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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton must make accessibility a priority

I remember a time when I was thrilled to be going to Carleton. It’s hard to imagine those days now; I’m much more likely to be having a crisis about how long it will be feasible for me to attend Carleton.

The turning point in my story was becoming disabled. I was able-bodied when I started here but now, halfway through my sophomore year, I am facing up to the fact that my college experience is drastically different than I imagined. Against all odds, I still hope that my different experience can be a positive one.

Carleton’s campus seems so different now. There are so many flights of stairs that I never took much note of until I couldn’t safely climb them and so many iced over ramps I didn’t look at until I needed them.

The reality is, a good portion of Carleton’s campus fails to meet minimum standards of physical accessibility like accessible entrances, elevators, and doorways and hallways wide enough for a standard wheelchair. The administration makes the argument that the entire campus is ADA-compliant under the grandfather clause. It may well be that they have successfully protected themselves from any legal action.

More importantly, however, we have to ask ourselves if that is what we want this college to stand for. Do we as an institution and a community accept that we are actively avoiding complying with the spirit of landmark disability rights legislation because a legal technicality intended to shelter small businesses protects us from facing consequences? The inaccessibility on this campus is technically legal, but we should strive for something beyond just exploiting legal loopholes.

The rhetoric on this issue is extremely predictable. The college is ADA-compliant, making the campus fully accessible is never going to happen, and there are work-arounds available. Based on current conversations with the college, unless I miraculously recover from a genetic condition, I will be contacting professors to relocate classes for the rest of my time here. I will be spending my own money and time to provide documentation of my need for those relocations.

The college views this as a solution, I view this as a measure designed to meet the bare minimum requirements of the law that is only acceptable as a short-term stop-gap until greater accessibility is achieved. Our disagreement on the subject is indicative of fundamental disagreements about accessibility and the place of students with disabilities at this college.

To be clear, students with disabilities are not a problem for this college and our presence does not detract from anyone else’s experience or education. I am tired of engaging in conversations where those assumptions are taken as a fact. I am tired of justifying my right to exist on this campus and to have equal access to the services I pay for.

Arguments about whether the college already grants “too many” accommodations are endless both in the sense that I cannot seem to avoid them, and in the sense that they will never reach a conclusion. Many of the accommodations being granted are necessary but would not be if all campus buildings were accessible and if this college did not harm students’ mental health (60% of your students struggling is indicative of a campus culture issue). There aren’t too many accommodations, there are too many barriers to students receiving an education.  

The discourse on this subject is more than unproductive, it does real harm to students with disabilities and tells us that our presence on this campus is not welcome. The campus climate around disability has been formed by an adversarial approach to students’ access needs and a general lack of students with physical disabilities (not being able to get to class is a deal breaker for prospective students with disabilities).

The consequences of this are making students with disabilities miserable.  I am stared at and laughed at for using a cane. I can’t go further than Sayles without being interrogated about why I’m using it. Is it such an absurd idea that a disabled person might go to this school, sit next to you in class, go to a dance? The mental stress of these experiences like these and the isolation of having no one to talk to takes a very real toll on students with disabilities.

At a basic level, what I want is very straightforward. I want to be part of a community that values contributions of myself and other students with disabilities. I want people to treat us with respect and to actually care about our needs. I want a say in issues that affect us and for the campus to proactively consider how policies and actions will affect us.

Changes in the distribution of emergency funding, a change in the policy regarding late drop of PE classes, and snow removal on campus all disproportionately affect students with disabilities and yet our input is rarely considered.  I want a campus community that listens to us and will commit to a plan to implement complete accessibility of campus buildings because 29 years after the ADA, that idea should not still be regarded as a wild fantasy.

I want to go to a college that has disabled community, courses in Disability Studies, and a broader community that cherishes their contributions. I have not given up my hope that Carleton can be that college. I hope that other members of the Carleton community can hold that hope with me and fight until it is realized.

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