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Campus accessibility for disabled students too low, students say


By Kathrine Schulze




Amy Waggoner chose a seat in the corner of a small classroom. Shoulders straight, she sat inches away from the back of her wooden chair, using a second seat to prop up her leg. The other students in the room gave her the occasional glance but otherwise ignored her.

Waggoner, 47, has a bad spine, and while she doesn’t use any assistive aids, she can’t sit in most classroom chairs, and it’s still difficult to get around campus.

Waggoner, like many other disabled students, has trouble maneuvering IU’s campus due to its natural terrain and inaccessible buildings.

The day before classes start every semester, Waggoner gets to her classrooms early to scope out the chairs.

If there doesn’t appear to be a chair she can use, she calls Disability Student Services, who contacts building maintenance to arrange for adequate seating accommodations for her when school starts.

This process, however, can take up to two weeks.

“You’re very alienated,” Waggoner said. “If you factor in the mobility issues and the fact that you have to be very proactive and assertive about what your needs are, and then you have to have a very thick skin.”

Waggoner said it’s difficult to get around campus and enter buildings, citing the Herman B Wells library as one of the hardest buildings to access via ramps.

“The door you go in and the path you take is three times as long as if you were able to just go right up the steps,” Waggoner said. “It’s as if when they’re putting these entrances in, there’s almost an underlying ‘Well, at least we provided them with a way in’ instead of being proactive and thinking, ‘Let’s provide them the fastest way in.’”

It’s hard to make IU accessible for students who are disabled, DSS Director Shirley Stumper said.

The University tries its best with wide sidewalks and plenty of ramps, but its old buildings and natural geography pose obstacles for physically disabled students, she
said.

“You can’t change the grade of a hill,” she said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. It also provides a set of standards on accessibility.

According to the ADA, an incline should rise a maximum of one inch for every 12 inches.

“Think about that as you walk around campus,” Stumper said. “You walk around campus and you know that almost every place there’s something steeper than that.”

The hill from the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center to the Herman B Wells library, for instance, has an incline far greater than one inch per every foot, Stumper said. That makes it difficult for a student in a wheelchair or someone with a walker to make it to the library.

“That’s why we provide van transportation,” Stumper said.

However, the van is used solely for academic purposes, Stumper said.

“For a person with a disability, it’s part of their life to figure out how to negotiate the natural terrain,” she said. “So we try to even that out as much as possible, if it’s realistic to do that.”

Waggoner, who came to IU for her undergraduate studies in 2008, is currently a graduate student in the European Studies program. She had been out of school for 20 years but came back to pursue an undergraduate degree in English.

“You just get exhausted mentally trying to figure out the maze of how to get into a building, and then you get mad that you have to take such long routes to get somewhere,” she said.   

Kaleb Crain, who is majoring in educational science, came to IU because of its top-notch education school. He stayed despite the difficult terrain and seemingly thoughtless architecture that are part of his daily life — they are a struggle for someone in a wheelchair, like him.

“There are plenty of times I have to go a longer, more inconvenient way than your average able-bodied student,” Crain said. “There are even times when it’s frustrating when steps were put in where they could clearly make it a ramp and fit it for universal
design.”

Crain said he may not complete his degree in four years because of the number of classes he has had to drop due to not being able to access his classrooms.

“There are times when it’s not communicated to disability services when elevators are out,” Crain said. “So I’ve had to miss classes because I can’t get to them. I’ve had to drop classes because the building was completely inaccessible.”

Crain said he couldn’t even get into Swain West because all of the accessible doors open into stairwells, and he can’t maneuver around them.

The DSS has a  24-hour elevator repair team on speed dial, Stumper said.

According to the ADA, public institutions like IU have to make buildings accessible to all students by providing accommodations like accessible bathroom stalls and elevators if the building is more than one floor.

Many of IU’s buildings were built before 1990, however, and were not held up to the ADA standards.

Currently, accessible parking sits between Merrill Hall and the Jacobs School of Music’s annex. Those coming from Third Street in need of accessible entryways must go around the annex and up a lift to get into Merrill Hall.

“They’re redoing that whole area,” Stumper said. “It’s because the grade of the land is more than accessibility.”

Stumper said while it’s realistic to change the ramp at Merrill Hall, there are places on campus where it would be too difficult or a financial burden on the school to make it accessible to students with accessibility issues.

She said she thinks these problems on campus do encourage students to look at alternative colleges.

“It’s old,” Stumper said. “It’s got cobblestone in places. It can never be smoothed out.”
Crain said he knows the financial burden the University would be under if it renovated all of its buildings to be accessible, but he does want the university to communicate with the DSS regularly.

“If I’m not going to graduate in four years due to the accessibility issues,” Crain said, “I’m thinking I’ll be done in six.”

Waggoner said she’d like to see changes to IU’s campus, but only if it’s in the right direction.  She recommended IU’s architects seek more input from disabled students when considering new additions to the campus.

“You can only really deal with a problem adequately when you speak to the experts,” she said. “And the experts are the people that maneuver it everyday with issues.”

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