By Ashley Ephraim, Arielle Landau, Brennan Patrick, Imienfan Uhunmwuangho and Kali Venable
Kate Strickland, a senior Plan II and government major at the University of Texas at Austin, was headed to class with a friend when her 500-pound wheelchair suddenly got stuck on cord covers near a construction site on UT’s East Mall.
“I was trying to move, but my wheels were just spinning,” Strickland said. “I wasn’t going anywhere. There was nobody around except my friend, who was not strong enough to lift my chair. Thankfully some guys came by and were nice enough to lift me off [the cords].”
For most students at the University of Texas at Austin, construction on campus is a minor inconvenience that can easily be avoided by taking an alternate route to class. But for disabled students, construction can determine whether or not they make it to class at all.
Strickland is quadriplegic and requires a motorized wheelchair to get around campus. According to Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), there are more than 3,383 disabled students on campus, 35 percent of which were diagnosed with their disability in college. Roughly two percent of disabled students have a disability that affects their mobility.
Disabled students on campus have to navigate six major construction zones: Speedway (East Mall), Welch Hall, Dell Medical School, the Graduate School of Business, and the Engineering Education Resource Center. The students we spoke with for this story said they tend to have the most difficulty finding routes through the Speedway and Welch construction zones.
Construction on the East Mall began in 2015. According to the Campus Planning and Construction Department at the University of Texas at Austin, Speedway renovations could be completed as early as May of this year, while Welch is set to remain under construction until January 2020. Zoe Colaluca, a disabled UT student, says construction on Speedway creates accessibility issues for her.
“[On] Speedway, the construction was blocking the ramp, and my friend had to back me down the curb,” Colaluca said. “If I had been on my own, and the curb was blocked off … I can’t back myself down the curb.”
Colaluca is a senior communication sciences and disorders major with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder caused by brain damage that affects body movement and muscle coordination. Because of her disability, Colaluca uses a wheelchair to get around campus and needs the school to be as wheelchair accessible as possible.
Jennifer Maedgen, the Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator at UT, said that although there aren’t official numbers yet, she believes that there has been an increase in the number of complaints about construction. Maedgen said some of the most common complaints her office receives regard construction projects blocking accessibility ramps and pathways. The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement makes closure announcements on its website and works closely with construction management, but obstacles can still be hard to predict.
“Sometimes things will happen to where an unintended barrier is placed, like a worker parking their truck on the sidewalk, something that no one could have anticipated,” Maedgen said.
All campus planning and construction projects are inspected to ensure that the projects comply with Texas Accessibility Standards, according to the Campus Planning and Construction Department at UT. Examples of complying with these standards include adding temporary wheelchair ramps and ensuring that trip hazards are removed. However, Colaluca and other disabled students still run into obstacles when navigating the construction.
“I was going to class and my friend was taking me, but there was no ramp,” Colaluca said. “So we had to go up this huge hill because the ramp was blocked off because of construction.”
With all of these obstacles in place, sometimes disabled students would rather find a new route, instead of dealing with blocked-off ramps and crumbling bricks. But since construction sites change often, finding an alternative route class isn’t always easy.
“At times it’ll completely alter my route,” Strickland said. “It’s just really frustrating. At times I have to go up a really steep hill and go around the back because the front ramps are completely closed. It’s like a maze.”
When their needs aren’t met, disabled students can file a complaint with Services for Students with Disabilities. The SSD provides accommodations for disabled students range from extended test times to assistive technology for students with auditory or visual impairments. With the recent influx of construction, the SSD also handles accessibility complaints from students.
Strickland, with the help of SSD, got a ramp put in near Waggener Hall on the East Mall. The ramp before the new replacement was unstable and slippery when wet.
“The accessibility around Waggener is trash,” Strickland said. ‘They put this one sketchy wooden ramp behind it. As someone who can’t hold myself up, I refused to go up them. I emailed [my advisor] saying ‘I need something better.’”
Maedgen said that she also consults with the SSD regularly to make sure students’ needs and general accessibility are being met. Her goal is to have accessibility be one of the main aspects of the construction conversation, rather than an afterthought.
“We are going to take accessibility into consideration on the front end,” Maedgen said. “We’re not going to wait for someone to say something, if there’s disruption, we’re going to try and be proactive about that.”
Although the SSD often serves as a mechanism for change, sometimes it’s still hard for disabled students to ask for help. Emeline Lakrout, a sophomore who is visually impaired, said to feel like her expectations are unreasonable, especially since the population of disabled students is small.
“It really depends on how extensive your request is and how much it affects other people, too,” Lakrout said. “You can tell when people think it’s unreasonable of you to ask something.”
Some disabled students have created their own organizations for emotional support and advocacy. Strickland is president of the disABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition (DASC), an organization for students with and without disabilities that aims to raise awareness to disability and accessibility on campus. DASC member Caroline Graves, a sophomore government major who has been in a wheelchair since she was two years old, said it’s important for disabled students to be their own advocates.
“I find that you also have to be your own best advocate,” Graves said. “The SSD can help you and provide the resources, but sometimes you have to explain to people yourself what’s going on.”
DASC offers a space for disabled students to interact and relate to one another. It’s one of the few places where they feel like they can be candid about their experiences.
“It makes me feel less alone,” Graves said. “I also get good tips from people on how to advocate for certain problems you’re [I’m] having.”
DASC helps bridge the gap between the SSD and other factors that affect accessibility, whether it’s campus construction or classroom accommodations. Graves said it’s space where their individual needs are celebrated.
“It’s a support group,” Graves said. “Even though we do have a lot of the same shared experiences, we have also have different things. That’s one thing that I appreciate about disabilities: it’s a broad spectrum. We can appreciate and uplift each of our personal issues.”