Before freshman Shira Strongin registered for classes last week, she took virtual tours of the buildings to make sure she’d be able to get to class on the days when she needs to use a wheelchair.
Strongin has an undiagnosed progressive neurovascular disease, which causes seizures, speech issues and cardiac problems. She said she is sometimes forced to miss her University Writing course on the Mount Vernon Campus because only some of the Vern Express shuttles are wheelchair accessible.
“I shouldn’t have to pick whether I’m going to go to class or not depending on my wheelchair status,” she said.
While many campus buildings have been updated to be more accessible to people with disabilities in the past few years, eight students with disabilities said many buildings still lack proper accommodations. Those students said parts of campus are uncomfortable, difficult or even impossible to navigate without extensive renovations.
Chelsea Burkhart, a junior who has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, commonly known as POTS – a condition that results in an abnormal heart rate upon standing – said because she sometimes struggles to walk up stairs, she has trouble meeting with professors and teaching assistants who have offices in aging townhouses.
“Some professors again don’t understand the idea of an invisibile illness, where whenever I look fine, they don’t understand why I would want to miss class and just think that I’m just trying to get a couple more hours of sleep,” she said.
In the last few years, students have registered with Disability Support Services in record numbers. The office currently manages academic and lifestyle accommodations for 1,300 students, officials said.
Last April, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, who oversees DSS, said the office was conducting a review to see if it has enough resources to meet the needs of the rising number of students seeking support. In an email Saturday, she said the review is still ongoing and that there are no updates on its progress.
Laguerre-Brown said not all buildings on campus are currently up to the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. The law requires that when buildings undergo renovations, they must be updated to include accommodations that comply with ADA standards.
Some townhouses on campus have yet to be renovated since the law was passed, and students who cannot access those buildings should reach out to DSS for assistance, she said.
“Every one of our students gets individualized assistance and there are no two situations that are the same,” she said in an email. “All accommodations, including housing, are provided after an individual review. Accommodations are based on what each individual’s disability, documentation and needs require.”
Students with disabilities said the psychology building is difficult to access because it has no elevators, preventing them from visiting professors’ office hours.
Laguerre-Brown said the University aims to create an environment in which students with disabilities feel accepted and can contribute equally to GW’s mission.
“When we use exclusive language, or create spaces that exclude people with disabilities, we are telling people that they are not welcome,” she said.
Last spring, a group of students with disabilities formed a student organization – called the Disabled Students Collective – that meets once a week to discuss concerns for students with disabilities.
Lindsey O’Connell, the president of the DSC, said platform seating and desks attached to chairs are some of the problems students face on campus. Professors are often unaware of the accommodations students with disabilities need, she added.
“One thing we’re trying to get the community as a whole to realize is how much the infrastructure of GW can affect a student’s experience,” O’Connell said.
The student-run organization, which has about 20 to 30 regular members, is GW’s first ever to focus on peer-to-peer discussion and support for disabled students, members said. The group holds campaigns like #AccessGW, where they evaluate the accessibility of student spaces and academic buildings by photographing, filming and documenting them at GW, O’Connell said.
During #AccessGW campus walkarounds Friday and Saturday, groups of DSC students went around campus to gauge how accessible entrances and bathrooms are in the Marvin Center, District House, Gelman Library, Tompkins Hall of Engineering, the Science and Engineering Hall and Duques, Rome and Phillips halls.
The students said newer buildings, like the Science and Engineering Hall, opened in 2015, had accessible entrances and a built-in ramp next to the stairs on the first floor, allowing disabled and able-bodied students to enter the building the same way. But in older buildings, like Duques Hall, O’Connell said disabled students can’t enter through the main doors, forcing them to come in through an accessible entrance around the corner – a less-inclusive design.
Emma Jane Mitchell, a sophomore majoring in English with multiple disabilities, said DSS is accommodating of many academic aspects, like note-taking, but can improve in supporting personal care assistance for students traveling to and from class. Personal care assistance often includes hiring or providing personal assistants or translators, which DSS provides to some students.
“There have been times where I have taken it upon myself to get to class without someone, or I have asked my parents to do it because I just need to get to class that day and I just can’t handle finding someone that day,” Mitchell, who uses a wheelchair, said.
Experts on disability affairs said University officials must strive to provide a comfortable environment for all students and faculty by making more buildings accessible to students.
John Morris, a travel accessibility expert with WheelchairTravel.org, said any situation that divides a student with a disability and their able-bodied peers creates a potentially problematic and frustrating separation between groups of students.
“It’s just important to anticipate the need for people with disabilities, and the best people who can help with creating plans for addressing some of these issues are the people with disabilities themselves,” Morris said.
Sheryl Burgstahler, the director of the University of Washington’s Accessible Technology Center, said universities often view federal regulations, like the ADA, as the ultimate guidelines for designing a campus when they should be viewed as the minimum requirement for campuses.
She added that universities should ensure campuses are designed so that all students can have equal access to all parts of a building and be able to use entrances in the same way.
“Sometimes when I hear from students with disabilities about something not being very accessible to them, often it’s sort of technically accessible – they can kind of get there, maybe they have to go through the back door,” Burgstahler said. “I mean, how friendly is that?”