While the campus is mostly technically ADA compliant, TU is still not truly accessible to all.
Getting a wheelchair five months ago changed my view of the world, quite literally. Not only was my line of vision now a foot or two lower, but I started noticing handicap accessibility problems that I had never noticed before. While organizations such as Center of Student Academic Support (CSAS) are a great resource for students with disabilities on campus, the campus has a long way to go before they are truly accessible to every student.
Small things became apparent first. The handicap buttons found on doors seem to sporadically work depending on the time of day and what direction the wind is blowing at the moment.
Other features of campus form a bigger problem. Fisher West, my current dorm, leaves me with few options to get out of the building. The south entrance is technically accessible through an elevator, but the “ramp” is incomplete, with a massive dip where there is no concrete. Many times have I tried to go use that exit and instead gotten stuck.
The only other easy entrance or exit uses the door by the cafeteria, or “bike rack number two,” as many might know it as. Every single day, multiple bikes park here, obstructing the path. I don’t disagree that it’s convenient, but being able to attend class trumps the convenience of parking two whole feet closer to your destination.
The engineers who designed this campus certainly weren’t handicapped. The “aesthetically pleasing” pebbled potholes behind Kendall ask for headaches. Certain ramps, such as the one located between ACAC and Keplinger, as well as the one for Tyrrell, require NASCAR-level experience at turning while speeding off to that event you almost forgot to go to. Not to single out Kendall, but it again exemplifies a building that is technically handicap accessible but is terribly impractical to use on a daily basis by having only one out-of-the-way ramped entrance or exit.
Technically speaking, the campus almost fully completes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. The law requires that only a specified number of elements be “readily achievable” to the public. These include the entrances to buildings, bathrooms, telephones and other services. It goes on to say that readily achievable means “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”
It goes on to give the example of turning a few steps into a ramp. A few of the buildings on campus happen to have readily-achievable accessibility faults, such as the entrances to financial aid office, apartment complexes, Phillips Hall and the Physical Plant. To most readily-walking students, the four or so steps to buildings such as the financial aid office do not even cross their minds. At best, the engineers on campus demonstrated laziness by not retrofitting the older buildings on campus such as Phillips and Physical Plant by replacing the two steps or half flight entrances to easier access for all students. The buildings created after the 1990 amendment passed, however, indicate clear lack of care for all of their students.
Collins Hall, which includes the financial aid office, was built only eleven years ago, well after the adoption of the ADA. There are three ramps leading directly into the financial aid department. In theory, this is grand. In practice? Not so much, when there are several stairs leading up to each ramp. Whoever made this decision deserves the biggest You Tried gold medal. Instead, in order to discuss scholarships and loans a student is required to go through a back, employee entrance or all the way around to the main entrance of Collins Hall. The administrative assistant at the front desk then calls the financial aid office. It is only then that a financial aid representative can bring you through the mess of a building to the lobby of their office.
This building perfectly exemplifies “readily achievable.” It only takes a bit of concrete to change these steps into a nice ramp. Maybe a few days, a week max, would it take to correct something that legally is not allowed in the first place.
Some places on campus might technically classify as ADA compliant but impede students from completely experiencing campus life. Examples include the John Mabee and Lottie Jane Mabee wings that separate themselves from the rest of the building by a half flight of steps, as well as the upper floors of Fisher South. Each of these are poorly designed but are admittedly tough to retrofit.
Fisher South in particular keeps incoming freshmen from the true “freshmen experience” of living in the exclusively first-year dorm by having no elevator. While they can access the first floor, the upper floors contain important parts of the building such as the kitchen, quiet study room, vending machines and the ice machine. That, and it keeps students from being able to visit their friends in the upper floors.
All of this isn’t to say that the campus doesn’t do a lot to accommodate handicapped individual such as myself. The Center for Student Academic Support greatly provides for students of all disabilities. A few common examples of what they do for those on campus include providing note takers, changing a class to a more easily accessible classroom and hooking students up with free tutoring. They accommodate approximately 350 students on campus, although many more might have disabilities that are not registered through the university.
One slightly-less typical accommodation I was given prior to my wheelchair days was the ability to get a ride from Campus Security when needed. Most of the officers on campus are more than willing to not only give a ride to my next class but also ensure I get home alright by personally escorting me back to my room on the days I cannot walk on my own very well.
Housing went above and beyond this year to help me when it came to finding me an apartment for the upcoming year. At first, I struggled finding a place on campus that met my requirements of being able to get my wheelchair in and out of it; there is not a single map available to students that shows where there are wheelchair ramps leading to a place and where there are only stairs. After discussing this with the right housing staff members, I met with someone who helped me reserve a room to make sure there would be an appropriate first floor apartment near a ramp for me.
Beyond the administrative staff, all of the students and teachers are some of the most welcoming people I have had the experience of knowing. If one of the handicap buttons on campus doesn’t seem to be working, a student often isn’t far behind to open the door for me. Teachers often bend down to pick up a piece of paper I dropped and cannot grab. My friends still laugh at my bad jokes and teachers still listen to my contribution to the discussions in class.
Still, there is a long way to go. Some changes are simple and would fall under the ADA “readily achievable” standard such as re-paving unusable ramps such as the one on the south side of Fisher West and turning the few stairs leading into Physical Plant and the financial aid office into workable ramps. Another simple solution is to add a handicap button on the east entrance into the library; without one, it is difficult to take a sharp 90 degree turn and go back and forth on the small ledge without falling down the nearby stairs. These don’t sound like much but would significantly affect the lives of some on campus.
Also, one way to ensure that handicap ramps in parking lots are not blocked by parked cars in parking spaces is to take a can of bright blue spray paint and block that space off as a handicap spot. This would only take a few minutes of someone’s life and under ten dollars out of their massive budget.
Similarly, Campus Security could exercise their ticketing power to create hefty fines for those who park their bikes on the handicap ramp outside the cafeteria. This would quickly fix the problem; the broke college student stereotype often holds true. If it’s not a TU registered bike, it could instead have the lock broken and moved out of the way if a repeated offender.
The final step the administration needs to do is keep all of its students in mind when renovating or building new places on campus. It might be too expensive to reasonably renovate older buildings, but it’s not too late to keep every student, teacher and administrator in mind going forward.
To help report these issues, there are several avenues you can try. According to Tawny Rigsby, the director of CSAS, any administrator or faculty member should theoretically be able to get you to the right place, but CSAS and Physical Plant (if you can get to it) are often the most direct options. Amber Bagwell, the Assistant Director of Student Retention, Success and Inclusion at CSAS, is looking to start a student-led organization for disability advocacy and ally group. “Students are on the ground, front line, they see what’s happening,” said Rigsby on the issue. “You guys are the ones who can make things happen.”
If interested, please email Bagwell at firstname.lastname@example.org.