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Column: The university needs to improve accessibility on campus for students with disabilities

<p>A sign reading "Out of Order" is taped to the doors of an elevator near East Quad and the Blossom Street Garage on March 29, 2024. The elevator grants students who are unable to use the nearby staircase access to the pedestrian bridge that crosses over Blossom Street and connects to the center of campus. </p>
A sign reading "Out of Order" is taped to the doors of an elevator near East Quad and the Blossom Street Garage on March 29, 2024. The elevator grants students who are unable to use the nearby staircase access to the pedestrian bridge that crosses over Blossom Street and connects to the center of campus.

Having adequate, accessible accommodations for students with disabilities is instrumental to fostering an inclusive learning environment. But at USC, this has not been accomplished.

Some academic buildings and dorms are not accessible and need to be updated so that they can accommodate students with disabilities. Some of these buildings lack elevators or have closet-sized elevators, some buildings lack ramps and some of the walking paths on campus are not accessible, as they are either too narrow or uneven. 

It is important that universities make their facilities accessible so that all students can use their campus, which students paid tuition for, comfortably. 

A survey from the  found that 20.5% of undergraduate students reported having a disability defined as a physical, mental and emotional condition for the 2019-20 academic year. While that number may seem small, it is enough for universities to start making strides in upgrading their campuses' accessibility. Some already have. 

, a magazine for active wheelchair users, published a report in 2020 called “Wheels on Campus: A Guide to Wheelchair-Friendly Education” that reviews some of the most wheelchair-friendly campuses prospective students should consider. 

Among these universities were the University of Arizona, University of Illinois, Auburn University and the University of Florida. Some of their special features included large bathrooms with roll-in showers as well as wheelchair maintenance and repair shops throughout campus. 

While amenities such as those are likely costly, these universities are prioritizing the well-being of all of their students, which is arguably worth the money. 

USC needs to do a better job emulating other universities that have successfully incorporated inclusive accommodations. Every student, regardless of their ability, deserves to have access to the same opportunities. 

Rebecca Hill, the assistant director of the residential certificate program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, , said the university is lacking accommodations for visually-impaired students.

“There’s not braille at every building,  there’s not braille on every sign," Hill said. 

Sarai Deese is a third-year neurodevelopment in minorities student and president of Delta Alpha Pi, an honor society that recognizes high-achieving students with disabilities. These students often face obstacles when it comes to campus activities, Deese said. 

Deese works in the university's Institute for Mind and Brain — a building that has no elevator, she said. There are only two staircases separating the top floor, where researchers work, from the bottom floor, where participants for studies are met. 

This design makes it especially difficult for physically-impaired people, particularly people who cannot walk on their own to navigate the building. USC should be more proactive in making multistory buildings more accessible by taking measures such as installing elevators. 

“So, there is an assumption that disabled people are not the ones doing research about disabled people,” Deese said. 

This assumption is unfair to disabled students, as they should have the equal opportunity to participate in all activities on campus.

It is clear that the lack of elevators and no other options to travel throughout the building other than stairs reflects the university's unconscious biases towards students with disabilities. If these students were taken into account, the building would accommodate them. 

The university needs to work on eliminating any unconscious biases it may have toward the disabled community. Because of these biases, there are pitfalls in making the school accessible for all students, such as design faults regarding safety procedures. 

Disabled students shouldn't have to be in a situation where they are in more danger compared to their able-bodied peers. Able-bodied students have the ability to run quickly out of burning buildings, whereas handicapped students have to wait to be rescued by the fire department while they are in imminent danger. There needs to be better evacuation plans for physically handicapped people in these situations. At the very least, the university should inform students about what they need to do in emergency situations before they move into their dorms. 

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The control panel sits outside of elevator EV01 in the Solomon Blatt Physical Education Center on March 29, 2024. The elevator, which until recently was labeled as out of order, allows people to access all part of the building

“Fire evacuations fall on the individual. And when they get to college, it's not even told to us, but if you are using a mobility aid and you need to be evacuated during fire situations, you have to call the fire department,” Deese said. 

This is one of the ways students with disabilities struggle with dorms on campus, but not having guaranteed on-campus housing will create even more problems for them since it will limit their access to campus.

“Pushing upperclassmen off of campus drastically affects disabled people in a way that doesn't affect other people,” Deese said. “Yes, there are buses ... Half of them aren't even accessible."

Molly Peirano, the associate vice president for Civil Rights and Title IX and ADA Coordinator, said freshmen are the only class that is prioritized in the housing process as they are required to live on campus. After that class is assigned housing, everyone else goes through the lottery system.

The university needs to provide disabled students with first priority in the on-campus housing selection process. Even if they are guaranteed housing for a year, the same room or dorm is not guaranteed each year. The university should make efforts to allow disabled students to keep the same room or dorm for the rest of their college years.

Deese has a service dog, who helps assist her and is trained to find her room. Having students, such as Deese, change their room every year makes it difficult for Deese since she has to retrain her dog every time she moves. 

By ensuring that disabled students have on-campus housing, they would be able to get to their classes and other on-campus activities more easily.

In response to the problems experienced by students with disabilities, the university has started to create some resources and initiatives to make the reporting process easier. The university is creating a website that will allow students to report issues they encounter on campus, as well as ask for accommodations in an easier fashion than the current website allows, Peirano said. 

Sonia Badesha, the director of the Student Disability Resource Center, said the university is also working to crack down on professors who prohibit the use of technology in their classes. Even though the Student Disability Resource Center provides academic accommodations for those students, they could feel signaled out or even embarrassed to be the sole student using technology. 

Badesha said there are alternative measures that professors can take to control the potential distraction technology causes in the classroom. From assigning pop quizzes to having teacher assistants walk around the room, these are both manners in which distractions could be monitored, she said.  

Going forward, the school should design its buildings with physically disabled people in mind. They should all include accessible elevators, ramps and properly labeled signs in braille. Buildings such as Wardlaw lacks braille signs and appropriately sized elevators, and Gambrell lacks braille signs as well. 

The university could fix these issues by improving existing accommodation services and installing new ones around campus.

One of the innovations USC could install is called a “curb cut," which is a depression in the sidewalk, like a ramp, that connects it to the adjoining road. Curb cuts would also benefit more than just those that use wheelchairs.

If we have a curb cut on a sidewalk, for example, that makes it an accessible sidewalk for a wheelchair user, but it also makes it more accessible for a mom with a stroller. It also makes it more accessible for a 3-year-old on a bicycle,” Hill said. 

The university has to start listening to the concerns of its students and faculty in order to improve its accessibility. Who knows better about what the campus needs than its own community?

“Really listening to people with disabilities — students with disabilities — is the best thing that the school can do to ensure that they're meeting the needs of the students, faculty and staff with disabilities that work and live and participate on campus,” said Mary Alex Kopp, the vice president and chief public relations officer of Able SC. 

There are organizations on campus that advocate for better resources, and there have been efforts made to inform the university about the struggles they face, such as the Disability in Action class. The class gave disabled students in the Honors College and CarolinaLIFE a platform to talk and research about the inequities around campus. The students even presented their findings to the university.  

With USC's inaccessible structures, the university needs to be receptive to the issues that concern physically disabled-students and make the changes needed. 

USC needs to be aware of its shortcomings and realize that it needs to serve all students, not just its able population. With better planning and researching, the university could make its campus more equitable. 


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