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Home | Episode #10
Finding a Way In
November 14, 2018 | Student Producers:

Alessandra Cole and Carleen Syth
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Finding a Way In
How physically disabled individuals navigate accessibility on campus. (18 minutes)
Libby Michael, Suzanne Stoltz and Jillian Tullis

Alessandra: You face them every day. They're taller than you. They're all around you. You pass through them, but they don't always tell you how to get through. You need them to open up to you and in the end they fool you and haunt you in your worst nightmares because you pushed when you were supposed to pull. Yep. Today we're talking about doors and the opportunities that lie beyond them.

Libby: Well, freshman year, I think it was like February of freshman year, I actually broke my left foot, yeah, left foot on campus. It was horrible, which is really when I realized how hilly USD is. It never really bothered me before that, and then I was like, wow, this is actually not super easy to get around. I'm a, ya know, I'm a freshman beginning second semester. I still don't really know everything yet. I definitely freshmen don't know the tram routes yet, so I had to figure that out.

Alessandra: Libby Michael is now a senior here at the University of San Diego and she is majoring in Communication Studies, but her first year away from home, she broke her ankle and found herself on crutches.

Libby: But getting around itself on the crutches was absolutely horrible. Like I just stopped, I would get to class just in buckets of sweat. I ended up just wearing workout clothes, which was not something that I normally did. So I just ended up wearing workout clothes to class because I was so dysfunctional. Um, I had to leave so much earlier for class. If I missed the tram, I was standing there for up to 15 minutes waiting for the next tram. Um, so I really had to be specific about that, and obviously trying to run out of your room on crutches is not ideal.

Libby: The university itself, because I did go to the ER and I had obviously the x-rays and everything from them, they were able to see that I did need some accommodations and the easiest way that I got it was through Disability Services. Basically what they did for me was make sure I got set up with a handicap pass for parking. They also gave me a pass that was a written letter signed by them that said that I could flag down a tram anywhere on campus and they would let me on. So that was like really interesting. I didn't have to wait at a stop. I could be literally anywhere on campus or like call and be like, I'm here, I can't walk anymore. I need a tram to like break route and like come get me. Libby was accommodated but only to a certain extent.

Libby: Yeah, accessibility wise. Accommodations helped but only when it went the way it was supposed to. Besides that, like day to day, you know, when I decide I want to go up to the SLP or whatever and it's a Sunday afternoon and I kind of have to get myself up there because I mean I don't really remember the tram schedules like them, but I know it's a lot more sparse and getting up here, it was a project every time I had to go somewhere, but as far as getting around on campus itself, it was pretty bad the first week and then I started to get the hang of it, and then it wasn't so bad anymore.

Libby: I actually did have a lot of trouble in the SLP. Getting in was never an issue because all the doors do have the handicap button on it, but I do remember one of them was broken. I was just standing there until somebody came out, outside of the SLP, and it actually stayed broken for a while and so I just couldn't even go in that way unless I was with somebody. I think, as a closing thing here, out of 10 accessibility wise, I would give USD like a five and that's from experiences both able and non able-bodied. Five out of 10, we're doing like, we're failing. Yeah, I think it could be so much better.

Alessandra: Accessibility. We're opening the door to talk about what accessibility is and why it's important. Libby is only one student at USD that temporarily faced these obstacles, but what about all the other students, faculty and USD community members who don't have temporary disabilities, but permanent ones? So as we continue, I want you to ask yourself, is USD accessible?

Dr. Stoltz: So accessibility, I think, um, can be simple, but it can be really complicated, also. Um, accessibility to me is that we all can get to the same places and have the same opportunities, which in some cases can be easy and in other places can be difficult because, um, the diversity of the human population is really broad.

Alessandra: This is Dr. Suzanne Stoltz, Assistant Professor of Special Education at USD and she has expertise in online instruction, curriculum design, school culture, inclusive education and disability studies. But let's take a step back and break this down. What's the difference between accessibility and accommodations?

Dr. Stoltz: Accommodations and accessibility are really both important, but they're, they're different. So accessibility is having access. It is being able to, um, get to the resources that are there. Accommodations are needed when those resources are not made accessible in, ah, in their design.

Alessandra: What Suzanne is saying is that the way things are designed now is not accessible to everyone. Accommodations are important to make spaces inclusive to everyone.

Dr. Stoltz: For example, if a building is built with an elevator and there's a meeting on the second floor, I don't need an accommodation because I can get to the resource, I can get to the meeting that I want to go to. However, if the building where the meeting is does not have an elevator, um, I would need an accommodation or a different way to access this meeting, either having an accommodation by having the meeting moved or by phoning into the meeting. Those are both important because like I said, there's a really diverse student population, a really diverse human population. And um, if we don't think about accessibility, we're really leaving out, um, a lot of people from participating but also contributing to the livelihood of the campus.

Alessandra: Now that we have a better grasp on accessibility and accommodations, how is it that in 2018 we're still struggling to create inclusive spaces?

