Monday, September 28, 2009

When a campus has construction, wheelchair users face even more access issues

From The Towerlight, the student newspaper at Towson University in Maryland:

In 60 minutes, a person could do a lot of things – watch two episodes of his or her favorite sitcom, make a dozen or more bowls of ramen, or take a long nap. For Kiara Gittens, however, 60 minutes is her commute to class – and she lives on campus.

Gittens, a junior at Towson, is physically disabled and has to get around via her motorized wheelchair. With construction on campus being something seen more often, she said that it takes her at least an hour in order to get to class on time.

“I don’t like it at all. It has made my life horrible,” she said. “This is now my third year. Never in my life have I had to go through all this drama just to get to class. Figuring out how to just get around is so much work.”

Because of the construction, temporary wooden ramps were built under the Lecture Hall steps to help the disabled get to Linthicum Hall. Vice president for student affairs Deb Moriarty said that the ramps were “built to standards,” but Gittens said that they are too narrow to navigate.

“It’s barely maneuverable at all,” Gittens said. “The fact that they have the ramp where they have it causes issues, because student groups set up tables there. Then I have to figure out a way to get around those tables in addition to trying to just get around the ramps. It’s impossible.”

The administration hadn’t heard that there were problems with the ramp, according to Moriarty. She also said Disability Support Services has been doing what they can to provide alternate routes.

“They try to plan with access in mind, and it’s not always going to be the same access that it was before, but we try to make sure that we can reasonably get disabled students to where they need to go,” Moriarty said.

Provost Marcia Welsh said more action needs to be taken, such as going beyond the minimum requirement, in order to help the disabled students on campus.

“We have some challenges, and we need to make sure we’re not just doing the letter of the law, but the right thing for students who need a college education,” Welsh said.

Other things, such as the handicapped-accessible doors in every campus building, also require attention as soon as they break down, Welsh said.

“[With] those kind of things, I think we have no excuse,” Welsh said. “We need to make sure that they are working. Having a slope be four percent instead of five percent is a different issue, but I think handicap-accessible doors should be fixed immediately.”

Gittens has also faced challenges regarding stairs on campus appearing where they haven’t before, and that “walking people” don’t understand the difficulty of getting around campus. Welsh agreed.

“Sometimes, I think if you’ve never been in the situation, you don’t appreciate the challenges,” Welsh said.

Moriarty said that the services offered to disabled students are responsive.
“I feel really good with the services that we provide for students with disabilities,” Moriarty said. “If we continue to hear about concerns, we will do our best to alleviate those concerns as quickly as possible.”

But Gittens said that the University isn’t doing enough.

“They don’t do anything. They closed a walkway to repave it and I had to go all the way around Hawkins Hall to get to class, and I ended up being late,” Gittens said. “They didn’t even tell us at all.”

Until the construction is over, it’s going to be a regular hour transit for Gittens.

“It’s my only option,” she said. “Otherwise, I’m not going to get to class.”