Inaccessible buildings and campus culture hurts students with disabilities

Last month, a gallery in Smith Hall started presenting the art exhibit “Hyphen American.” The exhibit – which featured art from first generation and immigrant artists – was a commentary on what it means to be a hyphenated American. As a Mexican-American, I was looking forward to the exhibit. But that quickly changed when I realized it wasn’t accessible for people with disabilities.

“Hyphen American” included an art piece with flashing lights, which could trigger a migraine, due to my epilepsy. While celebrating one part of my identity, this exhibit was ignoring another aspect of it. Not only did the flashing lights restrict people with epilepsy or severe light sensitivity, but the layout of the gallery was inaccessible to wheelchairs. Just because it wasn’t for or about people with disabilities doesn’t mean it should exclude them.

Professors and teaching assistants should start offering alternative office hours, located in places that are more accessible for the students who require it.

Unfortunately, the problem at the exhibit isn’t an isolated incident. In daily student life, people tend to forget the minority identity of the disabled community, especially those with invisible disabilities that are unrecognizable to others. It’s important for students and the University to take into account the differences that students with disabilities – both invisible and visible – face in their lives. This culture needs to accommodate the disabled community in any situation, like housing and transportation. In the end, the University must provide students with disabilities the education they deserve without bureaucracy in between.

The elevators at GW are an example of this bureaucracy. While it’s illegal, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, for renovated buildings on campus to not be accessible to students with disabilities, there has been little change on behalf of the University. For instance, in Madison Hall, the elevators still hold their original design and are too small for wheelchairs. But the issue isn’t only with the facilities themselves. It’s also the culture. Students often impose social rules on the elevator. In Thurston Hall, according to social norms, one must live on the fifth floor or above to take the elevator. People groan when the elevator stops on a floor below the fifth, but soon stop when they realize the person has an injury or is in a wheelchair. However, even if the elevator stops on a lower level and the person doesn’t have a wheelchair or crutches, it doesn’t mean they are able to walk down the stairs. The ignorance toward invisible disabilities creates a stigma toward people that don’t appear to have a disability, including chronic fatigue syndrome, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome or lupus. By creating a stereotype of what a person with disabilities should look like, a whole group of people, who also need accommodations, is being ignored.

The elevators aren’t the only thing that isn’t accessible to students with disabilities. Many of the professors’ offices are located in townhouses which are only accessible through steep stairs. This makes office hours inaccessible for students who can’t use the stairs. In the same vein, many times the Vex does not include a wheelchair ramp, which forces students to have to wait for the next shuttle. Additionally, one look into the two women-only residence halls available at GW – Merriweather Hall and 2109 F St. – and it is clear that both are inaccessible due to their lack of elevators.

GW is not known for being accessible to people with disabilities. The University is currently under investigation for the accessibility of its websites. But one shouldn’t have to file a complaint to the Department of Education to have accessibility. It should be a given.

Students with disabilities shouldn’t be the ones to accommodate themselves due to their disability.

Professors and teaching assistants should start offering alternative office hours, located in places that are more accessible for the students who require it. Additionally, for the University to start becoming more inclusive – both of visible and invisible disabilities – is by including ableism alongside racism in the diversity trainings that are starting around campus, to faculty, incoming students and Greek life. These trainings would include encouraging lecture accessibility and events relocated to more accessible locations. Trainings would also promote the understanding of what is easy for one can become really difficult for another due to a disability, even if one looks physically able. There shouldn’t have to be a scandalous event on campus, like the racist Snapchat that spurred diversity trainings, to jumpstart the University into being more inclusive of its minority communities. Students with disabilities should be included at the beginning of the conversation and not as an afterthought.

Students with disabilities shouldn’t be the ones to accommodate themselves due to their disability. Instead, the University should be inclusive toward the different needs for students with disabilities. As a student body who is trying to become more progressive and united with its multitude of communities, GW cannot ignore a group of its people or else it can never truly move forward.

Alejandra Velazquez, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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