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Disabled students find it difficult to navigate campus

Freshman McPherson Newell looks at stairs to Science Building where he has classes.
Freshman McPherson Newell looks at stairs to Science Building where he has classes.

Mercer is made of a series of tall staircases that can make it difficult for disabled students to navigate the campus and participate in campus life.

Everywhere you look there is a different set of stairs to get from one destination to the next. In fact, in some places, the stairs are the only way to get to classes, meetings or other events in buildings.

These challenges create a general lack of inclusiveness for students with disabilities, in addition to potentially making them late for class or meetings.

McPherson Newell, a freshman student who suffers from arthritis-related complications, often uses a cane as a way of making his trips to class easier. It helps him, but it does not totally alleviate his issues of mobility through campus.

[pullquote speaker="McPherson Newell" photo="" align="right" background="off" border="none" shadow="off"]Initially it was a weird space for the first two months. I wasn’t visibly disabled... So I’d get a lot of weird looks when I was using the elevator.... I'm like 'I swear I am not just lazy, I physically can’t do this.'[/pullquote]

“Initially it was a weird space for the first two months. I wasn’t visibly disabled... So I’d get a lot of weird looks when I was using the elevator,” Newell said about his first few months at Mercer.  “I’m like ‘I swear I am not just lazy, I physically can’t do this.’”

In most buildings, especially those on the quad, there is no elevator to get to the higher floors. This means that anyone needing access to these buildings must brave the usually two or three flights of steps to get to a class.

For Newell, a big problem is that Mercer does not advertise its accessible entrances and as a result, he has had to discover them on his own, usually after he has taken a painful journey up a staircase.

In once instance, stairs were his only option while on his way to class in Willet.

“I didn’t know where the elevator was in there so I had to walk up three flights of stairs because I only had a ten minute class break and I couldn’t get there early to find it,” Newell said.

Newell noted that he was fortunate to have a Peer Advisor who could tell him where the elevators were near his classes, otherwise he might have had even more trouble.

To alleviate part of this problem, Mercer has updated its campus with the installation of wheelchair buttons. When pressed, the buttons automatically open doors to several of the buildings on campus. However, according to some students, on many buildings the buttons do not work at all.

Aside from his Peer Advisor, Newell noted that Mercer hasn’t been very helpful in his accommodations.

“You don’t get a rule book or a guidebook to Mercer when you’re disabled or injured, they just expect you to figure it out,” Newell said.  

Other students echoed Newell’s sentiments about accessibility at Mercer. Jessica Smith, a freshman who had a broken ankle for a month and a half last semester, had a similar experience when trying to navigate around campus.

“My dorm doesn’t have an elevator so I walked on a broken ankle for nine days,” Smith said. “I had to go up and down stairs because I lived on the second floor, before I even got a boot.”

Smith has been to the Access and Accommodations office for other concerns and noted the building itself was not accessible.

“I know that access is on the third floor in a building where the elevator works about half the time,” Smith said about the office on the third floor of the Connell Student Center (CSC).

Katy Johnson, the new director of Access and Accommodations, said they have received complaints about the elevator in the CSC and have maintenance working on this issue.

“Usually [the elevator] is down for a couple of hours, but never more than a day,” Johnson said.

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When it comes to Mercer being an accessible campus, she said that this is an issue many campuses are dealing with and it is especially difficult for a historic campus like Mercer.

She said their problem areas are mostly in the quad and namely Willingham, Ryals and Ware. These buildings are much older than others on the quad and as a result, they are harder to change.

“Every other building is accessible,” Johnson said.

She said that her office has not gotten any complaints about broken wheelchair buttons but that each building has a steward who reports maintenance issues.

Making Mercer an accessible campus is a “continuous process” Johnson said. Every five years the campus goes under review for its accessibility and a priority list is made from those findings.

The next review process will begin in the summer of 2019.

Access and Accommodations needs an application, documentation of a student’s disability and an interview to follow up. If a student has filed for accommodations in the past, they must do so again at the beginning of each new semester.

To Newell and Smith this process has been somewhat troubling.

“Just because you have proof of this disability doesn’t mean your proof is proof enough,” Newell said about the difficulties in gathering the correct paperwork for accommodations.

For many students like Newell, their diagnosed disability does not accurately reflect their everyday difficulties getting around campus. This contributes to the misconceptions surrounding people with disabilities and affect the types of accommodations they are eligible to receive.

“There is this whole misconception in society, that disabled people are lying to get accommodations,” Newell said. “I wouldn’t need accommodations if I had to lie to get them. I could just do the stairs like an abled person.”    

Smith has had a similar story when she lost her paperwork during the accommodations process.

“Access doesn’t make it easier and they don’t seem to be very understanding about when you don’t have your paperwork, [so they tell you] ‘there’s nothing we can do,’” Smith said.

Sometimes, for an older historic campus, change is a bit difficult and can leave some feeling like it is not happening quick enough.

Access and Accommodations office is located on the third floor of the CSC and is open from 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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