On sunny spring days, thousands of UW students walk through The Quad on their way to class. Many will traverse short flights of stairs to reach the beautiful main entrances of buildings like Smith Hall, Savery Hall, and the Art Building. But some of their peers are excluded from those entrances. For students in wheelchairs, just a few stairs can make an entrance impossible.
“There’s a flight of stairs leading up to the [art] building, so I have to go around the back to the garbage chute to get into the building,” ASUW Student Disability Commission (SDC) intern and power-chair user Lindsey Muszkiewicz said. “It’s like something out of the sitcom ‘Speechless.’”
It’s not just stairs that are a problem. When tree roots grow underneath older sidewalks, they can push up part of the pathway and make it inaccessible for wheelchairs. Many handicap accessible buttons are too high off the ground to reach from a sitting position or extremely difficult to push. The lack of sufficiently bright lighting on campus at night can be problematic for many students with vision-related disabilities. Even elevators can be inaccessible.
“I had a class in Loew that was on the second floor,” Muszkiewicz said. “There was one elevator, and it was too small for my power chair to get into, almost. I could cram myself in there, couldn’t turn around, couldn’t reach the buttons, and had to ask for help to use the elevator.”
Luckily for Muszkiewicz, students can submit complaints through an online form when they come across an accessibility barrier. Disability Resources for Students (DRS) was able to move her class into another building. However, that doesn’t mean DRS will always go beyond the minimum legal requirements of the ADA to improve accessibility.
“I’ve reported some handicap accessible buttons that were out of my reach, or too difficult for me to use,” Muszkiewicz said. “The University of Washington insisted that they were legally within the limits of the ADA law, so they didn’t have to change the location or the type of button that was already there. Their solution was to have me go through a completely different building that connected to Gowen because the button was at a lower height through the other building ... I could use that button, go through like seven different hallways, and then get into Gowen.”
The main problem, according to some disability advocates, is the lack of universal design on campus. Universal design is the concept of designing spaces that are completely accessible to everyone. Rather than having a separate entrance with a ramp, a universally designed building wouldn’t have stairs leading up to an entrance in the first place.
“What impacts my disability is not my disability itself or me as an individual, but the fact that I can’t use elevators by myself, the fact that I have to go all the way around Red Square just to get to Kane Hall or any other building on Red Square, the fact that I have to go all the way around the back of The Quad to get into many buildings,” Muszkiewicz said.
DRS does not have the resources to fix every accessibility issue on campus, and neither does the Disability Services Office (DSO), which works with staff and faculty. Since universal design is not yet a reality on the UW campus, these offices must work to handle whatever individual requests fall under their jurisdiction and capabilities. It is not always clear which university office to contact about a given accessibility issue. Accommodations can take anywhere from a few hours to several weeks, depending on what is needed.
“Accommodations can come in so many different forms,” DSO office manager Ian Campbell said. “There’s certain accommodations that we may be able to implement in a day, and then there’s other accommodations that may require extensive contributions by external vendors. We’re working with larger time tables, so it really depends.”
Meanwhile, student advocates continue to push for more awareness of accessibility issues. The SCD recently ran the F*** Stairs Campaign to raise awareness of unnecessary stairs. Participants pledged to avoid using outdoor stairs for a month to better understand how the external environment impacts many of their peers.
“A few able-bodied students have said things to the effect of: ‘You just don’t think about it,’” SDC director Ashley D’Ambrosio said. “And I thought that was really powerful, because students in wheelchairs think about this every day. The fact that as people without mobility-related disabilities, we don’t have to think about it, is a sign of our privilege.”
Another physical accessibility issue recently made the news when an alum sued the UW over the lack of sufficient accessible parking on campus. The university and the plaintiffs agreed on a process to meet ADA standards over the next 15 years.
“The issue of segregating disabled people through our built environment is pervasive,” D’Ambrosio said. “We are not thinking about it and so it is often times not considered newsworthy, or even worth acting on, until there is a lawsuit.”
The culture of “not thinking about it” is so pervasive that even diversity events are not consistently accessible to the disabled community.
“Recently there was a forum held by the Student Advisory Board, intending to ask candidates for the ASUW board of directors about how their role intersects with efforts to respect the inclusion of marginalized peoples,” D’Ambrosio said. “This forum was held in the Ethnic Cultural Theatre [which is inaccessible to students in wheelchairs] … It says something that this event has been held in this space for years, without anyone showing concerns that disabled students could not attend. It is another example of: ‘We just didn’t think about it.’”
For the most part, the UW is able to accommodate students with physical disabilities at a basic level. Students in wheelchairs and blind students are able to take classes and graduate from the university. However, the situation is not perfect.
“I haven’t really had any negative impact on my education or living experience due to my disabilities,” Muszkiewicz said. “But the inaccessible environments have had negative impacts on my education and living experience. I’ve made it work. But I’m fortunate like that. Some people aren’t so lucky.”
Reach reporter Leslie Fisher at email@example.com. Twitter: @lesliefish3r