In a bid for greater physical accessibility on campus, students Aaron Burbach ’21, Arianna Varela ’21 and Andrew Farias ’21 have placed posters around campus that urge students, faculty, staff and visiting Board Members to consider daily obstacles for those with disabilities at Carleton.
“We recognize that as students with disabilities on Carleton’s campus, accessibility is obviously an issue, even though accessibility is something that Carleton says that they strive to have,” said Farias. “That’s obviously not present here on campus and we feel like that should be highlighted.”
Burbach’s physical disability makes it difficult for him to get to class. The snow and ice on campus exacerbates these challenges. “I just want to get to class, to be able to walk there. I’ve been going back and forth with Administration for a really long time and getting nowhere.”
Burbach, Varela and Farias organized the poster demonstration to raise awareness about disabilities on campus. They planned the demonstration to coincide with a campus visit from the Board of Trustees on Thursday, February 14.
“With the Board of Trustees on campus, it seemed like an opportune moment for us to bring these issues to light,” said Farias. “Unfortunately, a lot of the posters had been taken down. We put a lot of them in Sayles and they were all gone pretty quickly.”
“A lot of people didn’t even see them,” Varela added.
Director of Disability Services Chris Dallager disagreed with the posters’ statements, stating “there was some suggestion on the posters that students don’t have access to classes and things like that. That’s misinformation in my mind.”
Disability Services Peer Leader Cecily Conour ’19 said “I am excited that these posters are increasing the spotlight on accessibility issues.”
“I would encourage anyone who feels that they need accommodations to contact the office and see what can be done,” Conour continues. “I know Chris [Dallager] and Jan [Foley, Student Accessibility Specialist] work to help everyone in whatever way is feasible.”
“If a student needs access to a space and they contact this office, this office would work with the college to make sure that a class is in a space that student can access,” Dallager said.
Burbach is a Computer Science major. According to him, classroom accessibility and attendance policies influenced his major choice.
“I picked Computer Science because they have more accessible attendance policies for when I can’t get to class, because there will be those times,” Burbach said. “Classes also usually happen in the Weitz or in the Center for Math and Computing (CMC), which are two of the more accessible buildings on campus. I partially picked that major because I need to be able to get to my classes for my major.”
Dallager explained that, if a student is interested in taking a class that is slated to be held in a physically inaccessible building, Disability Services ensures that the class is moved to an accessible building before the start of the term.
“If a student were to communicate with me what their accommodation needs are, and if those needs involve a certain level of access, then I would work with the Registrar on the assignment of a classroom space,” Dallager added.
“In the vast majority of cases, that would happen for students prior to a term starting, but it could happen at any point,” Dallager continued. “A student could go from not needing that kind of access to now needing that kind of access. That would be more complicated, but the college would make it work. I haven’t gone down that path but I have no doubt that we could make it work.”
“I know that the college says it will move classes for me,” Burbach said, “but I don’t want to be in a position where I have to email a professor every single class for a major to get it moved. I shouldn’t have to do that.”
“We just want everyone to be able to get to their class in an equitable manner,” said Varela. “Everyone should have the opportunity to get to class. Everyone should have the opportunity to major in what they want to major in, without building accessibility being an issue.”
Burbach, Farias and Varela contest Carleton’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “A common misconception about the ADA and Section 504 is that those are maximum accessibility. Those are minimum accessibility,” said Burbach. According to the group’s mission statement, Carleton “fails to meet even the bare minimum of physical accessibility.”
“It’s been 29 years since the ADA [was passed in 1990], and Carleton is still not fully accessible,” said Burbach. “You should be able to access every single classroom and every single office: that should be the basic minimum.”
Dallager believes there is some misunderstanding about ADA requirements. “Clearly there’s buildings here that don’t have access for somebody that’s using a wheelchair,” he said. “That’s not unknown information to people. The ADA requires that buildings built after 1990 are built to code for access. Those codes change every so many years too, so something can be built at code in 1995 that is no longer to code in 2005. Every time you see an automatic door opener, for example, that exceeds code.”
According to Dallager, the cost of campus renovations, along with historical building code restrictions, are barriers to increasing physical accessibility on campus.
“If you were to think about the total cost involved in making every building accessible on all physical access issues, the cost would be pretty huge,” said Dallager. “Some buildings that are historical buildings would be potentially unusable. There’s lots of considerations when you’ve got both historic building codes and accessibility issues at play. I think you have to do some sort of balancing act around that.”
“We know there’s lots of issues, but what are the priorities?” Dallager continued. “Where do we most see issues? I would like the conversation [on disabilities at Carleton] to include issues of physical access, but with a sense of priority. What physical access do we most want to focus on. Where is the highest need?”
Financial checks on physical accessibility projects are also addressed in the group’s mission statement. They write: “There is no excuse for the inaccessibility of this campus. If you ‘can’t afford’ to make this campus accessible than you can’t afford to run a college. Students with disabilities are not an afterthought and equal access is not optional.”
“I started at Carleton before I was really physically disabled,” said Burbach. “I didn’t even have a diagnosis. I didn’t know this was going to happen to me and I would not be at this school if I knew. I would not have chosen this.”
“Having a disability on this campus is super isolating and that’s something that we don’t talk about,” Burbach continued. “I think it’s really easy to forget that students with disabilities are on Carleton’s campus because we have so few students, especially with physical disabilities. There is no community.”
“I think that because students here haven’t really been exposed to people with disabilities, because this campus doesn’t allow for students with disabilities to attend, then that disconnect is created,” Farias added. “There’s not enough awareness. People have these assumptions of what a disability looks like or is, but that’s just what they are: assumptions. It’s just something that you don’t have to think about until you actually have to experience it,” he said.
Disability Services Peer Leaders are working to raise student awareness of accessibility and disability on campus by holding campus events. Through these events, peer leaders “work towards creating a sense of community amongst those who seek accommodations through the Disability Services office,” said Conour.
Although there is a need for greater accessibility on campus, Dallager noted a lack of conversation between students and staff. “That’s an important conversation to have, but at this point I don’t think that conversation has happened, not between students and staff, adequately at all.
“If that conversation is happening, it’s happening in the wrong places,” Dallager continued. “The people who make the financial decisions around physical accessibility, who have a sense about the requirements of the college and how that fits in with other plans, haven’t been included in those conversations together.”
“We want to hear from students about what priorities they have with accessibility,” said Dallager. “If the focus that the students want to have is on physical access, let’s have the conversation, but let’s widen the conversation to include other people.”
Burbach, Farias, and Varelas said multiple members of the administration reached out to them in response to their posters. The group plans to conduct meetings with these administrators and will proceed accordingly.