AU accessibility advisor and Paralympian helps students overcome hurdles
Brieann Baldock inspires as she prepares for the 2024 Paralympic Games
Brieann Baldock, an accessibility advisor at Athabasca University (AU), is making dreams a reality for students, but also for herself as she prepares to compete in the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.
Baldock was born with a visual impairment known as oculocutaneous albinism, a genetic condition that affects the eyes, skin and hair.
After spending six years working on her bachelor of education in elementary education at the University of Alberta, Baldock turned to AU to complete the final two credits needed to earn her degree.
After graduation, she soon discovered she could combine her passions for education and accessibility support. That’s when she applied for an accessibility advisor role with AU’s Accessibility Services team.
“Being on the other side of what I used to have to experience as a student is pretty rewarding,” she says.
“Being on the other side of what I used to have to experience as a student is pretty rewarding.”– Brieann Baldock, accessibility advisor at Athabasca University
Making university more accessible for everyone
Now, as an accessibility advisor at AU, Baldock is the first point of contact for students who need accessibility accommodations, such as more time to complete exams, course extensions, or even requesting braille textbooks.
She is responsible for working with students to develop accommodation plans and reviewing all necessary documentation.
“I get to solve a lot of fears and anxieties towards a certain barrier that a student might experience and to get to relieve or solve or help navigate that situation.”
“I get to be that hope for a student that didn’t think they could ever go to post-secondary or wasn’t sure they could do it. And just being that light in the tunnel really, for somebody who realizes that they can do these things with some supports in place.”
When she’s not helping students overcome hurdles, chances are Baldock is pursuing another passion: as a Paralympic athlete.
“I get to be that hope for a student that didn't think they could ever go to post-secondary or wasn't sure they could do it.”
A career in sport
Baldock was an athletic child growing up and tried many sports. However, she found that able-bodied sports were too fast for her. At eight years old, she tried goalball and hated it. But, once she tried again at age 16, she began to excel and found her passion.
Goalball is a sport made specifically for athletes who are blind or have visual impairments. Played three-on-three, the aim is to throw a ball in a bowling motion into the opponent’s net. The ball has bells in it, so players rely heavily on sound and touch, while diving to block shots and vocalizing to defend their nets.
“It’s all strategy, cutting off angles. It’s two, 12-minute halves. Essentially you’re doing burpees for the whole 24 minutes,” she says.
After three years of playing, she made her national debut in 2017 at the Pan Am Goalball Championships where she helped Canada to gold. She has since continued to compete nationally and made her Paralympic debut at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021, when the team came in 9th place.
This past November, Baldock competed in the Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile where Team Canada won a gold medal—their first top finish at a games since 2004. In doing so, Team Canada qualified for the Paralympic Games in Paris.
“It was pretty high-stakes tournament,” she says. “So the fact that we are the champions of the Americas is pretty big for us. It was a huge moment to qualify for Paris.”
Misconceptions about para-sports
Baldock said there’s a high level of athleticism needed to compete in national sports at any level. She also pushed back against the misconception that para-sports are easier or a “lower level” than the Olympics. The same qualification process has to happen.
“A misconception that a lot of people have about the Paralympics is that it’s easier because it’s ‘para’ and you’re dealing with individuals with disabilities. It’s not true.”
If anything, Paralympic athletes face challenges that most able-bodied athletes don’t even think about, she says.
Able-bodied athletes can often just jump in their car and go to training at whatever time of day without worrying about working full time to pay for medical expenses—or in her case, glasses expenses. That’s not the case for athletes with a disability.
“Everyday things are a challenge,” Baldock said.
Perseverance is key
Baldock wants people to know not to let disabilities stop you from achieving your dreams—whether educational, or in her case, competing in the Paralympics.
“Never give up on what you are dreaming about. If there’s something that you want to do, do it,” she said.
Baldock believes in trying new things. The worst thing people can say is no, and even then, it’s never usually an actual “no,” she says.
“It’s always a flexible process, just like how AU is flexible and accommodating,” Baldock explained.
“I’ve always strongly believed that I’m just a pillar to help students get to where they want to be, but they’re the ones who do it. And I want to believe in them like some people did for me in the past.”
Learn more about Accessibility Services at AU.