Picture this: You’re a student in a wheelchair at Purdue, trying to get into the Recitation Building for class. You press the handicapped button to open the door — nothing happens. You press it again. Nothing. You go across to a different entrance, and these buttons also seem broken. Frustrated, you end up waiting for someone to come along and help out after noticing you struggle. You’re late to class.
Disabled students and staff at Purdue experience challenges like these every day, and the occasional broken button is often just one of their struggles.
More than just automatic doors
Some of Purdue’s buildings aren’t accessible because of the way they’re built.
According to Purdue’s 2015 Campus Accessibility Guide, 21 of Purdue’s 152 campus buildings are partially or completely inaccessible. This includes several residence halls and academic buildings like the Nuclear Engineering building and Shealy Residence Hall. The guide says that to be considered accessible, a building must have at least one grade-level or ramped entrance, doorways at least 32 inches wide, hours of at least 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and at least one elevator for buildings of more than one story.
These qualifications are sometimes not enough for disabled students and staff, though. Maren Linett, the director of Purdue’s Disability Studies program, said a building with one accessible elevator and one ramp may be labeled as accessible, but these ramps are sometimes located in hard-to-find locations, like around the side or the back of the buildings. Sometimes, there are no resources available documenting where these ramps are.
Linett also pointed out that sometimes the one accessible elevator in a building is a freight elevator, the kind custodians use to store and transport trash bins and cleaning supplies. If the freight elevator is being used by a custodian, there is often not enough room for a disabled student to fit.
What’s more, if the one elevator breaks or is under maintenance, Linett said there is no currently available method to notify students, which can cause them to miss class.
More than just students
Linett said several hard-of-hearing students have been refused closed captions on videos being shown in class because it would “distract the other students.”
Linett, who is hard of hearing herself, said she can only request interpretive services for events and talks that are within her field.
According to Purdue’s website, there is a shortage of Computer Access Realtime Translation providers, which may explain why this restriction exists. A CART provider is a trained individual who types the words being spoken at an event so a deaf or hard-of-hearing person can read it off their own screen, like real-time closed captioning.
“What if I want to go to a lecture on physics for my own edification?” Linett asked. “I can ask the people that are putting on the physics lecture to provide the CART, but where are they going to get the money? What we need is a campus-wide fund for access for lectures.”
According to the Collaborative for Communication Access via Captioning website, CART services can range from anywhere between $60 to $200 an hour, depending on a variety of factors, including the type of event, the experience of the CART provider and the equipment used.
DRC here to help students
Despite these issues, Julie Alexander, an access consultant at the Disability Resource Center, said the organization has been effective in ensuring all students have equal access, regardless of disability.
The DRC acts as a liaison to provide accommodations for disabled students. There are 140 students on campus that are either deaf/hard of hearing, visually impaired or disabled in mobility, according to DRC Director Randall Ward. The center works with residential hall and dining court staff to ensure disabled students have a successful college experience. The most common issues the DRC helps with are testing, parking and getting around on campus.
Since the DRC only provides resources for students, disabled faculty and staff must work through Human Resources. Linett said this poses more of a challenge. Human Resources doesn’t solely work with disabled staff, so it is sometimes less equipped to deal with access issues.
“It’s harder to find out how to get resources,” Linett said. “I don’t know what to do if I want to go see a talk on physics.”
Recommendations, not regulations
There are no rules for department heads about ensuring access for disabled staff, according to Linett. Sometimes disabled professors will have a department head who is good about providing resources so professors can do their jobs. But since there are no specific guidelines for this, if you’re a blind professor in a seminar that uses PDFs your computer can’t read off to you, you’re out of luck.
Linett said she thought the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Diversity, Jay Akridge, needed to be more explicit about the access requirements for students and staff.
“(He) has said all course materials have to be accessible,” Linett said, “but we don’t really have any resources for what that means and how to do it. So most of my colleagues are like, ‘I want to do this, but I have no idea how.’ There may be like a workshop offered once that you have to sign up to go to, but there’s no across-the-board training.”
Akridge referred The Exponent to Associate Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Jenna Rickus. She was unavailable for comment last week and directed The Exponent to Purdue’s disability policies online.
According to the section on Students with Disabilities in the Fall 2019 Syllabus Letter, the DRC recommends that professors include a brief statement about what services the DRC provides. The letter, sent out by the provost office every semester, also gives details on resources for professors to ensure their classrooms are accommodating. These resources include how-to videos, in-person training requests and a link to document formatting assistance, which is a team of 10 students that can assist professors with their course materials.
While making changes to accommodate disabled individuals may be a slow process, Linett said spreading awareness among students and staff is a simple way that non-disabled people on campus can help create a more diverse and accepting environment.
Ward said in an email that people should respond to those with disabilities the same way they would respond to any diverse group.
“I would encourage students and staff to see disability as another form of diversity,” he said, “and use the same rules of engagement they use with other diverse groups.”
More than a disability
Ward also mentioned the negative societal assumption that disabled people are “less-than.”
“The biggest issue disabled people in general face in our society is the perception that they ... need to be ‘fixed’ or are in some way ‘defective,’” he said.
The DRC aims to follow the social model of disability, which discourages this perception, according to Ward.
“People are different, and difference is neutral,” he said, expressing that disability is not inherently negative, but that “people are disabled by society and the design of the environment, in the broadest sense.”
Linett urges students and staff to “notice and report access problems.” There is a link on the DRC’s website where anyone can report these issues.
Another way to be considerate toward disabled people is to ask for permission before giving help.
“A lot of people in wheelchairs report being pushed without their consent,” Linett said. “It’s fine to offer, but do not insist.”
Linett also said to talk to people with disabilities about other things besides their disability.
“I know some people who ... don’t ask me about what I’m writing or what I’m teaching. They ask me something about, ‘Oh, I saw a deaf person on TV the other day.’” She said these people see her disability as the only important thing about her.
“It’s not like I won’t talk about it, but that’s not all I want to talk about,” she said, laughing.
Alexander also urged people to respect those with service dogs.
“They are working, they are there for a reason, they should not be distracted,’ she said. “It’s inappropriate to take pictures of people with service animals without their permission.”
But the biggest misconception about disabled students is that they’re somehow intellectually inferior simply because they have a disability, according to Alexander.
“All students have to meet the exact same admissions requirements regardless of disability,” she said. “There’s no backdoor way of getting in.”
Alexander hopes disabled students are informed and use the resources available to them.
“You belong here,” she said. “Your disability should not be the reason that you’re not succeeding.
“It should never be the reason.”