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Students, faculty identify ongoing accessibility issues to combat

Input from the chronically ill and disabled U.Va. community spotlights the physical and cultural challenges they face

<p>Despite the installation of Lawn ramps in 2019, there are still physical and cultural barriers that create ongoing challenges for those with disabilities.</p>

Despite the installation of Lawn ramps in 2019, there are still physical and cultural barriers that create ongoing challenges for those with disabilities.

The University has been attempting to replicate the success of projects like the Lawn Accessibility Project to alleviate some of the extensive accessibility issues on Grounds. In 2019, the Lawn Accessibility Project installed accessible ramps to provide a critical linkage between the Rotunda and Old Cabell Hall for students and visitors with mobility impairments. The installation of these ramps alleviated the direct need of stairs to travel between these two buildings. Despite these recent advancements, there are still physical and cultural barriers that create ongoing challenges for those with disabilities.

To combat the accessibility impediments that are currently being faced, various initiatives have been implemented that have made an impression on students and faculty. 

One of the most prominent barriers seen on Grounds today is due to public transportation and the current bus routes, which were notably modified following the COVID-19 pandemic. The Demand and Response Transportation program, specifically tailored to transport mobility-impaired students and faculty around Grounds, is one of the options in place as an accessible alternative to the bus system. According to fourth-year College student Alex Pace, however, the DART program has not been a reliable alternative.

“[DART] doesn’t quite meet the needs that we’re looking for because it’s not reliable,” Pace said. “I’d say maybe 80 percent of the time when you schedule them, you have to schedule them with a 30-minute buffer if you’re trying to get to classes or something like that, sometimes maybe even an hour … You’re having to build all this time in, and you’re really not sure when they’re gonna come, if they’re gonna come and how long it will take them.”

In addition to physical mobility issues like those caused by transportation, there are also less direct disability issues that cause less tangible, but still very real, barriers. This includes cultural barriers that can unfairly pit the chronically ill and disabled population against the rest of the University community. 

Annie Zetkulic, third-year College student and newly-elected Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavs president, said that the general attitude towards disability has created difficulties for the chronically ill and disabled population.

“There are a lot of cultural barriers,” Zetkulic said. “Most students on Grounds don’t view disability or chronic illness as an identity that has a place at U.Va. necessarily because it’s often hidden or just not really acknowledged.”

To push back against these cultural barriers, there has been a growing movement to reclaim the term disability as an identity and not a source of division.

Mausam Mehta, fourth-year Commerce student and former CIDC president, said that disability should not be considered an impediment. 

“I think that disability is a very integral part of identity,” Mehta said. “It is just a part of our identity, and it’s a set of circumstances. What really creates the disability is the barriers that society poses to us, at least that’s the way I think of it.”

Instead, Zetkulic believes that there are specific changes that the University community could make that would help eliminate this divide currently felt by chronically ill and disabled students towards the rest of their peers.

“[The solution] requires people to just be willing to listen and understand,” Zetkulic said. “And that is tough, because it does require a bit of a burden from disabled students on Grounds to do a little bit of education to have people seek to understand and not to just put a label on things … Not only do we need to be understood and listened to by students and everyone else on Grounds, but [disability should be thought of] not as a detriment, but just as an identity.”

This final idea, that disability should be considered as a part of one’s identity and not as something that makes them inherently different from their peers, is an idea that ultimately resonates across the entire University community. 

Bridging this mindset to those on the faculty level, Rupa Valdez, associate professor of medicine and engineering, said that ideas implemented to improve accessibility are not limited to only helping those with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

“I think there’s a growing awareness of disability as an identity … thinking about disability as much more than this person has a medical diagnosis, or they have this particular limitation,” Valdez said. “If you make changes, generally they’re helpful for everyone … not just the person who’s asking for the accommodation.”

One of the main accommodations that professors provided during the virtual semesters from spring 2020 through spring 2021 was making recordings of their lectures available to students. This allowed students to watch the material safely at home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, permitting them to learn at their own pace and in a quiet environment. As the University transitioned from fully virtual to hybrid and then to fully in-person classes, the rate of professors recording their lectures plummeted, causing sizable dismay from the student body.

The Student Disability Access Center is the main route students use to acquire accommodations on an individual level, providing services that range from assistive technology to note-taking services to remote participation requests. As pointed out by Valdez, some of the services offered by SDAC can be helpful for everyone and not merely for those that explicitly seek their support.

“If someone is asking for lectures to be recorded, or for someone to be a note-taker, that likely benefits everyone in the classroom,” Valdez said.

In terms of obtaining accommodations from professors, Mehta said that the blame for shortcomings in acquiring these accommodations should not fall at the feet of SDAC, which normally does not create an obstacle.

“A lot of times, SDAC is not the problem — it’s not SDAC that poses a barrier,” Mehta said. “It’s professors who don’t understand the need for accommodations or think that they are ways for students to shortcut rather than to level the playing field.”

In an attempt to tackle similar problems of people not fully grasping the need for disability education, faculty members created the Disability Studies Initiative in 2015. Its mission is to underscore the notion that disability can function as a social, cultural and political identity, not simply as an alienating typology from the rest of the population.

Christopher Krentz, associate professor of English and American Sign Language and director of the DSI, said that one of the core goals of the organization was to increase the access to disability studies for all students.

“We find that a disability studies lens applies to bioethics, to architecture, to literature or philosophy of media studies, to history, to many fields,” Krentz said. “We have seen students almost coming out of the woodwork who are interested in disability for a variety of reasons. Our goal is to give them some kind of concentration, or minor, or some way to link courses that have to do with disability together.”

Although this goal has not yet been reached, it serves as one of many representations of the effort to advance accessibility across the University. Coupled with initiatives to increase disability awareness, Krentz is encouraged by the progress that has been made over the years.

“I can tell you that disability access has greatly improved since 1994,” Krentz said. “It’s great to see the University taking this so seriously at the highest levels.”