A Tale of Inaccessibility at ODU: Our Manifesto

Ruth Osorio
Nov 26 · 9 min read

Access means everything! Typically, architects tend to only consider those who are able bodied and do the bare minimum to make sure the buildings don’t violate the ADA. But there is so much more that needs to be considered. Society is used to making our daily surroundings look “normal.” However, steps are not the norm for some! For some, steps are a barrier. Something as simple as the bathroom is even a barrier, especially when you can’t fit your motorized chair, your service animal or even go through your monthly cycle because the space was not built to fit you. Classrooms have to change! Bathrooms have to change! Daily spaces that should incorporate everyone have to change! Access is happiness, and it begins with an A because it comes first and it signifies all.

We completed an access audit on the first floor one of the oldest buildings at Old Dominion University, Batten Arts and Letters (BAL). The template that we used was the Radical Access Mapping Project (RAMP) template, which was created by disabled activists. Inclusivity and diversity are key points that Old Dominion stands for, and our class created this letter to address the issues that are not inclusive &/or accessible at all. The list of concerns include restroom issues, emergency preparedness, signage/wayfinding, and more. We measured, we observed, we took notes on what the first floor of BAL already does well and what needs to be improved in order to fully include everyone. We point out the issues and provide solutions to fully invite all people to be a part of our campus community.

All of these issues can be swept under the proverbial rug with a casual thought that, “Oh, this building was built before ADA codes and standards came into place, so I get it.” But the fact that the BAL is not up to ADA standards means that people literally can’t get it.

They can’t get to it.

They can’t navigate it.

They can’t move freely inside of it like abled people.

This means that ODU is failing some of their students. And failing some of us ultimately fails all of us.

I can’t hold it anymore: Restroom issues

Bathrooms have no discrimination, but the designers who build them typically do not take into consideration all who have to use them. Trans and non-binary folks, disabled people, people who menstraute, parents, and children all have to go to the bathroom at some point, but how can they? Here we stand for inclusivity; however, bathrooms, a space all have to use at some point, are not inviting for all. Parents are students, disabled people are students, trans folks are students… so why aren’t their needs considered? One may think “Oh I don’t fall into these categories, why does this matter to me?” You never know how you fit into these descriptions until a life changes happen to you. Life has a funny way of giving you that fire that you thought you did not have.

The first floor lacks a gender neutral bathroom. There are no changing tables or menstrual products in the bathrooms. The bathroom doors lack automatic openers; this prevents people who are in wheelchairs or scooters from getting into the bathroom easily. Everyone has to go, so let’s make sure everyone can. Here are some changes that can be made to give everyone access to the bathrooms, and thus, our Arts and Letters community:

  • Add signs or indications to the accessible stalls, so it’s clear which stalls are designed for wheelchair users.
  • Expand the entrance men’s accessible stall should to 33 inches according to build code (it is currently 29 inches wide, which is below average for a public accessible stall).
  • Lower the sinks in the bathrooms. Currently, the sinks are too high for people in wheelchairs to reach comfortably, making it hard and uncomfortable for people in wheelchairs because they have to reach up just to wash their hands.
  • Similarly, lower the hand dryers, paper towel dispensers, and soap dispensers, as they are currently too high for some disabled people to reach.
  • Add changing tables and tampon/pad dispensers to the bathrooms of BAL.

In case of fire, who can get out?: Emergency Preparedness Issues

Imagine a fire in a building. Now imagine that someone with mobility, communicative, or sensory disabilities is in the building. Can they get out? What is the process? Do they follow everyone else that has the capability to escape the building? Can they? Even if the building is not on fire and there is another type of emergency — active shooter, medical emergency, tornado, bomb threat, etc. — will someone with disabilities be able to complete the necessary actions to ensure their safety and the safety of others?

Emergency actions are something that many able-bodied individuals take for granted because buildings are designed with their ease of use — not those with disabilities. BAL is no different. In reality, BAL is probably more dangerous for all students in an emergency, because limiting possible emergency actions for those with disability-specific needs makes emergency situations more challenging and complex to overcome. When BAL adopts emergency protocols directly designed to assist disabled individuals, all of ODU will benefit from these upgrades. Emergency protocols that directly focus on the unique challenges that the disabled community faces while experiencing an emergency will also benefit a myriad of other communities that typically face similar challenges when exiting during an emergency, such as the elderly, children, pregnant persons, people using crutches from a recent game or injury, and Little People, etc.

Image description: the emergency exit from the BAL auditorium leads to an elevated concrete platform that goes out about five feet and then ends. The path beyond the platform is rough with dirt and grass, making it difficult for someone using a mobility aid to leave the platform in case of an emergency.

