers,” the event will feature keynote speaker and Toronto lawyer Mayo Moran discussing her recent independent review of the AODA.