To some students, the aspects that define the college lifestyle include studying, large lecture halls, and heavy alcohol drinking. For others, college is a total different experience because they cannot participate in the same activities due to their disabilities. Walking to class, eating independently, or even opening up a door to their lecture hall; these everyday routines cannot be completed by many disabled students, and are taken for granted everyday by those without disabilities.
1,600 students registered with disabilities are currently enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These disabilities range anywhere from attention deficit disorder to medical and psychological disabilities, and can have a dramatic impact on a college student’s experience.
Victoria Conrad, 22, is disabled student at UMass who suffers from CP, or cerebral palsy. CP is a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by injury or abnormal development in the immature brain, most often before birth, according to Mayo Clinic. Victoria can think, learn, and communicate just as any other person can, however, she does not have control of her muscles. She is in a wheelchair, and such things as feeding and dressing herself, showering, and walking to class are simply not a possibility for her.
Fortunately for Conrad and other disabled students alike, whether their disability is as severe or not, there are a number of support groups both on and off-campus that can help.
UMass Disability Services deals with all sorts of issues on campus regarding students with disabilities, mainly being accessibility and mobility to classes.
“The primary way we provide access is we allow the students to have priority enrollment,” said Associate Director of Operations at Disability Services, Benjamin Ostiguy.
Allowing disabled students the first opportunity to enroll in courses gives them the chance to enroll in courses that are in buildings with the greatest level of accessibility.
“Regardless of whatever courses they choose, that gives us the opportunity to start working on getting them access to wherever they need to go,” added Ostiguy.
The extra time given to Disability Services allows people like Ostiguy to make arrangements for the students, like relocating a class from a partially accessible building to a fully accessible building.
UMass has a color-coded map that ranks all of their buildings from partially accessible (yellow) to fully accessible (blue). While most of the campus buildings are partially accessible, the handful of buildings that are currently in construction will all be fully accessible to disabled students.
The Architectural Access Board is a state-run organization that sets building codes that deal with accessibility for people who have disabilities.
“Not every building (in Massachusetts) is required to be fully accessible, but overtime they are supposed to improve,” said Naomi Goldberg, Assistant Director of Client Services at the Massachusetts State Disability Agency. “New buildings have really stringent requirements, and we deal with older buildings as they renovate that requires them to become more in compliance with the current set of regulations.”
Since UMass is a public institution, it is easy for the state agency to accommodate their students. Private schools, according to Goldberg, are much more difficult to deal with, as they are privately funded and do they have to abide by state regulations.
“UMass is smart,” said Community Services Director at the Stavros Center for Independent Living, Joseph Tringali. “They deal with the Amherst Disability Group, who come to us to review plans for construction.”
“We can nip it in the bud if need be, if there are any red flags in terms of construction and accessibility issues,” Tringali added.
Stavros, while not directly related to the university, is an advocacy group out of Amherst that serves as another possible outlet for students with disabilities. Tringali, a UMass graduate, supervises the implementation of direct service contacts and coordinates housing advocacy and housing initiatives at Stavros.
Over the past 20 years, according to Tringali, accessibility has improved a great deal.
“Twenty years ago, kids with disabilities weren’t getting into high school because of accessibility,” he said. “They weren’t even getting into grade school, they would just stay home.”
1973 marked the year that major improvements began to take precedence. The Rehabilitation Act was passed, mandating that if any organization received federal money, they were required to become accessible. These organizations were also required to provide accommodations to employees and any other person receiving services from that organization, according to Tringali.
Classroom lengths were extended, wheelchair ramps were made wider, those with disabilities were allowed extra time to take exams, and more disabled parking was created. All of these new modifications made higher education a possibility.
Still, however, there is work to be done, and Stavros is one organization that is leading the cause.
“We try to educate local legislators about how a potential proposed piece of legislature could help or hurt those with disabilities if passed,” said Tringali. “Sometimes new construction simply isn’t technically feasible, or represents a financial hardship.”
Just this year in particular, Ostiguy has noticed an increase in student complaints.
“It’s come to my attention that some of the buildings that we thought were reasonably accessible, were not nearly as accessible as we thought.”
Ostiguy reflected on a recent incident where a disabled student came to him describing some challenges getting to a particular class. Ostiguy then escorted the student to the class at Goessman Hall, one day, to get a first-hand account of what the student had been experiencing all semester.
“We got to the building and she basically had to hit the trigger pad with her head, and then by the time she backed up in her wheelchair to position herself to go through the door, the door shut,” said Ostiguy. “The only way she could possibly get through was to sort of plow through with her chair, but that isn’t ideal.”
While Ostiguy’s first hand account prompted Disability Services to change the student’s classroom, a major flaw still remains. Ostiguy would never have known of the student’s difficulties had she not spoken up for herself because the physical plant map showed the building as fully accessible.
Looking to the future, Ostiguy says the new buildings under construction on campus will fully attempt to accommodate students with disabilities.
“Not all the buildings on campus are accessible, but most of them that aren’t, aren’t for classroom use,” said Ostiguy. “We are, however, in the process of building better accessible classrooms on campus.”