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Accessible AU: Fact or Fiction?

By Lily Coltoff | 5/4/17 12:04pm | Updated 5/4/17 12:04pm
Xiaoqin Gui / American Word Magazine

Twice a week, I head to Hurst Hall for class. It’s actually more of a workout than a walk: climbing up the steep steps in front of the building, pulling open the heavy doors, then navigating winding steps to the basement. For most students, getting to class doesn’t require much effort – figure out a route and sit behind a desk (unless it’s at 8 a.m.). But for students with disabilities, simply making it to class is a very real challenge – and one of many they face at college.

Efforts to increase accessibility have had considerable impacts on campus, even though they often remain invisible. Ramps, elevators and automatic doors are ignored by most, but to disabled students, they can make or break their experience. Other non-physical aspects also  make a difference, like support services and academic accommodations. But there’s more to making disabled students feel welcome and comfortable on campus than just accessibility. 

Nearly one in five Americans have a disability, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. That is 20 percent of the population, making disabled individuals the largest minority in the country. But despite this large number of disabled individuals, their needs and communities are often overlooked and underrepresented. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, aimed to prevent discrimination based on disability and require accessibility accommodations. It has undoubtedly had a positive impact by helping disabled individuals participate in the workforce and making many places more accessible. But what is accessibility, really? The dictionary says it’s “the quality of being easily reached, entered, or use by people who have a disability” – a fair definition, but not far-reaching enough. 

Freshman Kayla Silver, a student whose name has been changed to respect their privacy, defined accessibility as “every single person not only being able to enter and use a facility or engage in an activity, but having everybody be able to do so with the same amount of ease.” Accessibility is about being able to be part of something, but the larger and more challenging aspect is achieving inclusion and acceptance. 

“Accessibility is providing services. Inclusion and acceptance is making someone feel like they belong and that their disability doesn’t make them different from others,” said freshman Talia Rosenberg who participates in a learning-support program. Silver added, “Inclusion and acceptance focus on interpersonal relations.” There’s no utility in having a wheelchair lift if someone can’t operate it on their own; an inclusive society should be open to all and shouldn’t single anyone out.

AU’s campus is a great example of how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go. Most buildings are classified as ADA-accessible with ramps and elevators. The Academic Support and Access Center provides students with accommodations for learning or behavioral disabilities. At the same time, some buildings don’t have elevators, like Hurst and EQB, or do have elevators that don’t work, like MGC. This semester, freshman Jason Caccavale had two classes in buildings without elevators. “This has made these classes inaccessible to me on days where my disability prevents me from using stairs without a lot of pain,” said Caccavale. No one should have to decide between attending class or limiting self-injury.

A bigger issue is the prevailing societal sentiment about what disability and accessibility really mean. “I think there’s this preconceived notion that if you don’t see anything wrong, then there isn’t anything wrong,” said Silver. “But when we have buildings that students can’t access because of a lack of an elevator or ramp, when we have programming that doesn’t take potential modifications into account, and when we have no standardization among teachers for what the protocol is for dealing with anybody that doesn’t fit the perfect ‘college student’ mold, we have a problem.”

Today’s tumultuous political climate has incited a huge push for advocacy in recognizing historically-oppressed groups. But, as in the past, the disabled population has remained largely ignored. The solution is actually simple: basic accessibility issues shouldn’t still exist, and beyond that, disabled people should not be seen as any different. Accessibility is not a choice, it is “something that is mandatory, especially if you are claiming to be an accepting and inclusive space,” said Caccavale. A truly accessible AU and society is one where there is no way or need to see a difference between abled and disabled.