Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Students with disabilities seek access on campus


The University of Alabama is famous for its signature Greek Revival architecture style, with towering columns and steep staircases leading to building entrances. But one thing missing from these grand facades is accessible entrances for students with disabilities. In many buildings, these entrances are around the side or in the back, hidden from view and inconvenient to access.

“A lot of the buildings are historic, and what gets me is that these buildings that are made at or around the Civil War era, those back entrances were for people of a lesser class, specifically slaves,” said Sierra Rodgers-Farris, president of the Crimson Access Alliance and a graduate student of gender and race studies. “So now we’re saying that it’s okay for everybody to use the front entrances except for disabled people, [who] still have to use the back. What are we saying about people with disabilities?”

The Crimson Access Alliance is a student organization aimed at advocating for the rights of students with disabilities and increasing awareness on campus. Rodgers-Farris said that while the Office of Disability Services provides many accommodations to students with disabilities, it’s not always enough.

(See also “Crimson Access Alliance serves disabled“)

The syllabus for every class is required to include information about disability services so students with disabilities can contact ODS to receive assistance. Director Judy Thorpe said ODS provides academic accommodations such as extended test times, reduced-distraction testing, note takers, books in alternative formats, readers for exams, use of computers on essay exams, priority registration, real-time captioning of lectures and captioning of videos. In order to receive these services, students must register with ODS then take copies of a Confidential Request for Accommodations letter to their instructors.

Thorpe said some of the most common disabilities ODS accommodates are not physical.

“There are all kinds of ‘hidden disabilities’ such as ADHD, learning disabilities, psychiatric disorders and chronic medical conditions, which are very common,” she said.

Some of the greatest difficulties students with disabilities face are simply getting to class. Rodgers-Farris has dystonic cerebral palsy, which limits her mobility. She said there are several buildings on campus where accessibility for students with disabilities is a problem, including Reese Phifer, B.B. Comer, the Ferguson Center and the lower levels of Gorgas Library.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, sets guidelines for building accessibility, but there are exceptions to the law, particularly in the case of historic buildings.

Under federal law, buildings are not required to be accessible unless they were built or remodeled after July 1992. However, Thorpe said ODS does move a class to a different room or building if the scheduled room is inaccessible to a student with a disability.

But the need for accessibility does not end with the classroom. Some of the older residence halls on campus also have accessibility issues, said Brenda Hanson, a member of the CAA and graduate student in gender and race studies. Hanson calls herself a non-disabled ally.

“The dorm I live in is completely inaccessible,” Hanson said. “I live in Palmer. If you cannot climb the stairs, you cannot get in. What you would have to do is get people to lift you and your wheelchair up the stairs. People have done it, but it’s really inconvenient for everyone involved.”

(See also “Public lacks disability awareness“)

Rodgers-Farris said one of the goals of the CAA is to work with the University to make buildings more accessible, particularly Gordon Palmer Hall, which has no elevator. She described the difficulties of navigating Gordon Palmer’s narrow stairways.

“If [you have] an electric wheelchair, which are extremely heavy, there have to be enough people. You have to do it in two stages,” Rodgers-Farris said. “Somebody has to hold the person in the wheelchair, and then somebody else has to lift the wheelchair up there, and they have to place the person back. It’s really embarrassing. I imagine it would make them feel like a child, and nobody wants to feel that way. Just to be able to do stuff without that level of assistance would be our goal.”

Gwendolyn Hood, the University’s Americans with Disabilites Act compliance officer, said residence halls feature rooms equipped for students with hearing, vision and mobility impairments. She said the University is committed to improving accessibility on campus and will continue to re-evaluate buildings for accessibility. Hood said the University has created an ADA Committee with representatives from Construction Administration, ODS, ADA, Office of Equal Opportunity, Housing and Residential Communities and other departments. Rodgers-Farris and Hanson both said they would like to see students added to this committee.

“I think what appeals to me personally is setting up some sort of system whereby the University asks the students, when they’re building a dorm or whatever, ‘Tell us what you want in the building,’” Hanson said.

Transportation is another area problematic for students with disabilities.

Transit director Ralph Clayton said all Crimson Ride buses are wheelchair-accessible and comply with the ADA standards, but they are in the process of installing a system on the buses that will visually alert riders of upcoming stops.

Rodgers-Farris said parking is a big concern for her because she commutes to campus and cannot walk long distances. She said while there are a reasonable number of handicapped spaces near residence halls, there is a lack of handicapped spaces on the academic portions of campus.

“The issue is that they’ve recently been trying to make it a pedestrian campus,” she said. “They’ve been shutting down a lot of roads, making a lot of roads one-way or just bus routes. As they’ve been shutting those parking areas down, they have not been adding handicapped parking spaces to the other areas.”

Chris D’Esposito, director of Parking Services, said the University exceeds the required number of accessible spaces as determined by the ADA. A $250 fine is issued to students who park illegally in a handicapped parking space. She said people don’t always know that the diagonal blue lines beside handicapped spaces are technically a part of the space and are necessary for people who use wheelchairs or need extra room to get out of their car.

Rodgers-Farris and Hanson said that while ODS provides valuable services for students with disabilities, there is more to be done.

“I think a lot of it comes down to, just because that’s what the law says you have to do, doesn’t mean that’s all you have to do,” Rodgers-Farris said. “You’re basically saying that we’re only going to do as much as we have to [in order] to not get sued. They’re coming here for education. If they can’t get access to classrooms, what kind of education are they getting?”

One professor who said she knows firsthand the difficulties of non-accessible classrooms is Margaret Stran, an assistant professor of sport pedagogy in the kinesiology department, who uses a wheelchair. Stran works in Moore Hall, which until last year did not have an elevator. She had to move all her equipment to the Student Recreation Center in order to teach classes because she could not access the third floor.

Stran said her personal experiences make it easy for her to accommodate students with disabilities in her classes and that if she has a student with a disability in her class, she adapts the entire lesson instead of giving the student a different assignment.

“It’s just making sure that I’m doing things that are inclusive,” she said. “So for example, if I have somebody who uses a chair, I’m not going to choose to do soccer when I could do basketball, or I’m going to give them a choice. Today we’re going to learn about dribbling. You can either dribble with your hands or with your feet. Then it’s inclusive, and it doesn’t matter. Part of what I do is making sure that I’m teaching to all of my students regardless of ability level.”

Thorpe said professors are required to work with students to modify a course to fit their needs, but courses are never made easier or significantly different.

In the future, Rodgers-Farris said she would like to expand the role of the Crimson Access Alliance to a sort of partnership with ODS. She said she feels the CAA can help meet the needs of students with disabilities in ways the ODS cannot.

“[ODS is] doing what they’re made to do,” Rodgers-Farris said. “There’s just no real place to go for people with disabilities if they need information. There are students who need that information. They need to understand what it means to live on their own with a disability when they’ve been doing it with their parents their whole lives.

“Ideally, Crimson Access Alliance would be something that could do that because it would be student-based, so they know what the issues are,” she said. “It’s also more of a community, so you feel more comfortable with asking for help than you do going to people at an office. Whereas if you get somebody who doesn’t have a disability or hasn’t been in college for umpteen years, you just don’t know what you don’t know. ”

(See also “Adapted golf program breaks ground at UA“)

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