When Mariel White first came to UF, she never thought about accessibility.
Then, she experienced a sudden illness that culminated in a stroke and left her paralyzed. Now the 22-year-old UF sports management senior said she notices barriers to accessibility all the time.
On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in many areas of public life. Under the ADA, a disability is any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
Beth Roland, assistant director of outreach and education for the UF Disability Resource Center, said the passage of the ADA opened large parts of United States society to people with disabilities, like employment and education. The law required places like UF to have things like wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms to equalize the way disabled students and faculty experience campus. This eventually led to the enrollment of an estimated 5,000 students with disabilities at UF today, according to the DRC.
White said she never paid attention to the ADA before she got sick.
“Now it’s something that’s kind of a part of my everyday life, and something I always think about especially when I go places that aren’t accessible,” she said.
UF has done very well at making campus accessible, she said. She lived in Cypress Hall, which she said was accessible in every aspect because of the programs and services it provides, which include larger rooms to accommodate mobility equipment like wheelchairs and elevators. Because it’s an older campus, she said getting around in a wheelchair can sometimes be difficult when the sidewalks are uneven or blocked by tree roots.
But, the campus map suggests paths around campus that are the most accessible, she said. She also found accessibility in aspects of Greek life. When she became paralyzed, her sorority, Phi Mu, was already planning renovations to its house. Any new renovations to a sorority house must be ADA compliant, so an elevator and accessible bathrooms were added, White said.
The DRC hosted a webinar over Zoom to celebrate the anniversary of the ADA on Monday. UF President Kent Fuchs noted how one of the good things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic was learning how to use technology that allows distanced communication, like Zoom. However, people with disabilities have already understood the importance of services like these, he said.
UF has made great strides toward making campus accessible, Fuchs said, but the university must do more.
“We must continue to make disability a part of our conversation about diversity,” he said.
Cara Wieman, a 25-year-old UF English Ph.D. student who identifies as disabled, said Fuchs commemorating the anniversary of the ADA while also moving forward with a campus reopening plan ignores the issues that disabled people continue to face.
There is no way to open campus without increasing the spread of COVID-19, they said, and people with disabilities are more vulnerable to serious complications of the virus. Wieman said there’s been some evidence that COVID-19 can have harmful lasting effects, but there’s still a lot unknown about the virus.
While Wieman said they feel indebted to the activists who fought for the ADA, there are many facets of accessibility that it doesn’t cover. For example, they said, there are other systems of oppression such as racism, transphobia, income inequality and more that affect legal and health care systems.
“Noncoincidentally, these disparities also inform who is most at risk of COVID-19 and who will be most affected by campus reopening,” they said.
During a Q&A panel at the end of the webinar with UF accessibility leaders, Dr. Russ Froman, the assistant vice president for UF’s ADA and Title IX compliance, noted that UF has what he calls “islands of accessibility,” where there are places like Cypress Hall that meet the needs of disabled students. But, they still find barriers trying to get to other halls. The goal, he said, is to connect all these places and remove barriers so that all of UF is one accessible entity, instead of isolated pockets.
Froman said he hates the word “compliance” because the bar for compliance is so low. Instead, he said we should strive for “inclusive excellence.”
One way UF is working towards this is by installing buttons to open doors that can be activated with a wheelchair instead of needing to be pushed by someone’s arm, he said. While the university would be ADA compliant by simply having the button, there’s still a barrier for someone who would have trouble using their arm to use the button.
Roland, who is also an organizer of the event, said an estimated 19 percent of college-aged students have a disability, so we should expect students with disabilities to be everywhere in the community and therefore all aspects of campus should be accessible and inclusive.
One of the goals of the DRC, she said, is to be proactively inclusive. Courses can be designed to be more accessible by only showing videos that have closed captions, allowing students to type notes on a computer and sharing powerpoints in advance of class. This would reduce the need for students with disabilities to request these changes later as accommodations, she added.
According to White, one of the areas UF could improve on is sporting events. White said her biggest passion is sports, but it’s also where she sees the biggest barriers to accessibility. Basketball games aren’t really accessible at all, she said, because no matter how early she gets there or if she calls ahead, there’s no seating for her close to the court and she has to sit up high and away from the student section. Although there’s seating for wheelchairs at UF football games, she said, she misses being able to sit in the student section.
“They make it accessible, but that doesn’t mean I’m included in the capacity that a student is typically included,” White said.
Jacqueline Chung, Alachua County’s equal opportunity manager, said the point of ADA isn’t just to comply with the letter of the law, but to offer people with disabilities a way to meaningfully participate in society.
One way the county makes sure its buildings and programs are accessible and inclusive is through its Citizens Disability Advisory Committee. Input from citizens is part of the accessibility laws in the U.S., she said. Individuals on the committee help test different facilities and programs in the county and give feedback on changes that need to be made to improve accessibility. The committee is currently looking for new members, she said.
The county does many things to make its services more accessible, said Chung, like using American Sign Language interpreters, holding meetings in accessible buildings and televising county commission meetings with closed captioning. Other initiatives can be found on the equal opportunity office’s website.
In the last two years, the county has also embraced the Florida Relay Service, which helps people who are deaf or hard of hearing make phonically through the use of an operator. The deaf or hard of hearing person sends a typed message to the operator, who then reads that message to the person they’re trying to call.
“Technology, I think, is gonna take us further and further into the new opportunities for accessibility and accommodating individuals with disabilities to allow them to live more independently,” Chung said.