'Blatant disrespect and harm': Unreliable elevators highlight campus accessibility issues
"He looked me in my eyes and said, 'hopefully you won't have to sleep here tonight.'"
This was the message from a UNC police officer to UNC junior Sarah Ferguson who was stuck on the third floor of Hanes Art Center earlier this semester.
As a wheelchair user, she went to use the elevator at around 2 p.m., but it had broken down.
She said the University could not call someone to evacuate her since there was no medical emergency.
Over seven hours later — around 9:30 p.m. — maintenance workers were able to send the elevator up to get her down.
“It was a very terrifying and traumatizing experience,” Ferguson said. “And extremely humiliating.”
This is one example of the reality many students, faculty and staff who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues face on UNC’s campus.
Ferguson said her experiences have made her feel like a "second-class citizen" and made her consider transferring from the University.
Hamilton Hall houses the history, political science and sociology departments, and it has two of the most unreliable elevators on campus.
Eleanor Bolton, a sophomore studying political science, has been unable to attend some events for her major in Hamilton Hall due to the elevators often being out of service. She usually has to attend office hours via Zoom.
Bolton, who uses a wheelchair, was also unable to attend a class during the first week of classes last semester due to both elevators being down. They were also not working on the last day of classes.
“It's just like absolutely mind-blowing and ridiculous and embarrassing to be a Tar Heel to say the least,” Bolton, co-chairperson of the Campus Y’s disability advocates committee, said.
She said it is hard to believe how much “blatant disrespect and harm” is done by the University to disabled students every day.
Junior Karina Vasudeva is the incoming co-president of the Campus Y. She said she does not consider UNC to be an accessible campus.
"I think that the University is upholding some form of academic ableism," she said.
Vasudeva, who uses a cane, said she believes UNC administrators have a lot of room to improve accessibility.
Joe Caddell, a teaching associate professor of history, has had to get his classes moved to different buildings or even teach outside due to problems with elevators.
"Which was fine as long as we had good weather, and I didn't need to show pictures of Soviet ICBMs," Caddell said — who teaches classes on subjects like nuclear security and modern warfare.
Caddell, who has mobility issues and recently had both of his hips replaced, said the stairs in buildings like Hamilton Hall are difficult to traverse.
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"We have the oldest state university in the nation," he said. "You're going to have old buildings."
He said University officials and maintenance workers he has spoken to have always been very sympathetic and eager to help.
"They were really trying," he said. "They were worried."
But he said people should question whether the University needs to spend more money on deferred maintenance projects or new construction.
"There always seems to be money for building new stuff, right?" he said.
UNC's deferred maintenance backlog is now over $1 billion. The elevator and lifts maintenance backlog is now at $44 million, an increase of about $2 million from last September.
The University is in the process of replacing the elevators in Carroll, Dey and Hamilton Halls as well as Morrison Residence Hall.
A University spokesperson did not have an update on the timeline of these projects.
Over the past several months, there have been issues with the elevators in Hamilton Hall, Manning Hall, Taylor Residence Hall, Hanes Art Center and Koury Residence Hall as well as the shared elevator between Winston/Connor Residence Halls.
At February's Board of Governors meeting, UNC requested close to $2 million in additional funding for "South Building Accessibility Improvements." Over $300,000 had already been authorized for the project.
A University spokesperson said this will include reworking the building's exterior ramp as well as improving the garden-level restrooms and lactation room.
Some buildings on campus, such as Caldwell Hall, do not have an elevator at all.
Bolton said that the University does not respond quickly when elevators go down, calling priorities "severely" misaligned.
Demands for change
Bolton said it is "super embarrassing" to talk to disability activists at peer institutions since the institutional barriers at UNC are unlike anything she could have imagined.
"The lack of empathy and humanity with which the problems are being addressed is just completely harmful," Bolton said. "To be told by administrators over and over and over again, 'We're doing our best' when their best is completely illegal and a violation of my human civil rights is just so unbelievable."
Ferguson said it is frustrating for disabled students to have to fight elevator outages or poor curb cuts.
"There's just no help or guidance for students with disabilities, and it's just a really big burden to be a disabled student here to be honest," Bolton said.
Laura Saavedra Forero, outgoing co-president of the Campus Y, had to be evacuated from her residence hall last year after the elevator went down. She and Bolton have compiled a list of seven "immediate" accessibility demands, informed by a year of previous conversations and inaction. The demands include:
"Ensure that all elevator and escalator inspections are done yearly as required by the ADA."
"Provide all physically disabled students with accessible classrooms and buildings for their
Fall 2023 schedule."
"Ensure that all academic accommodations are met regularly and intentionally, and create
a process of accountability for accommodations that are not met."
The students plan to present the list to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson on Friday.
Bolton said she has been a member of the Student Advisory Committee to the Chancellor since August. Accessibility has only been on the agenda once or twice, she said.
"I think (it's) disrespectful to my time and everyone else's time to begin," Bolton said. "I don't really want to talk about scooters when I can't get to class."
Bolton, Ferguson and Vasudeva all agree — UNC is not accessible.