By Basil Pursely and Christine Wehner
Up until the end of February, the only available elevator in V, W, X and Y Residence Halls had been broken for approximately two and a half months. The broken elevator has meant that students with physical disabilities would often struggle with returning to or leaving their dorms. The second level of the building had become completely inaccessible to those in wheelchairs, and any students attempting to move things using a moving cart had to struggle down the stairs instead. This elevator was of course only one of many accessibility issues taking place on campus, and Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator Taylor Parker has begun to take action.
The ADA was created in order to protect the civil rights and liberties of people with disabilities in many aspects of public life. This act protects those with disabilities from discrimination in any place that is accessible to the public, including public universities like New College of Florida. Discrimination is not exclusive to denying people access to accommodations—it can also mean simply making information and certain places inaccessible to those with disabilities. Between trying to get classroom and residential accommodations, many students with disabilities have also had to face navigating a campus which is not always the most pleasant to move around. While the laws and regulations involving the ADA vary by state, it is still undeniable when discrimination is taking place that hinders the livelihood of people with disabilities. Especially when it inhibits a student’s academic success.
Parker is the head of the Advocacy and Accessible Learning Center (AALC)—previously known as Student Disability Services (SDS) up until the beginning of the 2022 spring semester— and she is working to repair the damages from the previous staffing.
“I meet with students, they talk about their needs, they talk about the barriers they face on campus, and we come to an agreement on what accommodations work for them,” Parker said. “The students who want accommodations should send me an email, and we’ll schedule a meeting. The meetings typically last for up to an hour, and before the meeting, I ask that you sign up with AIM—which is on your New College portal.”
AIM is the Accessibility Information Management portal which many institutions use to help students, administrators and to manage their accommodations for residential life and specific classes.
In preparation for accommodation meetings, Parker gives advice for students who are having trouble understanding how exactly to communicate their needs to effectively put accommodations in place,
“Rather than a student saying ‘I want X, Y and Z,’ it’s better to say ‘I am experiencing barriers in [these things],’” Parker explained.
As well as Parker, Interim AALC Coordinator Nicholas Pracko (‘22) is the other major figure on campus who handles situations regarding disability on campus. Parker has spoken highly of him, explaining that he has been extremely helpful to her.
However, students with mobility aids still experience danger while trying to use the ramps across campus. One of the ramps—which is in front of Palm Court—is completely disconnected from the tiling leading up to the Hamilton “Ham” Center; therefore, those with wheelchairs have to wheel through the grass to get to a tiled surface. In response, Parker has said that she is going to contact the Physical Plant in order to install more tiling to connect the two tile bodies, and that she and staff will be exploring the lack of safety on campus.
“I will get in touch with people that are responsible for these areas, and I will do a campus walk with a wheelchair to see what needs are important,” Parker said. “We’ll test buttons, look at the ramp areas, and see which need to be fixed.”
Another manifestation of the ramp issue is the large overpass which extends across Highway 41. The ramp is incredibly steep, and it is impossible for those who push their own wheelchairs to go upward, and going downward risks wheelchair users losing control of their mobility aid and slamming into the concrete walls.
“When I was in a wheelchair in 2019, the overpass was basically inaccessible to me due to the slope of the ramp,” thesis student Maya Wernstrom said. “I was offered golf cart rides between residential and academic campus, but it was very physically painful for me to transfer in/out of the chair and sit in a bumpy golf cart due to my injury, so I declined.”
“I ended up having to sit pitifully next to the overpass until someone recognized me and offered help or rely on a friend to take me to class and push me up the ramp, which was difficult for both of us,” Wernstrom continued. “I acknowledge the effort made to accommodate me, and obviously remodeling the overpass can’t just be done overnight, but it made an already shitty time of my life harder than it had to be.”
Staff writers of the Catalyst asked Parker about the possibility of having staff near the overpass with golf carts ready to transport students.
“I will ask Student Affairs about it,” Parker said. “If a student is running into difficulties with mobility across campus, reach out to me and we’ll make a request for a golf cart. We will work on making golf cart usage more open to students.”
“If a student is having difficulty with a professor or any faculty member, they can always come to me, and I’m happy to help,” Parker later said.
Many students on the student email forum, both with present and past disabilities, had complaints about the accessibility of campus. The complaints came from many angles—from transportation accessibility, meal accommodations and even issues with on-campus quarantining.
“It seems as though you can either need accessible restrooms or need gender-neutral restrooms, not both,” thesis student Andi Wright said. “The only restroom I know of on campus that is gender-neutral AND can open by accessibility button is on the second floor of ACE. Additionally, the gender-neutral bathrooms in Heiser (specifically on the second floor) have soap dispensers nestled in a corner between the sink and paper towel dispenser in a position that cannot be accessed very easily by those in a wheelchair.”
“When I started [going to Ham], I was assured that they would take care of me and had done it before successfully,” third-year Melanie McCord said, referring to how she lives with celiac, an immune reaction to eating gluten.. “However, the staff never followed food protocols and just did what they felt was convenient. I lived pretty much constantly with being poisoned from cross-contamination.”
Additionally, multiple students pointed out issues with the broken and slippery tiles outside of Ham, which can be difficult to navigate if you are someone who uses a mobility aid of some sort.
Living on the New College campus is encouraged by admissions as a key part of the academic experience. If this is true, then living on campus should be accessible, convenient and fun for everyone. All students, staff and faculty should be able to easily navigate their school, home, and workplace, and hopefully with the collaboration between the AALC and the students able to come forward with their experiences, the administration will be able to make changes on campus to make things more accessible.