Eleanor Bolton does not feel like a priority at UNC.
Bolton, a first-year studying political science and economics, uses a power wheelchair to navigate campus. She said she has noticed issues in availability of mobility aids at the University, an experience that illuminates broader accessibility challenges of UNC's campus and academics for students with disabilities.
“My experience with accessibility at UNC specifically has been pretty fragmented or disjointed,” Bolton said.
While push buttons, automatic doors, elevators and ramps are available as alternative options on campus, they often don’t work or are sporadically available, Bolton said.
“In some areas, I can navigate pretty well but in other areas I have to go 30 minutes out of my way compared to my able-bodied peers because there’s not a ramp or something like that,” Bolton said.
Bolton said the prestige and reputation of UNC led her to believe that there would be more opportunities for accessibility available to her as a student.
After arriving on campus, Bolton said she quickly realized that easy accessibility is not always a reality for students with disabilities at UNC.
“I feel like UNC markets itself as a very inclusive space, and in some ways it is, but there are other areas that they absolutely have not considered the perspectives or needs of disabled students,” Bolton said.
Laura Saavedra, a first-year studying neuroscience, also uses a wheelchair. She said that in addition to physical barriers of navigating campus in day-to-day life — such as wheelchair tires getting caught where missing bricks are in the Pit — these challenges interfere with the academic experiences of students.
“I remember the first few weeks on campus, I was figuring out there was only one way to get to most places on campus that’s actually accessible, or there’s no way at all,” Saavedra said.
“I had to have multiple classes moved because the buildings were inaccessible,” she added.
Pace Sagester, UNC Media Relations manager, said in an email statement that all new campus construction is required to meet ADA accessibility standards.
"Our campus is the oldest public university in the nation, so many of our buildings are historic," he said. "We continue to work to improve the accessibility of these buildings whenever possible."
These inconsistencies in accessibility are present in residential life on campus as well, Saavedra said — from wheelchair accessible rooms being on top floors to less housing options in general.
“I live on the fourth floor and I do not know why,” Saavedra said. “For fire drills and stuff, I’m basically stuck and no one has quite told me the plan (to evacuate) or has executed it.”
However, accessibility shouldn’t end at push buttons and elevators, said Kym Weed, a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. Weed teaches a class called Disability Studies.
“What I have been focusing on, where I have the most impact, is what I call intellectual accessibility,” Weed said. “This is the accessibility of my classroom space but also my materials, the way that I deliver content and the kinds of resources I provide.”
Weed has also noticed that since returning to in-person classes, UNC’s academic lifestyle can also be a challenge for accessibility.
“Something I’ve been keenly aware of, more this term than ever before, is just the pace of the academic semester can be inaccessible,” Weed said.
To address this, Weed now offers flexible deadlines in her classroom, but acknowledges that a hard deadline is almost always present in a 16-week semester.
“The pace of life in an academic context is quite inaccessible, not only for people with disabilities, but for many folks,” she said.
Moving forward, Bolton hopes students with disabilities can take a larger role in the planning and designing of accessible options on campus.
“I would ask to not be an afterthought and to not be forgotten (by administration),” Bolton said. “I’ve worked so hard to be here and I deserve to have an equitable experience.”
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