Inaccessible Accessibility

Aisling #opinion

You know what? College is hard— shocking, I know. Everyone has something that adds to the burden of learning what we need to know for our future, be it work, family emergencies, or visa troubles, everyone’s burden is heavy and should be treated as such. Nobody deserves to struggle on the way from point A to point B. So why is my college pulling me back by the ankle even though it asks me if I need a hand?

Everyone has a right to an education. At least that’s how it should be; how this country likes to talk about it. The University of Oregon, and honestly our society as a whole, spins diversity as a boon and does the least they could possibly do to uphold their self praise. And I do mean the very least they could do, disabled people are so used to being overlooked and forgotten that you would think that this wouldn’t be anything new but somehow the University of Oregon campus has found ways to shock me everyday.

The front doors of many buildings that are seemingly accessible by wheelchair do not have buttons to open them. This forces people to wonder which side of the building they should try first to just get into the building before having to figure out how to then get to their classroom. For me this means the choice of hurting myself opening the door by hand or hurting myself walking around the building. Why must those of us who already have trouble with mobility continuously be asked to, quite literally, go the extra mile?

Buttons to open doors are often blocked by architecture, both permanent and temporary, and are inaccessible to wheelchair users and everybody else who might use them. The example that irks me the most is when a trash can is placed in front of one; I must either stop using my cane to free up my hand or put my cane in the trash to open a fucking door. Between this and the fact that many accessibility ramps are at the back of buildings with the dumpsters sends a clear message. I know many people see disabled people as disposable but I’ve never experienced it quite so literally before.

On top of buttons being blocked, the University of Oregon has changed them from the classic and very visible bright blue to a stainless steel and many of them have been made smaller to camouflage them against the decor. I guess visible disability accessibility ruins the aesthetic that the college is going for in its new buildings.

And if we want to talk about literally making it from point A to point B, campus sidewalks are uneven and falling apart. You would think a college as rich, successful, and proud of its diversity as this one would make sure that you could walk without tripping, let alone roll a wheelchair around. Another part of getting from point A to point B comes in the form of wheelchair ramps: you would think that this would be a no-brainer, an easy way to keep the stairs college architects love so much. But I continuously find them located out of the way, with sharp turns that are hard on wheelchair users, or used as a parking spot for those tiny campus staff carts.

The ramp for Lawrence Hall closest to the bus stops is used by many off campus students to get to class; it is not only led up to by a steep, broken sidewalk but is steep itself and made out of gravel— a slipping hazard for abled students and a complete blockage for disabled ones.

Once you are in the buildings, you are no better off. Elevators constantly break, are out of the way or hidden, require attendants to operate, make worrying sounds, or just plain don’t exist. Entire buildings are inaccessible. Buildings that hold classes, dorms, and student support structures are completely blocked off from those of us who can’t make our way up stairs. If a disabled student can’t make it to their class, it is up to THEM to 1) schedule an appointment with AEC (the Accessible Education Center) to set up a classroom switch, a challenge because it can take weeks to get an appointment, 2) shuffle paperwork between AEC and their doctor to make sure they have the specific wording that is needed for their accommodations, and 3) find a new classroom for the class. They must do this all while trying not to fall behind in the class they can’t even reach, taking their other classes, and handling all their other responsibilities and difficulties.

All this comes together to create a picture of a campus that is not only inaccessible but insultingly so. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has been around since 1990. That’s 31 years since people decided that maybe companies and campuses couldn’t be trusted to do the bare minimum and needed regulation to push them to be inclusive in more than just words. And yet the University of Oregon has somehow just…not done that. And that’s not even taking into account that the ADA isn’t enough— it should be a foundation to build off of, a starting point, yet the University of Oregon seems to think it’s the whole building. When I see their subpar efforts to placate the law, all I see is an awareness of their duties to their students and their lack of desire to fulfill them.

The very college I attend should not be yet another roadblock I must contend with to get my education. I have more than enough of those already. If they don’t want me here, I wish they at least had the courage to tell me to my face, because these tripping hazards–both literal and metaphorical–are growing tedious. It’s way past time we tear them down and build up a system that actually meets our needs and doesn’t just put up a facade of inclusivity.

We need a large-scale overhaul of public campus spaces to increase access around and within buildings quickly, easily, and practically. We need more trained professionals in AEC and other departments who know the school system they work within to ensure everyone gets the help they need when they need it. Students need to be made aware of the services that are available to them. The University must start going beyond the requirements of the law to meet the needs of their students.

Everyone has a right to an education. It’s 2021, it’s time to make that true in practice, not just theory.