Disabled students navigate campus accessibility issues

Disabled students navigate campus accessibility issues

Will Potts | Photo Editor

With rain pounding outside her window, Christy Smith decided to not go to class, but the rain itself was not her concern. Smith is legally blind and feared that the noise of the storm would drown out honks from oncoming traffic.

Tulane, and New Orleans as a whole, has been criticized, for being inaccessible and unsafe for people with disabilities even without unfavorable weather. With several residence halls like Josephine Louise Hall, Aron Residences, Irby Hall and others being largely inaccessible to students with mobility needs, students have raised concerns of being left out of the Tulane community.

“There are very serious issues on campus, and we should be angry and we should be proud of standing in who we are as people with disabilities,” said Smith, who is president of Students and Advocates Supporting Strong Education Diversity.

HOUSING REVIEW PROCEDURE

Under the 2010 revised version of the Americans with Disabilities Act passed originally in 1999, colleges and universities must construct all new buildings to be disability-friendly and provide equal opportunity for students with disabilities. This would mean that wheelchair ramps, elevators and automated doors are non-negotiable facilities to accommodate all students.

Though all new buildings added to Tulane’s campus must comply with these standards, Tulane is not required to make changes to older residence halls like JL, Irby and Phelps Hall as long as housing accommodations are provided elsewhere on campus.

“We can’t always go back and retrofit the [older] buildings with the resources it needs to be fully accessible, but as long as we’re providing an accessible experience for the students, we’re at least meeting the burden,” Randolph said. “I’m not saying that’s ideal, it’s far from [it], but sometimes we have to deal with the resources that we have available.”

Upon arrival at Tulane in spring 2015, Smith was told she would be living on the third floor of Aron. Aron, like many of the older buildings on Tulane’s campus, has no elevator. One of her accommodations as a legally blind individual is a building with no outdoor stairs. Because it takes 6 to 12 weeks to process students through ODS, Smith was not able to get her special accommodations approved before moving in.

“I can’t do outdoor stairs too frequently, especially when I was using a cane, just because falling down stairs is something I am terrified of,” Smith said. “It’s just super unsafe and puts everyone at risk … so I called housing and said ‘hey, this isn’t going to work for me, could you please put me in a first floor apartment.’ They said, ‘well, until you’re processed in ODS, we can’t move you.'”

Smith now uses a guide dog to assist her. HRL has a policy that dogs are only permitted in rooms with external entrances. Smith was later placed in an accessible room in Weatherhead Hall.

Students seeking residential accommodations would first file a request for approval with the Goldman Office of Disability Services, who spend several weeks reviewing a student’s medical documentation and their verbal interview among other factors before approving. This information is then routed to Housing and Residence Life.

According to Associate Director of Housing Facilities Jon Tingley, the process in housing is meant to be as convenient as possible. An assignment preferences page in the online housing application ensures that students can notify HRL in advance if they plan on seeking residential accommodations with ODS, such as a single room or bathroom with a roll-in shower.

“We’re committed to providing the best possible experience for all residents at Tulane, including students who need a housing accommodation,” Tingley said. “We work to limit the amount of steps a student needs to take to be placed in a space that best fits the student’s needs based on our room availability.”

Diana Morris, Community Director for Greenbaum House, JL, Aron and Willow Residences, said that the university’s limited space on campus makes it more difficult to build new, accessible buildings.

“When it comes to our accommodations, our buildings are our buildings,” Morris said. “We’re not going to be building any new halls any time soon, so it’s really about working within the structures that we currently have in place to meet the need of the student population.”

BEYOND UPTOWN

New Orleans has city-wide problems with roads and sidewalks and its infrastructure is frequently under construction. This makes it difficult for individuals with certain types of physical disabilities, such as those that limit mobility, to move around. Tulane is not exempt from this constant renovation: plans exist in the coming years to redesign buildings like the business school and the Lavin-Bernick Center.

“We have the inherent problems that are all over this city like roots from oak trees that bust up pavements,” Randolph said. “Pathways aren’t always accessible, not every building that we work with is accessible. We’ve been successful in our abilities to manage those needs so far through strategic relationships with other campus partners.”

An audible crosswalk system has been added to all crosswalks on campus, making roads safer for visually impaired students like Smith.

MORE THAN BUILDINGS

In terms of ODS helping to accommodate students’ academic needs, Smith gave the department high praise.

“All of the professors I’ve had for the most part have been really helpful and they’ve wanted to help,” Smith said. “They’ve asked me how they can do better and if I have issues with them, then those were addressed pretty quickly. ODS is really on top of addressing those academic issues.”

Randolph said the office will undergo changes for the next school year including officially changing its name to the Goldman Center for Student Accessibility on July 1. A new logo and branding campaign will attempt to educate Tulane’s campus about disability-friendly language and attitudes.

“Instead of just trying to accommodate the needs of a few individual students that might have specific needs, [the focus of our office is geared] to try to encourage the larger campus community to be more thoughtful about course design and building design to create a more accessible environment for everybody,” Randolph said.

In addition to ODS taking steps to change campus climate, SASSED is working to promote disability rights at Tulane.

“We’re working on developing some educational curriculum for students and faculty and student affairs staff,” Smith said. “We’re trying to get that required for all student affairs staff, anyone who is going to be dealing with particularly vulnerable students. We want people to have that sensitivity training and just awareness about how to talk about these issues without sounding like a jerk.”

Smith said that she believes Tulane’s biggest neglect to students with disabilities is the lack of community and inclusion that is communicated.

“That’s what having inaccessible buildings tells people with disabilities,” Smith said. “It says, well, you can do some things on campus, but not others.”