Students confront campus accessibility issues

By Hannah Butcher and Zoe Pearson

A student who uses a cane gazes up a flight of stairs, which is often the only way to get to the top floors of buildings on a campus where 15 multi-story buildings don’t have elevators. (Curtis Shaffer)

Accessibility issues are gaining visibility on campus as students and faculty address problems that have plagued the college for generations through meetings and forums.

In the past two weeks, faculty held open meetings on accessibility initiatives; a new club, Disability Alliance, formed to raise awareness of related campus issues; and presidential candidates for the Student Government Association (SGA) campaigned with platforms including accessibility improvements.

The meetings and initiatives come after a Sandspur investigation uncovered the deeply-rooted physical barriers present on the Rollins campus—some of which do not align with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards—that prevent students with disabilities from fully accessing the college’s buildings and events. A manual survey found that 15 multi-story buildings do not have elevators, and that only eight of the 19 residence halls have one. 

The Sandspur investigation was followed by a SGA open forum with faculty and students last week. Whitney Horton, director of Accessibility Services, presented on the new initiatives her office has decided to focus on. These include an online reporting form for accessibility issues, a campus-wide third-party audit, a service-animal training program, and a workshop series on note-taking and organizational strategies. 

The presentation emphasized Rollins’ plans to improve accessibility moving forward, rather than assessing the current state of accessibility on campus.

Disability Alliance, a new campus organization founded by Jolie Peterson (‘21HH), Alex Candage (‘20), and Shey Bogumil (‘19), had its introductory meeting on Monday, Feb. 25. Its goal is to raise awareness of the college’s accessibility issues and advocate for tangible solutions. 

In addition, on Friday, March 1, students met with administrators to discuss inclusivity as it relates to accessibility. The meeting included faculty from Accessibility Services, Dean of Students Meghan Harte Weyant, and Leon Hayner, Associate Dean of Students.

Weyant, Horton, and Hayner discussed plans for an upcoming campus-wide audit performed by an external architectural firm. The survey will evaluate—according to ADA laws—campus accessibility elements, including pathways, entrances and exits of buildings, and Braille signage. 

The process is already underway to find a firm to conduct this survey. Firms who have submitted satisfactory proposals have been identified, and their proposals are being evaluated in order to choose the most suitable company. 

Horton explained that a decision should be reached by the end of April, so that the auditors will have ample time to survey the campus before students and faculty leave for summer break. Ideally, the report will be completed by the beginning of June. 

“It will give us an idea of low-hanging fruit—things that can be improved on a quicker basis as well as things that can be improved in the future,” Horton said.

The plan for this audit arose after students with disabilities raised concerns about the accessibility problems Rollins faces.

Dean Weyant expressed optimism toward the initiative. “What I’m hoping this audit will help us do is getting a full and complete picture from someone who is bringing fresh eyes to campus,” she said. “I think it’s a really great solution. It moves us from a reactionary place to fully understanding the scope of our concerns and putting together a plan for how we want to respond to those concerns.”

Weyant also said that Ed Kania, vice president of the Finance Department, fully supports the idea of bringing in a third party and allocating funds toward making their accessibility report a reality. She said “it is important to provide context that senior leadership is committed to this initiative.” 

Hayner agreed that an external, neutral party will be beneficial to Rollins’ perspective: “Sometimes we get tunnel vision after being on campus so long, so when outside folks come in, someone who has no vested interest, we get more raw information and a new perspective.”

In addition to the campus audit, the meeting also focused on accessibility in the future Lakeside Residential Complex, the installation of push buttons in the Cornell Campus Center, the construction of a new pedestrian walkway to Sutton Apartments, and the inclusion of Braille on more signs around campus.

One of the focuses of Accessibility Services is to eliminate the time lag between complaint and response that currently plagues students with disabilities. For instance, the temporary ramp in front the Cornell Campus Center took months to erect due to bureaucracy issues and lack of urgency, leaving students with physical disabilities without access to a vital part of campus. 

Both Horton and Weyant expressed their dedication to eliminating this wait time and creating a forward-thinking process to avoid such a lag in the future.

To aid in this goal, a barrier reporting online form was added to the Accessibility Services website as of Wednesday, March 6. Although it is not yet clear when this will be implemented, it will allow students and faculty to efficiently report problems and help the office prioritize concerns.

“If there is a student need that does not already have a reasonable accommodation, the college has a moral and legal obligation to make that right,” Hayner said, referring to legal obligations under ADA regulations. 

After the first successful student and faculty meeting, the next has already been planned. It will be held on March 29 at 2 p.m., when students and faculty will look at the blueprints of the new Lakeside Residential Complex. 

Disability Alliance club meetings will happen at least once a month, in addition to events. Contact Bogumil, sbogumil@rollins.edu, to get involved.

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