The Accessibility of College Campuses for Students with Physical Disabilities

Samantha Fleishman
May 10, 2017 · 6 min read

I entered the fourth floor of the library, searching for my friend. When I found her, she was comparing torsos and leg lengths with another girl, Julia. “Sit up, you’re the same height as almost all of my friends,” Nora quipped. “Stand up, no I’m not” said Julia defiantly. They both laughed. I sat down to begin my work, unsure about how to engage or whether I should try to.

We had a fire drill the previous day and the pair of friends were still musing about the staircases. “If there’s a fire, take the stairs?” Nora questioned. “I don’t know what the hell you’re supposed to do if you’re in a wheelchair,” she said.

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Nora Weber and Julia (Jules) Gillis are both students at Skidmore College with physical disabilities. This semester, I’ve grown to know them both well. In spending time with them both, I’ve been exposed to a wealth of information that, as a non-disabled student, I most likely never could have encountered without them.

Jules went on to speak diplomatically about walking down the stairs from her second-floor dorm during the fire drill. “They didn’t approve my application for an accessible single,” she explained to me. A representative from the Office of Residential Life told her she was “a great walker,” in response to her request. Nora and Jules both commented on how they feel lucky to be sometimes able-bodied, in the sense that they can walk and climb stairs. But this dual-identity can also be difficult to navigate. “But you risk putting yourself in a box when you appear able.” Julia said. When people say things like “wow, I’d never know you were part of this subordinate group,” the reaction reaffirms the concept that it’s societally difficult but moreover that the group is undesirable. “We’re just differently abled,” Julia concluded.

Nora has a genetic disorder characterized by fragile bones, a disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI). Throughout her first semester, Nora navigated Skidmore’s campus on foot and by means of her motorized wheelchair. In later weeks, when the elevators Nora needed to change floors were broken, she had to slowly and carefully make her way up or down stairs.

Jules has Hypophosphatemic rickets — a disease that makes her bones soft. Subsequently her legs bow. Consequently — they hurt. Jules needed a new surgery every time her legs grew more — when she was growing up. By college she no longer needed surgeries, but still experiences chronic pain.

They continued talking about how they don’t always want to be self-advocative because neither of them want to have to talk about their disability all the time. They take pride in their own self-sufficiency. This initial conversation sparked a bone in my body which begged to learn more.

While Nora and Jules provided me with a look into the perspective of a student with a disability, I wondered what national statistics had to say about the disabled student population. I began with government data research.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with a disability are less likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree than people with no disability. Among people age 25 and older in 2014, 16.4 percent of people with a disability had completed at least a bachelor’s degree while 34.6 percent of people with no disability had completed the same degree.

To explore the definition of “disability” I looked to The Education for All Handicapped Children Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Both identified specific categories of disabilities under which children can be eligible for special education or related services. IDEA defines the term “child with a disability” to mean a child: “with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.”

To frame my research, I pulled from the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics. “Students With Disabilities at Postsecondary Education Institutions,” are statistically documented. Per the Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (PEQIS), I learned that only 68% of private 4-year colleges in the US enroll students with mobility limitation/orthopedic impairment.

Knowing that Skidmore College resides within that 68%, I wondered how the other 32% of private colleges viewed their enrollment trends.

Judith L. Elkin LMSW, a Vassar alumna who majored in Environmental Design (and how the built environment effects people) and worked in Vassar’s admissions office for many years, provided valuable insight. “Some colleges can’t be navigated by wheelchairs, Ithaca and Cornell are far too steep for example,” she said. “Sometimes it may be an issue of discrimination, but in today’s world I’d guess that the data reflect a mere lack of applicants.”

Major cities and wealthy towns have higher populations of disabled individuals simply due to a greater wealth of resources. And the same can be said for college campuses.

In the United States there are more than six million high school students with disabilities, and approximately 6% of college undergrads have a physical disability, according to US Census Bureau data from 2010.

While I tried to decide which college to attend based upon school ranking, location and tuition, students with physical disabilities must also consider whether or not the college has sufficient accommodations.

I hadn’t ever considered the impact of disability on post-secondary education participation. But for Nora, accessibility and sufficient resources were primary factors. “The covered walkways were why I came to Skidmore,” she once told me.

Nora’s commentary on the physical pathways of campus prompted questions about Skidmore’s accessibility resources. I conducted to projects within this realm. The first, was the creation of a map detailing of Skidmore’s accessible/not accessible locations, entranceways, and pathways.

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To generate the above map, I had Nora annotate an existing map of Skidmore and then draft her own version as well.

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My second investigation pertained to the automatic door openers on campus. Around holiday time, Nora expressed her frustration about the many broken buttons, elevators and the weathered automatic doors — all things exacerbated by winter ice and cold temperatures. I started paying attention to other students the buttons for fun and noticing the ones that were very clearly out of service.

I surveyed 165 buttons all over campus and found that 139 of the door openers were functional and that 26 were broken.

Handicap buttons, working and broken, present within Skidmore’s campus buildings:

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Data and visualization provided by Samantha Fleishman

Here, the blue icons signify working buttons and the red signify those which are currently out of order.

I also tested each of the school’s 16 elevators. All but one of the elevators worked, however, the broken one was located in the only wheel-chair accessible dorm on campus. This felt backwards.

“But I’m the only student in a wheelchair,” Nora communicated in an interview earlier this semester. “Nobody checks the elevators,” she continued, “so if they’re broken, I won’t be able to get to my classes.”

Stella Young shared in her TEDtalk, “I really think that this lie that we’ve been sold about disability is the greatest injustice. It makes life hard for us. No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”

There is a balance between self-sufficiency and self-advocacy. Within the United States I believe we see disability as a disservice to others rather than to those with the actual disability. For this reason, I believe disabled peoples have had to learn how to be self-advocates when other able-bodied peoples may just be self-sufficient.

I believe that since each individual deals with disability differently, what they require and how they process their disability should be self-determined. I think skidmore would benefit from creating a plan that asks students of disability what kind of accommodations they would like to have and ask them to strike a personal balance between how much they want to be self-advocating and how much they want to be asked to be helped.

With regards to her disability within the context of her college campus, Nora shared: “Disability has a range. Even when I’m walking, I can only walk so far, and I can only walk so fast….but able-bodied people can always walk up ramps.”

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