Junior Noah Seidel, president of Disabilities Advocacy Student Alliance, has to take a longer route to enter buildings, like the HUB, that don’t have a main entrance that is universally accessible.
Senior Amanda Wilber, right, and senior Mandy Lowe participate in the Ableism Awareness event in McCarty Hall on Wednesday to experience what it is like to be visually impaired.
During his first visit to the UW, junior Noah Seidel was left behind. It was his freshman orientation, a time of which most students have memories of awkward bonding exercises and a tour of campus. However, this was not the case for Seidel. When his freshman orientation leader started the tour, Seidel was in the elevator, taking the accessible route in order to join his group. When he got out of the elevator, his group had left him. Lost on campus without his tour group and scrambling to find them, he expected there would be wheelchair-accessible routes next to every staircase on campus. This was not the case.
“People aren’t aware of people with disabilities,” Seidel said, the Disability Advocacy Student Alliance president. “People just don’t notice how inaccessible the campus is.”
Members of the resident-assistant class freshmen Alex Pollack, Angie Pratt, Bethany Poon, sophomore Gennie Gebhart and junior Jonathan Zepf, created a program called Ableism Awareness.
“Ableism Awareness gives people a perspective on what it’s like to be disabled and help them understand about how they take their day-to-day activities for granted, like being able to see, hear and use both hands,” Pollack said. “Blindfolding people while getting ice cream seems weird, but when thousands of people have to go through this experience each day, it puts it in perspective. It’s a lot harder than people would have thought; they are in a greater need for people to be helping them out. It was interesting to see people using friends and moving toppings toward them. The loss of independence is evident in the program.”
After choosing toppings for their sundaes while blindfolded, students watched a muted episode of Glee and addressed concerns of disrespectful terms such as “insane,” “crazy” and “retarded,” which people use on a day-to-day basis.
“A lot of the time, people do not see language connected to people,” said Marisa Hackett, a graduate student and member of the Advisory Committee on Disability Issues. “I think it has an impact. People still use these words, and it has a negative impact. It embeds a negative image of people with disabilities.”
The committee seeks to improve the UW campus for students, staff and visitors by moving from the standard of giving accessibility to the idea of universal design.
Universal design is the idea that when you are creating a product or service, you include the broadest design for everyone.
“A lot of things are universally designed that we don’t notice, such as automatic door openers at supermarkets or ATMs, which are already designed with braille, which is why there are even drive-thru ATMs with braille,” said Dan Comden, access technology consultant of the Access Technology Lab (ATL). “The idea with universal design is to design something without modifying it or themselves, like tables with adjustable height.”
This means making sure that classroom materials are already available in other formats, such as large print, instead of students going through the disability office. Also, PDFs, which are widely used by professors, are not always accessible, because the material cannot be converted to electronic text without taking extra steps. An electronic copy allows students to use tools on the computer such as TextSpeak, which reads material as it highlights, or ZoomText, which enlarges print to help students who have difficulty reading material with smaller fonts.
The ATL has the capability to turn Microsoft Word documents into braille. However, since braille literacy is rather low, many blind people use audio formats instead. The idea of universal design would provide an audio possibility for everyone.
Websites need to be universally designed because some people are unable to use a computer mouse. It is important that websites be navigable through the keyboard alone.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Comden said. “Making sure that any advances in technology include students with disabilities.”
Many of the buildings on campus are accessible but not universally designed. For example, both Smith and Miller Halls have accessible entrances at the back and sides of the buildings, but there is no accessible main entrance from the Quad to Miller, which is the way that most students would enter.
“It’s like you’re a second-class citizen because you have to go through a side door,” Seidel said.
Since many of the Greek houses were built in the 1900s, the building designs did not include ramps, and since they are too expensive to remodel, they are not accessible.
Ryan Benson, an alumnus of Phi Kappa Tau, said his house built a wooden ramp for him, but it has since collapsed. Since some of the Greek houses have back entrances, Benson was able to enter the house, but once inside, it was difficult to get around.
“I had to stay in the dorms my first year, but I went there [the fraternity] almost everyday,” Benson said. “Most of the fun is on the third floor, so I have to park on the basement and walk, crawl or get help to get up the four flights of stairs, which is like 10 flights for a person without a physical disability.”
Hackett’s committee is working on a five-year plan to getting the vision of universal design across to the broader UW community.
For on-campus buildings that are being remodeled, such as the HUB, it is important to have a main entrance that is accessible for everyone instead of creating an alternative route using elevators, because this is still creating a division between students.
In Smith Hall, one of the disability entrances leads straight into a lecture hall. Students who see the blue and white disability symbol assume it is an entrance into the building, not a lecture hall.
Seidel said it’s inconvenient because you have to go through another entrance, and if you are with a friend you just met, you feel like a burden to ask to go around the building.
“If a building was universally designed, then there would be no more stairs,” Seidel said. “For example, instead of creating two separate entrances in Smith, there should be one entrance for all.”
Proponents of the idea say the implementation of universal design would benefit everyone, not just those with disabilities.
“Students doing events has brought more people into the disability movement on campus and raised awareness about disability issues, but there’s still more work to be done,” Hackett said. “I hope that UW becomes a progressive model for universal design.”
Reach reporter Charlotte Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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