As a dusting of crystalline flakes morphs into another potential polar vortex, students will likely experience a myriad of emotions. My initial wonderment, for example, often dissipates into a slight annoyance and eventually transforms into a panicky concern to maintain my balance while dashing across campus. The University’s student body will soon be reintroduced to ever-too-familiar winter perils as they walk to class. Layers of ice will glaze sidewalks as we trudge through snow piles, and bitter winds will strike faces awaiting the arrival of delayed buses. Rather than endure the seasonal hazards, some students will choose encampment in the warm safety of dorms. For others, indoor confinement might seem like the only viable option.
While winter poses safety risks to the student community, seasonal hazards illustrate an issue on campus. Wintertime proves a hindrance for able-bodied students, but for students with mobility impairments, the external conditions greatly diminish accessibility and aggravate existing issues. Able-bodied students and faculty — as they go through their routines — unintentionally overlook challenges students with physical disabilities encounter daily. We often move effortlessly through our personal spheres and never consider the tremendous capability of our limbs to do so. Rather, we automatically accept this particular physical status as “normal.”
After a few minutes, a bus — which able-bodied individuals enter with ease — will come whisk them out of the cold. Students can strategically plan a walking route to minimize exposure to frigid temperatures by seeking out the nearest entrances, utilizing stairwells and elevators and traversing across corridors. If students still feel frozen, they can warm up with food from a dining hall. In certain areas of campus, these options aren’t necessarily available to students with mobility impairments. Hindrances to mobility may be a seasonal affliction for able-bodied students, but for students with physical disabilities, they’re lifelong concerns.
Numerous buildings currently pose challenges to students. According to Public Policy senior Ryan Bartholomew, chair of the Campus Accessibility and Disability Affairs Commission, “a lot of the buildings, even if they are accessible, sometimes are hard for people to access.” The commission works to address complaints and concerns about mobility on campus. Even recently updated dormitories, such as East Quad Residence Hall, pose problems to a segment of the student body. The handicapped-accessible door at East Quad is located far away from the building’s main entrance, and the door is locked throughout the day, which prevents students from entering the building for class or for a meal unless they live there.
Although I previously lived on North Campus, I was surprised to learn of the multiple difficulties mobility-impaired students encounter there. Parents and hungry students are supposed to be reassured by the promise of convenient, healthy meals at the University’s various dining halls. Yet, Bursley Residence Hall lacks an elevator or any means that would allow its dining hall to be accessible to students with physical disabilities students. Likewise, the Duderstadt Center doesn’t possess a “continuous elevator” to the facility’s third floor, which hinders students who need to access resources at the Dude or to simply meet with a study group.
However, the most striking example of inefficiency is located at the Bob & Betty Beyster Building. Although the BBB possesses a fully functional elevator, it currently doesn’t operate after 8 p.m. — forcing mobility-impaired students finishing a late evening of studying to walk outside to a parking lot at the top of the hill to await Paratransit’s arrival. During a video shoot to raise awareness about inaccessibility, I accompanied a student as he ascended the steep slope. The sidewalk nearly encircles the building — as well as a surrounding cluster of trees — and the route is significantly longer than the distance one would take up the stairwell within the BBB. This extended exposure to the elements has drastic effects. As Bartholomew noted, “People with mobility impairments are not moving their body as much as someone who is able-bodied … so when they get cold, they typically stay cold for a long period of time.”
Working in cooperation with University Housing and other University departments, the Campus Affairs and Disability Commission implemented measures such as snow removal procedures and protocols for removing bikes from ramps. The University has responded to requests and complaints in the past, but many issues persist. The University’s resources for students with mobility impairments are either non-existent, difficult to find, inefficient or unnecessarily distant. Mobility status is a social identity that far too often escapes consideration in our minds. Forming a diverse community requires acknowledging the need for a wide variety of resources for all students in order to aid them in achieving an education and personal growth. While the University must ensure resources for all students are consistently accessible and accommodating, we, as students, should work to raise personal awareness and reform our perceptions of a truly diverse student body.
Melissa Scholke can be reached at email@example.com.