An Accessible Campus?
by Gino Fanelli | published Dec. 9th, 2014
First year Game Design and Development student Matthew Turczmanovics rolled up to the front entrance of the Campus Center, pausing to tap on the silver button adorned with a blue silhouette of a wheelchair.First year Game Design and Development student Matthew Turczmanovics rolled up to the front entrance of the Campus Center, pausing to tap on the silver button adorned with a blue silhouette of a wheelchair.
“Let's see if this works,” he said, as the mechanical limb on the door slowly pulled it open. “Okay, it did that time. They don't always work.”
Turczmanovics is has a form of dwarfism which, though he is able to walk, makes it extremely difficult and time-consuming to traverse long distances. Instead, he commutes in an electric wheelchair controlled by a joystick and fitted with a lift which allows him to adjust its height. Though RIT is an institution which prides itself on its emphasis on accessibility and accommodation, wheelchair users are still presented with an array of trials on campus.
“Let me show you something,” he said as he wheeled up toward the entrance to the Student Alumni Union. “It's propped open now, but there's no button here to let me in.”“Let me show you something,” he said as he wheeled up toward the entrance to the Student Alumni Union. “It's propped open now, but there's no button here to let me in.”
He rolled up through the door and took a right turn down the hallway. After a mere 20 feet, he stopped in front of a glass door marked with a paper sign that read, in bold typeface, “Disability Serivces Office.”
“I'd say that's one of the only main entrances to a building that I've noticed that doesn't have a handicapped button,” he said.
Though there is an accessible entrance to the hallway on the opposite side of the SAU, these easily overlooked inconsistencies in planning and logic can be found throughout the campus. Though often small, avoidable nuisances, their presence is a physical acknowledgment of the lack of perfection in creating an accessible campus. Director of Disability Services Susan Ackermann explained what dictates accessibility plans at RIT.
"I believe we are extremely good at creating an environment that accommodates disabled students," Ackermann said. "All of our buildings conform to the law, and if any of our students have particular needs that we don't have available, [we], as well as Facility Management Services [FMS], are great at finding a way to provide them with what they need."
The law which Ackermann refers to is the American Disability Act's (ADA's) Standards for Accessible Design, last updated in 2010. This law was passed through the Department of Justice and specific, last updated in 2010. This law was passed through the Department of Justice and specific, last updated in 2010. This law was passed through the Department of Justice and specificies that all buildings must be at least partly accessible to people who are disabled. However, this stipulation only applies to buildings which were constructed after January 26, 1992. This essentially means that any buildings constructed prior to this date are not legally obligated to be handicap accessible. With the majority of RIT buildings falling into this category (64 of 114 total buildings having been constructed prior to 1989), there is a frightful possibility of buildings falling through this loophole. Also, there is the fact that this is a policy not of inspection and action, but rather of repairs made in response to the the fact that this is a policy not of inspection and action, but rather of repairs made in response to the advocacy and action of students instead of administration.
"We don't do inspections or investigations to take preemptive measures," said Ackermann. "However, when a student comes to us and says there is a problem, that a button is broken or something of that nature, we are prompt with fixing it."
Turczmanovics sat in the lobby of the Liberal Arts Building, tapping the button.
The door swung open about halfway, stalling for a second before swinging back shut.
"Yeah, it does that, opens, I don't know, maybe like 45 degrees, and then shuts," Turczmanovics said. "Thing is, I haven't written up a list of complaints or anything like that, but if I did, I don't even know who I'd bring it to. I don't know if it's a heavy door or what, but you'd think it would just, ya know, work."
Fourth year Political Science student and President of the NTID Student Congress Alex Van Hook, who uses an electric wheelchair, finds faults in the policy of waiting for notification before taking action, as well as the non-existent practice of evaluations of accessibility technology.
"I have experienced problems with buttons as well as elevators and lifts," Van Hook said. "FMS definitely needs to have better maintenance review for accessibility. Housing Operations, however, is doing a fairly good job of making sure I have accessible housing."
While the issue of malfunctioning buttons seems like a minor nuisance, which often times it is, there is a deeper issue at hand when it comes to neglect of these services — one in which the options for accessibility becomes increasingly limited. Turczmanovics headed down the hallway through the Golisano building, leading to a main entrance where a bare black plastic box sat jutting from the wall on the side of the door.
"This button was here two weeks ago, maybe even three weeks ago," Turczmanovics said. "Don't know where it went, don't know when it's coming back."
Beyond the simple issues of handicapped buttons lies a greater and much more basic menace to the disabled student: the need for classrooms and public spaces that are comfortable for them and allow them to simply attend classes and events like any other student. This is a dilemma that often rears its head in places similar to and including Ingle Auditorium.
"There are two handicapped options when entering the auditorium, both a distance from the stage," Van Hooksaid. "It's a limit socially for a student who has to stay in their wheelchair and can't just sit anywhere they want."
