The grates in the sidewalk matter. So does the level and width of the sidewalk. Doors matter—the opening force, location; proximity to one another. Slopes matter too. As do building signage, handrails and parking spaces—these are all aspects that must be considered when ensuring the accessibility of a space.
These components, and more, are outlined in an Accessibility Checklist that was compiled by the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center Northwest. With the checklist, schools and businesses can take a closer look at where they meet and fail to meet accessibility standards.
Seattle University nursing professor Susan Matt had her students use this checklist last fall to look closely at our own campus’s accessibility.
The result, she said, is that we have work to do.
“We pride ourselves on diversity and culture,” Matt said. “But this is really an ignored diverse human condition.”
But students are refusing to be ignored any longer. With a recent student-run petition to increase accessibility on campus and the addition of a permanent disabilities representative on SGSU, Seattle U students with disabilities are finding a louder voice.
“These are people who are vulnerable not because they can’t do, but because nobody can see what they can do,” Matt said. Hopefully, that will change.
Senior Shandra Benito has been one of the leaders on a We the Redhawks petition to advocate for that change. The petition calls for an additional full-time staff member in the Disability Services office and an appointed person in every other office, club and department on campus who is trained to advocate and serve as a liaison for students with disabilities.
Student Brandon Moak is another leader for the petition and a volunteer disabilities representative for SGSU. His role was recently instated as an elected and paid SGSU position for next year.
In that role, Moak has worked to help students with disabilities find support on campus.
But, he said, “it shouldn’t have to be the students advocating for themselves. There should be somebody on the administrative side that, when a complaint is brought to them, they take it from there. What I call it is like bulldog activism—they get something in their mouth and they just don’t let it go until it’s fixed. We don’t have that right now.”
The Disability Services office is doing a lot, Moak and Benito said, but with the small staff it isn’t realistic for them to meet student need. Kiana Parker is in charge of alternative media in the Disability Services office. In that position, she works to make and convert class media and materials into multiple accessible forms. Parker agreed that the office needs more people.
“We’re hoping that the university recognizes that the population of students with disabilities is growing and that we don’t want to make students wait two weeks to get an appointment,” she said. “And that’s often what happens.”
Seattle U isn’t alone, though. Schools nationwide are facing the challenge of campus accessibility. Through research, Benito and Moak found that other schools too feel they are lacking in this area.
Gonzaga, another Washington Jesuit institution, has five full time staff members in their disability services office, three of whom do student interfacing with the 600 students registered in the department, Moak said. Seattle U’s 930 registered students have an office of four full-time employees—with only one doing student interfacing.
Though Gonzaga is serving fewer students with more staff, employees on the Spokane campus told Benito it still isn’t enough.
“We’re just behind other schools and other schools feel behind,” Benito said. “So we’re behind the behind.”
For Matt, there are good examples places that are getting it right. She came to Seattle U from University of Washington, where there is an entire studies program devoted to disability education, advocacy and outreach. Additionally, Matt has attended conferences internationally on higher education and disabilities where the attitude toward disabilities was much different.
“People with disabilities are respected and they study these things that we don’t even acknowledge exist. I would really like to see…a disability studies program here to call attention to a whole population that’s ignored,” she said. “In our society it’s become kind of a call to arms. People are marginalized because they have disabilities, why is that?”
Matt herself has lived with hearing loss and struggled to receive adequate accommodations for her classes. Her course works to increase student’s education about the reality of disabilities and help them to understand what it is like to have the label of “disabled” in American society. She had a variety of guest speakers visit the class throughout the quarter and at the end of the class students commented on the value of those visits.
“I think exposure to people with disabilities eliminates some of the fear that people have and I think that’s where Seattle U can make a really big difference is by being open to people with disabilities so that our students have the experience and understand that they’re just people with differences, just like you,” Matt said.
What is happening among students with the petition and the SGSU position is positive, Parker said. These are issues that affect everyone.
“The issues that face these students, I feel like everybody across campus should have an interest in,” Parker said. Moak said students should be aware of the ways they can be active with this advocacy by applying to be the SGSU disabilities representative next year—when students make noise, people listen, he said. Already Public Safety is working to increase accessible parking in the main parking lot.
“Sometimes when you’re talking about disabilities, people don’t want to be outspoken,” Moak said. “It is a very sensitive issue and I understand that. But at the same time, equal access and inclusivity, to me, is a no brainer.”