Navigating physical disabilities on campus

Community. It’s a word that is discussed and seen around campus, but how exactly is Wheaton working to ensure that all students feel welcomed? For many minority groups on campus, progress is still being made to ensure that all students have equal opportunities. For physically disabled students on campus, much progress can be made toward making the community more accessible.

Community. It’s a word that is discussed and seen around campus, but how exactly is Wheaton working to ensure that all students feel welcomed? For many minority groups on campus, progress is still being made to ensure that all students have equal opportunities. For physically disabled students on campus, much progress can be made toward making the community more accessible.

According to Jennifer Nicodem, director of Wheaton’s Academic and Disability Services Program, one-third of the nearly 120 students served through her office receive accommodations for physical differences.

Nicodem said in an email that some of the biggest challenges for students with physical disabilities on campus come from the older buildings, which can be difficult to navigate, especially in the winter season. Three academic buildings on campus do not have elevator access: Jenks, Schell and the top floors of Wyngarden.

“If a student with a physical disability or even a temporary injury … has a class in one of those buildings, we work with the registrar to switch the classroom location to an accessible building,” Nicodem said in an email. “Residence Life, Housing, Student Health Services, my office and Facilities Management also work with students for  accessible housing arrangements, providing housing that is as centrally located on campus as possible, work orders for grab bars in bathroom/shower areas, roll in showers, accessible chapel seating, etc.”

Kesmy St Louis, a graduate student, stated that while there are some obstacles to working and living without the use of his arms, he has found Wheaton accommodating. “Writing papers takes a little bit of time for me because I type with my mouth,” St Louis said. The Academic and Disability Services office provides him extensions as well as a transcriber who spends about two hours a week working with him. “Most of the professors are really flexible. They understand the challenges and are willing to accommodate you, on top of the (Academic and Disability) office,” St Louis said. “I try my best to work with them and not to take advantage of that.”

Sophomore Iliana Rivera has an autoimmune neuromuscular disorder, Myasthenia Gravis, a chronic condition characterized by fluctuating muscle weakness, particularly the voluntary muscles. Rivera explained that at random times of the day, most of her muscles will either work normally or “extremely sub-par,” resulting in her use of a scooter. Rivera stated many ways that Wheaton has worked with her needs; however, she also suggested other accommodations that could be of use to future students.

“Although I believe the students that are injured (or) disabled should be held responsible for making their needs known, many do not know exactly what it is that they need until it’s too late,” Rivera said in an email. “The handicap doors would work more effectively if there was one button that would open two doors.” Rivera explained that it can become a hassle when only one of the buttons works or having to press two different buttons instead of just one. “Another thing would be to add handicap buttons to big lecture hall rooms like the one in the Science building and lab rooms,” Rivera, a biology major, suggested. “I find that the labroom doors are very heavy doors to open.” Rivera thought it would also be helpful to have a handicap chair for use during chapel. “I mean one with a head-rest clearly labeled for handicap use alone, since that is the major reason, other than distance from classes, I do not attend chapel regularly.”

For Stephen Scheidell ’12, the process of finding accommodations for his specific needs in a wheelchair were particularly frustrating as the Academic and Disability Services office had not yet been fully established. “Not all were so ready to help. For the first four or five weeks, literally every meeting with an to negotiate accommodation ended with an answer akin to, ‘That’s not in my job description, go talk to …’ until we made the full lap around the,” Scheidell said in am email. He expressed that on top of the anxieties and issues of being a first-year student living away from home for the first time, he had additional stresses that resulted from frustrating meetings with, “disrupting focus when time was available to study.”

Scheidell also found both the buildings and the pedagogical structure of classes came with frustrations. “The Language Learning Center’s upstairs location in Wyngarden made for a very frustrating negotiation pattern regarding the second-language gen-ed requirement,” Scheidell said.

For Scheidell, the general education health requirement was “far and above” the most frustrating course for multiple reasons including an exercise criterion that was “nearly-impossible” for him to fulfill. He was deducted points for expressing ideological differences that flowed from experience in a wheelchair in his essays, and the word “disability” was used in a derogatory manner on the final exam. “At the end of the quad, all I learned from that class was that the course was fashioned in a way that clearly never anticipated a student in a wheelchair,” Scheidell said.

In regards to living on campus, Scheidell expressed having difficulties with issues pertaining to campus housing. However, he expressed gratitude toward some of Wheaton’s often lesser-noticed staff members. “People at Facilities Maintenance were the overlooked heroes for on-the-fly accommodations,” Scheidell said. “They frequently stepped in for a variety of needs, a common one being wheelchair maintenance.” Scheidell mentioned that when he first arrived, after telling a Facilities Maintenance employee that the restroom door for the floor was too heavy and requesting that the lever could be adjusted, within the hour, the door had been adjusted. “That was fairly indicative of their general ability to make such tweaks to minimize a few obstacles here and there,” Scheidell said.

“The biggest (change for future students with disabilities) would be for a strategic decision to be made prior to specific needs of accepted students,” Scheidell said. “I can easily imagine, for instance, a paralyzed student taking a tour of campus and quickly deciding that Wheaton is architecturally ill-equipped for her.” Scheidell suggested a budget adjustment that would allot more toward accommodation renovations, such as more power doors in high traffic areas and more ramps, as well as a possible budget allotment for minor accommodation expenses that come up. “Ideally, Jennie Nicodem, current students with disabilities and an architect who specializes in accessible public space could collaborate to construct a reasonable five year plan,” Scheidell wrote. He believes this plan could include more accessible housing options, especially for graduate students; more attention paid in classroom layouts, such as the amount of space between desks, and revisions to the Meyer Science Center’s power door strength and button location.

According to Nicodem, Wheaton is nearly at the end of a campus-wide accessibility evaluation by an outside accessibility consulting organization (ACTServices). Wheaton will have a “systematic, updated overview” of the campus’ strengths and challenges, using the information to prioritize and make changes on campus to increase accessibility.

“The major goal is to have a campus that is as physically accessible as possible for students and to steadily work towards that goal,” Nicodem said. “There is a term called ‘universal design’ that refers to making an environment as accessible to as many people as possible, i.e. curb cuts are helpful for wheelchair users but are also beneficial for mothers pushing strollers or someone pushing a grocery cart.” Nicodem continued, “We gain significantly when students with unique life experiences, strengths, and perspectives are part of our campus community and lose out if a student is unable to attend Wheaton due to lack of accessibility.”

Scheidell noted the idea that Wheaton is a school that cultivates a spirit of camaraderie among its students. “Friends time and again would go to seemingly any length to help me get around campus or the town,” Scheidell wrote, giving an example of times when Improv troupes would open the side door to Armerding lecture hall and lift him and his wheelchair up the steps so that he could see the shows.

When asked if there was anything he wished students who have no physical disability could understand better, St Louis remarked, “Everyone should understand that God makes all kinds of people on this earth because he knows each one of us is going to need one another. What’s disability for someone is not a disability for another, so this is why he calls for love — that we will look at the person as a child of God who is limited on something that I am not, but I shall help him not with the expectation that I am better than him in any way or more powerful.” St Louis continued, “I often say that God does not give me a hand to reach out to people, but he gives me a mouth where I can speak into people’s lives.”

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