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Photo of Georgia East. // Photo by Mariah Wilson.

Multisensory room coming to U of C, first of its kind on a university campus

By Kristy Koehler, April 26 2020—

The University of Calgary is getting a multisensory room, the first of its kind on a Canadian post-secondary campus. 

The room is the passion project of Georgia East, Faculty Representative for the Werklund School of Education. She describes the multisensory room as “an environment where an individual can go and be in full control of their sensory input. They can manipulate their environment to be sure that everything they are experiencing is under their control.”

The initiative got the green-light by the Students’ Union as one of 17 student-focused, on-campus projects funded through the Quality Money program.

East first spoke to the Gauntlet about the multisensory room in February, while she was awaiting a decision on the funding. Her enthusiasm and commitment to the endeavour was palpable as she discussed the importance of the project.

“It’s my number one passion project. I believe it’s so important for every student,” she said. “Currently one in 20 individuals struggles with sensory processing to the point where it impacts their academic performance and our university campus is highly stimulating and can be very overwhelming for anyone struggling with sensory processing or mental health. By creating a space where they can be in full control of their environment, we’re providing them with the tools they need to manage their sensory input and therefore remove barriers to learning for current and future students.”

East is attending the Werklund School of Education, specialising in Elementary Inclusive Education. Before coming to U of C, she attended the University of Guelph-Humber, receiving an honours degree in Family and Community Social Services and a social work diploma. She’s done plenty of work with populations of all different abilities and has seen first-hand the impact that sensory rooms have on the lives of students. She says that students often have access to multi-sensory rooms in elementary schools and high schools, but when they come to universities, these supports are no longer available. While the rooms do exist on some campuses, they’re for teaching purposes and not spaces where students can go to take advantage of their benefits. Some campuses have sensory-friendly rooms, but East says none are specifically designed for individuals who have issues with sensory processing.

“Twenty-five per cent of individuals on the autism spectrum have a dual diagnosis of autistic and gifted,” said East. “That’s so many incredible, smart, creative, innovative students that don’t get to come to university because supports aren’t there for them. That’s so ridiculous and the University of Calgary is worse off because we don’t have these students here.” 

After the project’s approval, the Gauntlet followed up with East. To say she was delighted would be an understatement.

“I’m really glad that it was able to work out and that my passion turned into something real,” she said. “It’s like a child I’ve birthed and I want to see it through to fruition.”

Though she’s graduating this year, East says she plans to stick around Calgary to be involved in the room’s completion. She knows her Students’ Legislative Council successor will have her own goals and doesn’t want her to have to spend her term finishing up the project. Not only that, but East has exacting standards for the room and wants to ensure that her vision comes to life in its entirety.

East spent countless hours consulting with various groups and stakeholders to ensure that the room would truly benefit the students who need it most. 

“I worked with Student Accessibility Services to understand the kind of populations that we currently have on campus and the supports that are available and how we can increase those supports,” said East. “I also worked with the Cumming School of Medicine, specifically the Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies program to understand how we can do creative things like this and make sure its respectful for this population.”

She also spoke with staff and students in the inclusive education program, as well as elementary and high schools around the city to see what types of sensory rooms were available in those environments and how they could be mimicked and built upon at the university level.

Claudette Cloutier, the associate university librarian, was able to assist East in securing a space on the first floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library. 

“It’s actually not even a real room which was kind of important to me,” said East. “It’s a nook and we’re going to set up noise-cancelling and blackout curtains around the space so it will be more like a sensory tent.”

The doorless, tent concept was important to East because she learned throughout her studies that in some cases, sensory rooms can be used as time-out rooms and act as a form of punishment rather than a positive space. 

“I don’t want it to be seen as a way to separate individuals with different abilities,” said East. “A tent means that anyone who uses the space will be doing so completely voluntarily.”

Work on the room is scheduled to begin in the summer, though with COVID-19, it remains to be seen if things will go according to plan. Still, East is hopeful that the room will be fully open and available by December 2021 so that it’s available for students during exam time. She hopes to have a kickoff event to ensure that students know it’s there.

It’s important to East that the room be truly beneficial and not just a selling point of interest for the university, something to be trotted out during campus tours.

“If one student benefits, that’s enough for me,” she said. “But, the fact that Quality Money approved it shows that there is student support and that they do see it as something that needs to be advocated for on campus. That’s a really great step froward and hopefully other universities will follow suit.”

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