Van Hook went on to explain the deeper social implications of RIT not adding lifts into Ingle Auditorium.
"My belief is that accessibility equals natural human rights, because people with disabilities are humans," said Van Hook. "Attendees in wheelchairs have the right to enjoy the auditorium just like anyone else. I believe RIT can do this, and it requires me visualizing a format of two lifts that give the option of going down to the stage if needed, which may take time."
Turczmanovics headed back to the Liberal Arts building, navigating into the elevator which lowers down into the basement auditorium. Turczmanovics, who is also hard of hearing, has two options when it comes to attending class in the auditorium: either sit in the back or take a roundabout entrance onto the stage.
"If I wanted to get into the basement, which I have to for psychology, I have to go to B [sub-basement]," Turczmanovics said, pressing the button in the cramped, 3-by-4-foot elevator. "Then, I have to open these doors."
Turczmanovics turned to the opposite doors of the elevators, manually pulling open the door to reveal a second steel door adorned with chipped green paint. He stood on the footrest of his chair to pull the second door. The 50-pound sheet of metal slammed open abruptly to reveal a short hallway littered with unused chairs and a 12-foot wooden ladder lying on its side.
"Then I have to turn around and shut these doors," he said as he slammed the two metal doors back shut, "[and then] head down this hall to that door to get onto the stage, close enough where I can hear the lecture."
The auditorium consists of a short set of stairs followed by a mellow slope leading down to the stage, a format which suggests that the addition of a ramp over the short staircase would be a relatively simple task that could circumvent the need for students in wheelchairs to use this route.
"I don't think anyone's ever requested it [a ramp]," said Ackermann.
While FMS does not take measures to prevent routines such as this from occurring, Disability Services does offer the option for students to relocate classes to avoid such scenarios.
"The elevators, especially the ones in Liberal Arts, can be cramped, and if a student has problems getting to class, we make sure that class is relocated to somewhere where they're more comfortable or can access easier," said Ackermann. "But as for the elevators themselves, replacing a whole elevator is a pretty huge job and it's much more efficient to simply move the class. We once had a student who was confined to a wheelchair, for example, really big guy, who had trouble using the Liberal Arts elevator, and that is what we did to allow him to get to class."
While Disability Services deals with meeting the needs of disabled students, the term "disabled" is not one that implicitly means a student is physically disabled. In fact, that number only makes up a small percentage of total students who take advantage of Disability Services.
"We currently have 800 students enrolled in our program," said Ackermann. "Ten out of all of them are in a wheelchair. But that's the image a person thinks of when they think of the word handicapped, that that person must be physically disabled, and that is certainly not the case. And I believe we do a great job of giving these students the academic support they need."
Van Hook agreed with this sentiment.
"I'd like to say that academic-related access is a huge plus here at RIT," said Van Hook, "but I'd still say there are huge flaws in accessibility here."
Which begs the question: if academic support and access is a policy which RIT places a large degree of importance on, whose hands does it fall onto to create a physically accessible campus? While the argument seems to have the simple answer of FMS or Disability Services, the answer is far more complex, consisting more of student involvement than anything else. And, unfortunately, there is currently no active club or organization for physically disabled students to advocate for change.
"I would like to see a group of students with disabilities and allies get together and have talks with RIT administration and Student Government," Van Hooksaid. "I'd hope to one day see a permanent club or organization that consists of and represents students with various disabilities. Alongside this, I'd like to see FMS having a strict maintenance review time window, where FMS regularly checks the operations of various mechanical access services, like lifts, buttons and elevators."
The current policies FMS has concerning repairing and managing mechanical access services is inherently flawed and, in a sense, apathetic. FMS does not follow the logical adage of "if it's broken, fix it," but rather "if it's broken, wait until somebody notices and asks about it, then fix it."
"RIT follows the law, but the law doesn't say we have to look around and say 'Somebody might want this instead of this, we should do it,'" Ackermannsaid. "RIT is not obligated to do a renovation of buildings as a preemptive measure."
At the same time, though, this system seems detrimental to creating a more accessible campus. The fact remains that students have the opportunity to speak up, and if enough voices are heard, change will be made. This is a matter of not shrugging off the small nuisances and not accepting the roundabout measures in place to emulate accessibility, but to call upon the idea that accessibility is a human right and should be unanimously embraced and upheld to the highest degree.
"The problems that I do have, they all seem pretty small, but they all add up, and they also seem really fixable," Turczmanovics said.
"I don't know if I have to come in with a whole list and say 'Hey, in this building, this door does not work.' And I don't have the time anyway, with classes and everything, to make up a whole list of stuff that doesn't work," he said. "I know I'm not the only person in a wheelchair on campus, so I'd like to say that they know about it, but I don't know why they don't just fix it."