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'Definitely on the right track': Students reflect on campus accessibility in 2023

THE 32-HOUR FIGHT FOR ACCESSIBILITY AT UNC
UNC sophomore Laura Saveedra Forero and senior Megan Murphy share a laugh during their first morning in the front of South Building on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Though 2023 brought accessibility improvements on campus, UNC students continue to advocate for more inclusive spaces for community members with disabilities at UNC.

In February, students sat on the steps of South Building in protest of a student wheelchair user who was stuck in their residence hall when the elevator broke. They protested for 32 hours straight, the same amount of time they were trapped in Koury Residence Hall. Although, UNC senior Sarah Ferguson said, no change directly resulted from this event, it was the catalyst for students with disabilities to be able to voice their concerns to University administration. 

“We had a strong foot in the door to finally get meetings,” Ferguson said. 

In July, the UNC Board of Trustees approved the modernization of elevators in Carroll Hall, Dey Hall, Morrison Residence Hall, Brinkhous-Bullitt Building and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, UNC Media Relations said.

Senior Mary Frances Lutz said a notable step toward accessibility was the University's summer renovation of a ramp connected to the Old Well

She said the renovations were also important for students with “invisible disabilities” too.

“It helps a lot of students,” she said. “[Students] that aren’t wheelchair users that can’t do those three stairs up to the Old Well.”

Ferguson said she sees the Old Well renovations as a “wonderful” addition, but she doesn’t feel that it was the best accessibility improvement for the University to prioritize. To her, it seems to be more for “publicity” than functionality.  

“People can see ramps, but they can't see accessible restrooms,” she said. “The University put higher priority on something that's visible, versus something that is actually functional.”

Ferguson also said she had to change her studio art major to a minor because there is no accessible restroom in Hanes Art Center. She said this caused her to miss 40 minutes of instructional time each week to go to the bathroom in a different building.

Prior to the fall move-in date, UNC Media Relations said thatCarolina Housing conducted a walk-through of several residential buildings to pinpoint areas in need of accessibility improvement.

Also this fall, Ferguson was informed of accessibility renovations in Morehead Chemistry Labs — an experience she described as “bittersweet.” Though renovations were completed in 2021, she was not informed until she received an email from her professor at the start of this semester. 

As a neuroscience and biology major, Ferguson said she had classes in Morehead Labs over the last three years that did not include accessible safety features and limited her participation. She said she has been using one of the accessible labs this semester and that it has been working well for her. 

“So, that was really a tough pill to swallow,” she said. “This is working so well for me to get through this lab. I could have been getting through my other labs this easily.”

Lutz said another important stride toward a more accessible campus this year included a new elevator outage notification system through the Carolina Ready Safety app developed in September.

As a wheelchair user, she said she was unable to attend a third-floor class in Peabody Hall last semester due to a broken elevator. She said it would have been helpful to have the elevator outage notification system because it could have prevented her from making the unnecessary trip to a class she couldn’t attend. 

Sophomore wheelchair user Naman Saboo said the notification system could “definitely use some improvement.”

He said there are only a couple elevators he uses on campus, and it would be nice for the system to be more customizable for students based on the specific outages that could impact them. 

With regard to current initiatives, Media Relations said an elevator modernization project is underway at the Carolina Union.  They said Carolina Housing is also in the planning phase to renovate Avery Residence Hall to implement an elevator, make kitchen and lounge spaces more accessible and create several accessible bedrooms and suites.

While Lutz said she experienced frustration as a wheelchair user over the past three years, she is seeing positive change from UNC.

“I feel like the University is definitely on the right track to making campus and the University more accessible to wheelchair users,” Lutz said. 

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Students with concerns related to physical access or barriers can report them through a form now available through UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance office, Media Relations said.

@IsabellaHopkinz

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