Emergency protocols within every floor on the Batten Arts and Letters building, desperately need to be re-designed, renovated, and rewritten. We must implement newer, safer, and realistic disability and neurodiverse designs within BAL’s architectural layouts and emergency egress routes, need to be implemented into current and future designs at a higher priority rate over designs that previously catered to able-bodied exiting procedures. Here are some ways we can make that a reality:

  • Revise emergency exits to lead to paved pathways as opposed to dirt pathways. Similarly, all steps with classrooms and floors must be updated to include grated slip-resistant ramps and paths.
  • Publicly posted emergency preparedness plans (and include secondary routes). These plans should accommodate large lettering, Braille, and tactile lettering for all occupants.
  • Install preventative disaster preparedness tools and establish training procedures for tools, such as: fire extinguishers, evacuation boards for body transport, flashlights, flare gun, First Aid Kit, and Defibrillator on each floor or bottom, middle, and top floors.
  • Establish a response team for each floor, in addition to assigning faculty within their respective classrooms and departments, with the direct task of addressing to students where emergency plans are posted, where emergency exits are located, and what will occur in the event of an emergency.
  • Lastly, faculty and staff should establish a plan to make sure all of their students — especially neurodivergent and disabled students — have safe routes of egress.
  • Identify a disability mobility response team for the campus community. This team can wear bright clothing or glow in the dark bands in order to visually guide exiting occupants to safety.

I can’t see or feel where to go: Signage Issues

It is so easy for anyone to get lost on this campus. Now, imagine being blind and trying to get to the auditorium for an event. Much of the directional signage in the building is without tactile or braille, which means that people who are blind cannot get around the building by themselves. It is nearly impossible for them to find their classes, professors’ offices, and events if they are new to the building. People without a visual disability do not fully value the importance of signage. Signs are a necessity for everyone to navigate a new space, and people who are visually disabled need tactile direction to move around space. Signage needs to be accessible to individuals who are visually impaired, so they know they are welcomed and embraced here. This would give the disability community the opportunity to feel a part of our campus community.

In order to accommodate all bodies and minds into our campus community, we demand the following changes be made to the signage in BAL:

  • Incorporate Braille and tactile lettering onto all signage, especially for the bathrooms, office numbers, and directional signage.
  • Increase the font size on all signages in the building.

Access means so much more than just space.

When entering the auditorium on the first floor of BAL, accessibility is not the first thing that comes to mind. On the contrary, the first noticeable thing about the space is the sheer number of stairs and narrow walkways between seats that make up the entire room. If you are looking for accessibility however, no worries, there is a desk for accessibility needs at the very back of the auditorium — up the stairs — meeting the minimum requirements for an accessibility desk in the space. Is it actually accessible? If you have the ability to get up the stairs, then yes. So the question should really be, is meeting the minimum requirement enough?

Image Description: a photograph taken from a desk at the back of an auditorium. The desk has a sign that reads “Accessible Seating; Do not Move.” The desk is position behind several rows of chairs and, unpictured, stairs.

In other words, an individual can have all of their accessibility needs technically met, but still feel excluded from the rest of the world. But true access leads to inclusion. Inclusion can be useful because inclusion seems to mean, to some, the same thing as equality. Everyone deserves to have a chance to form relationships with people who are outwardly different or invisibly so. That’s how it is supposed to be in the real world, but it is not. That’s how people with disabilities should feel on ODU’s campus, but we don’t.

Access is often discussed as only a concern for people with mobility and/or communication disabilities, but access also helps all people. A 2016 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics noted that 19.4 % of undergrads in the U.S. live with some form of disability and 11.9% postgraduates in the U.S. experience some form of disability. In essence, these numbers tell us that many students are dealing with both physical (visible) and/or mental (invisible) disabilities! Individuals with invisible disabilities notice sensory, social, and communication barriers that are around them in the spaces they occupy. In entryways, the lights flicker, bright posters are on the walls, and an individual has to walk through crowds of people in order to move around the building and get into their respective classrooms. Folks with physical disabilities have trouble moving around the BAL. This is about more than just educational accessibility. Individuals with any disability have been mis-labeled, misunderstood, and excluded from a lot of things that nondisabled people take for granted.

The auditorium is the perfect example of ways to NOT demonstrate accessibility. The desk in the back of the room represents more than access issues, but also concepts of unimportance, segregation, and overall prejudice against those in the disability community. This can also be said about anyone who might be presenting in this space that has access needs. The stage being several feet above the ground with narrow stairs on either side does not scream access. For that matter, none of the stairs in the entire space have handrails or stability means of any kind, making using them not only impossible for those without the ability, but also challenging for those that do. These aspects are only a few of the glaring access issues within the auditorium, with the table in the back still giving the impression that disabled people are welcomed when the reality is they are being rejected.

As explained many times throughout this discussion the needs of those in the disability community are more than minimum requirements and perceptions of meeting those needs. In fact, by only meeting the minimums and attempting to give the impression that access needs are being met, when in reality they are not, does nothing more than show just how little the disability community means when trying to be “inclusive.” Inclusivity should be about more than words and minimums. The disability community deserves more than a nod in the back of an auditorium signifying their needs are being met. It is not only insulting, but also demeaning that individuals with disabilities are not only excluded from this space, but also many other spaces on campus because minimums were chosen over real needs. Access is a human right, and the abilities of one human over another should not dictate how much access they have to making community with us.


Feminist Disability Studies Scholar-Activists at ODU

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