Betty Crombie (right), the widow of former Cambrian College president Glenn Crombie, helped unveil a plaque celebrating the 20th anniversary of the college’s Glenn Crombie Centre. She’s seen here with the centre’s former director, Susan Alcorn-MacKay. Photo by Heidi Ulrichsen.
More than two decades ago, Susan Alcorn-MacKay approached Glenn Crombie, then the president of Cambrian College, and said she didn’t have enough space to provide services to disabled students.
Crombie asked Alcorn-MacKay, then the college’s co-ordinator of special education, what she needed.
“I said ‘Open up the doors and make a double big room,’” Alcorn-MacKay said. “He said ‘No, what do you need for the year 2000?’”
That was the genesis of the Glenn Crombie Centre, a purpose-built centre that opened 20 years ago, in June 1996, providing services to students with disabilities to help them succeed. It’s named for Crombie, who passed away in 1999.
A ceremony marking the centre’s 20th anniversary was held at the college June 14.
“I’m just so proud to have been a part of it, and to be here, and to see that the centre has flourished and continued on,” said Alcorn-MacKay, the Glenn Crombie’s Centre director from the time it opened until her 2013 retirement.
About 20 per cent of the population has a disability, she said, whether that’s an obvious physical disability or something invisible such as a learning disability.
“When I started at Cambrian, and I was charged with special needs, I found 17 students with disabilities,” Alcorn-MacKay said.
“Today there’s over 800 (students it’s serving). I think we’ve impacted the number of students with disabilities who receive services, and students have told us that because of our services, they were able to come to college, and they were able to graduate.
“Before that, many would not even think they could come, so they never even tried. So now we were very pleased when we did some research, that the students with disabilities graduated with the same or better rates than their non-disabled peers.”
With more disabled people getting diplomas and degrees, it means more are gainfully employed and contributing to society, she said.
Crombie’s widow, Betty Crombie, was invited to unveil a plaque marking the Glenn Crombie Centre’s 20th anniversary.
“It is wonderful to see the centre so viable and working so well still,” she said. “Glenn was very, very proud of this centre.”
Local businessperson and past political candidate Andrew Olivier, who became partially paralyzed at the age of 15 in a hockey accident, and uses a wheelchair, was one of those who attended the anniversary celebration.
He said he toured the Glenn Crombie Centre when it first opened, and it showed him he’d be able to navigate post-secondary education, even with his physical limitations.
“I think that’s what gave me a bit more of the push or oomph to continue in post-secondary education, to see that there are accommodations and ways to help students with disabilities to learn,” Olivier said.
He went on to take an undergraduate and master’s degree in business administration from Laurentian University. Olivier said that was made possible thanks to similar services for those with disabilities at the university.
The Glenn Crombie Centre is “just phenomenal” for taking care of practical details for disabled students, and allows them to just be students, he said.
The guest speaker at the event, University of Toronto sociology doctoral candidate Samantha Walsh, had a similar university experience.
She not only has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, but also has a learning disability. Walsh said she couldn’t have survived her undergrad at the University of Guelph without its disabilities services office.
She’s now writing a thesis on the lived experience of people with disabilities in higher education and within the community at large.
Walsh said she thinks the Glenn Crombie Centre is fantastic.
“I think it’s evidence of what happens when a community really gets behind a social justice cause,” she said. “The fact that this has been around for 20 years is inspiring and really revolutionary, and I hope this kind of zeitgeist, this kind of attitude spreads onto many other institutions.”