Handicap (Un)accessible? Fairfield works to meet needs of physically disabled students

Is Fairfield University doing enough to help the physically disabled?

You know the routine. You get up in the morning and stumble into the communal bathrooms, eyes blurry from sleep or lack thereof. You quickly get ready, slip in a breakfast if you have time and sprint to classes, wondering if you’ll make it on time.

But imagine a different life.

Imagine needing bars in the shower for support, or else you’ll slip and fall. Imagine having the weather determine if you can even make it to class by yourself. Rain allows for a possibility; sleet would make it impossible for you to go out. Imagine, then, having to call the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and wait for a ride.

Students with physical disabilities require much more effort, care and support for their safety and their mobility around campus.

According to Lauren Knoll, graduate assistant to the Office of Academic and Disabilities Support Services (ADSS), there are seven students–out of the 3,921 undergraduates on campus — with physical disabilities, but the question is whether or not Fairfield University is doing enough to accommodate them. ADSS is responsible for seeing that the university complies to the ADA.

What Fairfield does under the American with Disabilities Act

Under Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the American with Disabilities (ADA), the civil rights of individuals with disabilities are protected just as their rights in race, color, and etc are. Opportunity is equally given to disabled individuals in employment and education as well.

A few disabilities covered by the ADA include:

  • asthma
  • cerebral palsy
  • multiple sclerosis
  • controlled diabetes
  • mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, maniac depression, etc.
  • alcoholism

Certain procedures are warranted by ADA. For example, if someone files for a barrier removal, or anything that stands in their way of going about their routine, that barrier can be removed, if the change is “readily achievable,” according to ADA’s website. Readily achievable changes can be such things as installing support bars in showers or the addition of an automatic door.

Students who wish to apply for special housings must submit documentation and their request to Office of Academic and Disabilities Support Services. After a committee consisting of the aforementioned service, the Health Center, Counseling & Psychological Services and Residence Life determines that accommodations.

Letters are then distributed to professors about the disabled students’ information, so that they would be aware in case their student cannot make it to class.

For other disabilities, such as blindness and deafness, ADA also requires institutions to provide accommodations like notetakers, extra time on tests, individually proctored exams, reading, dictating, typing, and alternative formats, when the need is properly documented.

Students’ opinions

Annemarie Veira ‘12, who has a medical condition called spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that makes the muscles in her legs tense and impedes her physical movements, believes that the university has done well in accommodating to her condition, in which she needs to use a set of canes to support her walking.

Annemarie Veira '12

She lives with three roommates in a campus apartment that has adapted to her needs, lowered toilet seats and counters for easy access. The DPS are good about giving rides, she said.

But at one point during her time at Fairfield, she had a shower with no railings for her to hold onto. She described that month to be “terrifying,” even though it was act–a simple act for most students–that people don’t usually have to fear.

In freshman year, she was placed in Dolan, which used to be dorms for some people who had medical conditions, and thus was near the Health Center. However, since Dolan closed for renovation, the road to the Health Center, also considering that its hours has been cut back, has been harder to travel on.

Laura Garnica ’14, who underwent surgery during this year’s winter break, had a difficult experience in getting around campus but received help from the DPS. “When I came back [from break], I was at my weakest so it was a huge pain to get around,” she said. “When there was snow on the ground and Fairfield didn’t cancel class, I was terrified of slipping because I didn’t have my legs so if my crutches gave out who knows what would have happened.”

Huytien Tran’13 had a broken shin last year and had to use a wheelchair and then crutches. He echoed Garnica’s sentiment: “The campus itself was a challenge; hills are not as friendly towards wheelchairs, and yes, they could have made the building more friendly towards chronic or temporarily disabled, but that’s what elevators are for.”

Administration says they are complying

Todd Pelazza, director of Public Safety at Fairfield University

One way the university complies is through the DPS, who plays an important role in the mobility of physically disabled students. “Student information is programmed into our alarm system for class schedule and residence for any special needs during fire alarms or other emergencies,” said Director of Public Safety Todd Pelazza. “We also will do transports around campus.”

Karen Donoghue, director of residence life.

Other administrators believe that the university is abiding by the ADA. Karen Donoghue, assistant dean of students and director of residence life, said that all buildings “meet the required codes for amount of housing needed by law.”

This includes the new buildings. Director of Campus Planning and Design Thomas Curran said, “All of our new residence halls have at least one  room or suite which comply with the accessibility codes.  Freestanding furniture … in these rooms and suites has been specified with accessible pull hardware and other accessible features.

How Fairfield compares to national campuses

20.6 million people are enrolled in public and private post-secondary institutions, according to a recent study done in Fall 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education. 11 percent of those students had disabilities such as “a specific learning disability, a visual handicap, hard of hearing, deafness, a speech disability, an orthopedic handicap, or a health impairment.”

In an article on The Chronicle of Higher Education, more colleges are promoting change to campuses that are not handicap accessible. University of Oklahoma and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are adapting and changing the way their campuses are shaped.

The latter university built new dorms equipped with motorized ceiling lifts, pager systems for students who need emergency help and adapted weight rooms. In this way, the school provides an opportunity for students to live independently.

At Fairfield, all site design, parking spaces, accessible routes of travel, emergency routes, plumbing and toilet facilities and stairways are renovated with accessibility for all in mind, according to Curran.

But in a list of 75 disability-friendly colleges, which include  Boston University and University of Connecticut in Storrs, the University remains absent.

What the school needs, from students’ point of view

The students acknowledged the efforts the school was making to adapt to physical disabilities, but Veira finds one thing puzzling. “There are ironically more of an amount of disabled students on campus, but I find it very weird that there’s a limited amount of what they can do for Residence Life for acquiring spaces,” she said.

The junior also added, “I think in general, I feel maybe if there was definitely inner campus shuttle, then we’d be better off, because it’s not just about physical disabilities; it’s about everyone on campus.”

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