It’s Monday morning, and you are rushing to class. You hurry to the building your classroom is in, and in the place of a door, there is a wall. You try a different entrance, and it’s the same: more walls. Another day, there’s a wall in the middle of the sidewalk, a wall in front of your dorm, a wall blocking the dining hall. No, this isn’t a bad dream: It’s what life is like for a person with a disability when ze is denied accessibility.
People with disabilities have the right to participate fully in all aspects of life. This is called the right to accessibility, and it is protected both under the federal government’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and by the ninth article in the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. Accessibility accommodations aim to prevent or overcome the “walls” that prevent people with disabilities from engaging fully in life, and they can range from building entrances with ramps to closed captioning and braille signs.
Obstacles for people with disabilities can vary widely as well. For a person with limited mobility, an obstacle can come in the form of a flight of stairs, a cracked sidewalk, or a lack of specialty parking. For a deaf person, this could be the absence of closed captioning or a sign language translator. Equally important are issues of accessibility for people with mental health disabilities, especially because they are often overlooked.
In compliance with the ADA, the federal government requires that public and private universities provide accessibility for people with disabilities. This mandate includes buildings built before the ADA was passed in 1990, campus housing, and administrative buildings. In addition to having a legal impetus to make many of its buildings accessible, the University is ethically obligated to provide accessibility for its students with disabilities. In spite of these obligations, Wesleyan’s campus has shortcomings when it comes to accessibility, which leave the University open to an ADA audit or an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights.
For example, the Davison Health Center does not have an accessible entrance, as stairs lead up to all entryways. If there is an accessible entrance, there are no clear signs indicating its location, and it is nowhere near either of the main two entrances or the parking lot. When I went to get my immunizations last year, I had to search in vain for an accessible entrance, struggle up a flight of stairs, and then manage a heavy door with my cane. Accessibility in a health center is important, as people with disabilities often need more regular physical health care than able-bodied people. Because dealing with the consequences of having a disability can be emotionally straining, getting to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is also crucial. However, to reach the second floor, where CAPS is located, even more stairs. Davison has no elevator. By failing to accommodate a wheelchair user or a person with limited mobility at the health center, the University denies these students their right to engage equally in the University’s resources.
The Van Vleck Observatory (VVO), where I work, is another example of an inaccessible building on this campus. VVO’s three entrances all have stairs, and its three floors (including the roof where several telescopes are located) all require managing steep stairs. For example, if I want to use any of the telescopes on the roof, I have to climb either a steep, narrow spiral staircase or three flights of sturdier stairs. Unlike the health center, the lack of accessibility at VVO affects more than just Wesleyan staff and students. As part of its public outreach efforts, the Astronomy Department hosts free weekly events for the public. These activities include telescope stargazing, informational talks, and additional events just for kids. By not making the observatory easily accessible, the University restricts these events to the able-bodied only and prevents staff, students, and visitors with disabilities from participating.
As I have frequently faced obstacles to access on campus, I have attempted to learn how I might rectify them on my own by perhaps applying for grants to fund ramps, elevators, or wheelchair lifts. Unfortunately, outside funding cannot support the structural changes that would drastically improve accessibility for people with limited mobility. Although I can apply for grants to purchase assistive technology and work to remove what small obstacles I can, the onus for improving access to its buildings is on the University alone.
Shanahan is a graduate student.