Dr. Stoltz: As you look around campus, you may notice there's a lot of different types of doorways. Um, and in the building, this building in Mother Rosalie Hill Hall, um, we have building or we have doors surrounding the building, which is lovely because you can access it from any side. Um, out of all of those doors, there is one door that has an electric button on it that opens it and it happens to not be the front door. So the front doors of the building are very heavy. They're beautiful glass doors. They're heavy. So I, and other wheelchair users, rather than using the front door here, often access the side door where that button is.

Alessandra: Can you believe that there's only one door that's accessible and it's not even at the front of the building?  This is a problem. 

Dr. Stoltz: When others are not thinking about how those things are used, things get placed in the way and create extra barriers. So there's a bench in that area where the doorway is, and often it slides down to where it's right in front of the button so I can reach over it, but it definitely impedes my access or it changes the way I travel through the building or travel around campus. Other places on campus have electric doors as well, um, and sometimes there will be a trash can moved really close that, you know, if you're thinking about someone who has to reach across and reach a button, those kinds of things can get in the way. I don't necessarily, I don't think those are there by design, but they just kind of happened because we're not thinking about it.

Alessandra: Doors should make things more accessible, not be a barrier, right? We have the technology and ability to shift the dialogue so our campus can be both physically and socially a more diverse and inclusive space. But how do we do that? Dr. Tullis teaches Health Communication here on campus and strives to make a flexible classroom.

Dr. Tullis: It's really interesting because just maybe two days ago I saw a student who I've seen on campus before, a student with a disability. She uses an assistive device, I would say something like a walker is how I would describe it, and I saw her try to activate one of the automated doors on campus and I don't know if I saw the situation accurately, but it appeared as though she activated the door and it closed before she could even get through it. So I was on my way to walk down to the hall to help her get in, but she turned around and I think used another, another entrance. So it was interesting that you want to talk specifically about doors because I had just seen this on campus the other day. Dr. Soltz, Suzanne Stoltz, who you spoke to, I think, previously has enlightened me about this experience. She uses a wheelchair and pointed out to me and a group of faculty on campus that when they built one of the buildings on campus, they put the door for people with disabilities on the side, the most accessible door on the side. I thought, gosh, that, isn't that a throwback to some antiquated things that we've done to other marginalized people in our country, right? That Black people, for example, had to use the back of, you know, many, many hotels and other buildings. They weren't allowed to come through the front door and here we are replicating that kind of thing in 2018 for the sake of aesthetics. Um, this campus is very beautiful. It's why many people come here. It's uh, you know, certainly a factor of probably why I'm here, um, not the only factor, but you know, it helps that this is a pretty place to work and to study. Um, but when I hear stories like that, that we may be privilege the aesthetics over access, I think that's pretty problematic and I think that it communicates something to people with disabilities. I think it communicates to them that this isn't entirely a welcoming place. And that's hard for me to say because I love it here, but I think that that's the implicit message that people will receive.

Alessandra: Dr. Tullis' example shows that there's an obvious inequality in access on this campus, which contradicts one of USD's core values of access and inclusion.

Dr. Tullis: I think in the classroom, you know, I try, I've tried, I tend to be kind of old fashioned or antiquated in some of my practices, like I don't use powerpoint a lot, and I've tried to do more things that are, have visual elements, auditory elements, even something like turning on closed captioning on videos, um, and that, and interestingly enough it doesn't just help students who might have a learning disability, but I think in the world of smart phones and technology, our attention spans have really decreased. And there's something about students being able to see the words and hear the words that help them hear it better or understand the message better. So those are some of the things that I do and sometimes I fall back, I see myself falling into patterns and things that are easier for me because it takes time to create the powerpoint and it's more labor, right? Or to find a video that might have closed captioning. But I try to, I try to do those things when I can, as much as possible.

Alessandra: Everything from how our buildings are structured to how we talk to each other, communicate something. In order to make places more accessible, we need to be more thoughtful. Dr. Tullis has some strategies on how to do that. She was also part of a faculty committee dedicated to making USD a better space for all.

Dr. Tullis: One of the things that came out of my, a particular learning moment for me about, about this building on campus was, it happened because there were a group of faculty and staff who were learning about universal design. And one thing that we did as a result of this, this knowledge acquisition, is that we went to the Provost and we asked that somebody who had some experience in universal, universal design be involved in facilities management and any kind of new construction on campus or if it's not new construction, but modification of spaces. So like, if we're going to modify the library, and that's another issue that they, uh, they wanted to put a lift in when they were redoing the library instead of just making the door accessible for everyone, the entrance to the building accessible. So when that comes, those types of things come on our radar or they're known to some of us, we have, we're better, we're in a better position to advocate for those issues. My understanding is that they have, they accepted that request. They have made a commitment to consult with someone. I think some progress has been made and I think it can happen, but you know, you never know, um, what kind of barriers, you know, people will throw up, things like cost. Is it too expensive to put in the door? So sometimes it's not always about will or willingness. Sometimes it's, there are other constraints that people will, will use as a barrier, as a possible barrier.

Alessandra: Next time you're challenged by a door, when it's too heavy or you can't figure out how to even open it, think about who isn't even getting in. Remember that accessibility is important for everyone to access the resources they need. Now, as we close the door on this discussion here, we ask that you reopen it and discuss accessibility with your friends, family, peers, professors, and classes to spread the awareness of what it is and why it is important.