In a city built on hills, physical accessibility is going to be difficult. I recognize that USF has done a great job in implementing a student shuttle to help its physically disabled students get to the buildings they need to get to. However, accessibility goes much deeper than just being able to get to the buildings our classes are in. We don’t just need transportation from place to place, we also need accessibility within buildings and inside classrooms. USF needs to make its curricula more accessible to students with intellectual disabilities and the resources it already has more available to all.
Not a single elevator I have been in at USF is easy to access. Large gaps between the platform and the elevator itself are evident everywhere, even in Lo Schiavo, the newest building on campus. This is a problem because people in wheelchairs and people with walkers can get their front wheels stuck in that gap and keel over. In the University Center, the elevator entrance is too small for a person in a wheelchair to comfortably push themselves through, and there is insufficient space for another person to comfortably stand in the elevator with them. And those are just the elevators that work most of the time. The Toler Hall elevators are frequently out of order for long periods of time. This is disastrous because the accessible student rooms – rooms with accommodations for students in wheelchairs – aren’t on the first floor. If both elevators are out of order at the same time (which happened multiple times in Toler Hall last semester), students with disabilities are left stranded, either unable to get to their rooms or stuck on their floor.
The situation doesn’t improve throughout the rest of the dorm. The dorm’s doors are heavy and prone to slamming, which is very dangerous to students with disabilities who cannot hold doors open for long periods of time. The bathroom doors – at least on my floor, which does not have accessible rooms to begin with – are too small for a person in a wheelchair to comfortably roll through, as are the stalls and showers. The showers also have ledges and no railings, so a student with a physical disability would not be able to use them. I understand the argument that since all of the accessible rooms are on one floor, there doesn’t need to be accommodations on every floor, but these isolate students with disabilities. If I wanted to invite my wheelchair-bound friend to my room, I would not be able to because they couldn’t get into my room because the doorway would be too small.
Physical disabilities are not the only ones that exist. I, along with many of my friends, have a disability that is not physical. Our experiences with Student Disability Services (SDS) have been more negative than anything else. Beyond being in a location that is incredibly difficult to find, SDS is overworked, under-resourced and ineffective.
The first problem with SDS is the difficulties in getting your disability acknowledged in the first place. My friend who has autism went to SDS to ask that a teacher give his final on white paper with Arial font, instead of pink paper with typewriter font, so he could read it. He was turned away because he did not have an “official” diagnosis. Historically, autism diagnoses have been used to take away autonomy and agency from autistic people, so although several doctors have told my friend he has autism, he has declined an official diagnosis. The diagnosis Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) recommended him so that SDS would accommodate his needs would have costed $990. My friend failed his final because he could not even read it. His grade was decided by the color of the paper.
The fact that SDS requires a diagnosis before it will aid its students in simple matters like this is infuriating. I understand that SDS wants to avoid people “faking” disabilities to get accommodations, however, I don’t think some things should require a diagnosis. Certainly students who want to get emotional support animals should have the proper documentation to do so, but asking a professor to change the color and font of his test to accommodate a student does not take up excessive time or resources in the same way.
Moreover, getting a diagnosis, particularly for an intellectual disability, is an incredibly expensive and arduous process. Beyond that, there are institutional issues that keep people from being diagnosed. According to an article by NPR, people who are assigned female at birth, as well as people of color, are drastically underdiagnosed due to stereotypes. It is unfair for the school to mandate a diagnosis before giving the most basic aid to a student. In my class specifically about accessible teaching, we learned that teachers should help students get what they need regardless of diagnosis or official documentation, especially when it is an easy accommodation to perform. In this instance, it is obvious that USF has not been practicing what it teaches.
While the solutions to this lack of accessibility are more complicated than resizing doors and elevators, I believe they can still be done. Firstly, there should be mandatory accessibility training for all professors so they can assist all students regardless of diagnosis. Secondly, Student Disability Services needs more resources to help students with disabilities who don’t have an official diagnosis. Students with disabilities will not succeed at this school without these accommodations.
These fixes, though expensive, are undoubtedly necessary. If USF really cares about giving a voice to those who do not have one, it will work to make its campus accessible to students with disabilities.
Featured Photo: USF has managed to make scaling Lone Mountain accessible to disabled students – they need to make the insides of buildings accessible as well. SARAH HINTON / FOGHORN