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'I just want to go to class': University members reflect on campus accessibility

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The Old Well stands tall at UNC-Chapel Hill on Aug. 19, 2023.

UNC's maintenance backlog has reached $1 billion. Disabled students are paying the price.

Since the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, UNC has been slow to implement accessibility measures for students with all types of disabilities, junior Eleanor Bolton said. 

Student Perspective

Born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), Bolton hopes to see changes to the University’s accessibility features this semester.

“It's kind of outrageous that I am just expected to pick up the slack of the University and advocate for myself constantly,” she said.

Accessibility accommodations include wheelchair ramps, elevator access, transportation and academic accommodations to allow all students the same learning opportunities.

In February 2022, the Koury Residence Hall elevator stopped working and two students, including Bolton, could not leave the upper floors of the building. Elevator accessibility continues to be an ongoing issue across campus.

“My first day of class last fall, I couldn't get to one or two of my classes for an entire week, because the elevators in Hamilton were down,” Bolton said.

She said University officials didn't inform her or her professors of the malfunction. Her professors counted her absent, though she was physically unable to attend class, during the first few days of the semester.

“I feel a lot of times as though I'm looked at as a problem or someone that's making a lot of noise," she said. "When in reality, I just want to go to class.” 

Campus Accessibility and Legal Requirements

Professor Kym Weed teaches English 269: Introduction to Disability Studies. As part of the course, students are required to informally audit different spaces around campus and find ways to improve campus accessibility. 

“One classic example is if the accessible entrance to a building is around back when it might be more inconvenient or harder to get to, it makes an argument about who belongs in that space,” Weed said.

She said accommodations have to be both physically helpful and intentional. 

“For something like an automatic door, it might be how many of the building's entrances are accessible in that way or how quickly it opens and closes— there are legal standards,” she said.

Automatic doors are required to open a minimum of 32 inches and take more than five seconds to close.

Future Funding

Undergraduate student body secretary Jaleah Taylor said leaders in Student Government met last Wednesday to discuss students’ accessibility needs. 

“President Everett met with some of the folks from Crips in College, the accessibility and advocacy group here on campus,” she said. “We're discussing needs and how student government can serve as a soundboard.” 

The UNC school system also expanded their funding for ADA compliance and ARS, Accessibility Resources and Service, from $30 million to $250 million a year — over an 830 percent increase. 

Taylor said the University hopes to use this additional funding to increase the number of staff members working for ARS accommodations. 

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Looking Forward

To alleviate the burden that disabled students face, Bolton called for a Disability Center to provide support groups, tools for job hunting and study abroad opportunities — resources that she said other students can access on a “daily basis.”

Bolton also said that while it's obvious that talented, disabled people are able to attend college, many choose not enroll at UNC because it is “so difficult to get what you need.”

An accessibility lawsuit would be a tedious and expensive process. Bolton said she has yet to find a comprehensive audit of the campus' violations, but if students were able to successfully file a complaint, the settlement cost could be high for the University. 

“It seems like it’s just a conversation about a retroactive mindset versus a proactive, legally aware mindset,” Bolton said. 

Weed also urges UNC leaders to lean into the voices of students when making decisions for the campus. 

“The most important thing, in my mind, is to learn from the people who are most impacted by the failures of the physical spaces,” Weed said. “That's a principle of disability justice: ‘leadership of the most impacted’.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com