Community, Not the Campus, Helps Student’s With Disabilities

I have a unique perspective of this campus and the people on it because as, a senior, I can look back and reflect on my time here. When I arrived on campus my freshman year, I was a relatively normal and healthy 18-year-old with complete mobility. I fell in love with Washington College because of its old beautiful buildings and the story-filled uneven brick walkways; I loved that our legacy started in 1782 and we could see those years in every sidewalk and every old tree. Now, as a senior, those old buildings and uneven walkways are one of the hardest parts of my day.

This is because in March of my junior year, I was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that affected my ability to control my blood pressure. From this I developed a rare form of dysautonomia that makes it difficult for me to stand or walk without fainting or experiencing vertigo. I spent the summer before my senior year in treatment and relearning how to walk on my own. Though I returned to WC as scheduled in the fall, I live everyday with my illness and am at risk of fainting every time I stand. I depend on assistance from my friends, faculty, staff and a wheelchair. This is how I learned something new about Washington College: when it comes to handicap accessibility, the people on this campus are much more beautiful than the 200 year old walkways.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 as a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. The ADA requires employers and public entities to provide reasonable accommodations and accessibility to disabled individuals. These “accessibility accommodations” refer to ramps, elevators, wide doors, etc. My experience at WC this semester has shown me that though the College is handicap accessible, it is not handicap friendly.

Returning to campus as a newly disabled 20-year-old, I had the opportunity to witness just how helpful, innovative, and skilled the offices in Health Services and Academic Skills are. The personnel on this campus could not be more prepared to assist students with learning differences, or physical or mobility disabilities. Lisa Marx in Health Services arranged a detailed plan to address any health issues I could face with my new condition and distributed it to the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Chestertown and Public Safety. Meanwhile, Andrea Vassar, Director of Disability Services, arranged relevant accommodations for my classes and helped me learn how to navigate the campus in my wheelchair. My professors have been supportive and understanding every step of the way and the general faculty and staff could not be more helpful.

During my first few weeks back on campus I became aware of the areas around campus that are barely accessible to a student in a wheelchair. I use the chair when I am feeling particularly symptomatic or I know that I will be alone and without assistance for most of the day. In the chair, I can feel every bump in the path, every elevation is a toll on my arms. There are many unchangeable parts of this campus that are difficult to navigate: We can’t make Cater Walk flatter; my biceps will just have to rise to the challenge (and they have, by the way). We cannot make the 200-year-old brick walkways more even without losing the historic charm of our campus.

Nonetheless, there are manmade accessibility issues all over this campus that, if just given a little attention from the right people, could be easily addressed. First, I direct your attention to the ADA ramp-turned pothole on the path to the Northern Commons. I live in Chester, so I venture past this poorly designed and severely neglected strip of the sidewalk every day, which has tipped my wheelchair twice. The other wheelchair ramp on this walkway, by the stadium, has an inch of curb in front of it, that has forced me to learn how to successfully manage a wheely with a book bag full of textbooks. Can I put that on a résumé? Still, neither of these ramps can compete with the one by the library leading to William Smith Hall. I only had to go down this ramp once to coin it “the death ramp.” Because this area was built in the 1970s, this problematic ramp was grandfathered into the post ADA era so it is not breaking any laws.

Next, I point to some miscellaneous issues on the campus that, once again, could be easily addressed. While they are small and seemingly inconsequential, remember that they are part of my everyday life adding another layer of difficulty to getting around. While most bathrooms on campus are well equipped for wheelchair bound users, there is a reoccurring issue of placing the paper towel dispensers too high for anyone in a sitting position. When I try to swipe into my dorm, the timer goes off before I am able to move from the sensor to the door in my wheelchair. When I try to go to the library, a big metal trashcan blocks the ADA door button.

The temporary solution to all of these issues has been the kindness of strangers. I’ve never struggled reaching for a paper towel or opening a door for long before someone has stepped in to help. That’s what makes Washington College more accessible for those with mobility issues or other disabilities, the people. I hope that the administration of this campus prioritizes the pot holes in front of ADA ramps and thinks more inclusively about the placement of amenities, but most of all, I hope that we continue to foster a community on campus that looks out for each other.


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