Last updated on November 13, 2019
Getting started: What does “handicapped” really mean?
As Hawks, we all take pride in our campus. Being a university in a big city, while still maintaining a beautiful, sizable campus is no easy feat. With about five thousand undergrad students, so many of us call SJU our second home. In Project Bloom, however, we are looking at SJU through a different, more critical lens. After assessing the buildings on campus to see how accessible they are, we were not surprised to find that SJU is quite inaccessible for many Hawks or guests with disabilities.
Typically, when we talk about someone who is “handicapped” or has a “disability”, the first picture that pops up in our head is someone in a wheelchair, but the word “handicapped” refers to so much more than just this. Unmarked bodies, or bodies without a visible handicap, are often left out of building plans and designs even today. Even marked bodies, or people who have an obvious handicap, are often forgotten or overlooked during plans for building new public spaces.
There is hope, though. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. This act prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in all areas of public life-jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.
More recently, in 2008, an amendment was made to the Act which broadened the definition of “disability” to include anyone with a mental or physical impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities. With all this being said, it is difficult to understand why we found that SJU is so inaccessible to those with disabilities, since universities fall under the “Public Accommodations” section of the ADA.
Why is SJU so inaccessible?
The reason that SJU does not meet many of the ADA standards for universities lies in the historic value of our buildings. The ADA requires new buildings to follow certain requirements to make facilities more accessible, in addition to requiring the removal of barriers to access in existing buildings, even if said building was built before ADA became effective. However, if a building is considered to have historic value, the ADA is applied much more flexibly, and not all requirements need to be met as strictly as if a new building were being built. In addition, local building departments are not responsible for enforcing ADA requirements, another reason deficiencies are also commonly found in newer buildings.
Students Speak: Just How Inaccessible Is SJU?
To continue Project Bloom’s mission to make SJU a more accessible campus, we each started by assessing a building on campus using a rubric we made as a class. We judged each facility on a scale of zero to two, with zero being completely inaccessible and 2 being totally compliant of ADA standards. Our check list was based off of certain aspects imperative to universal design. Ideally, we were looking for features such as external ramps, elevators, handicapped bathrooms, and ease of navigation through buildings, among other factors. Using ADA guidelines, we created the rubric and inspected building areas such as bathrooms, ramps, stairs, walkways, and even the finishes of the walls and floors. Spanning from the library, to Mandeville, to the Perch, to Barb (and many more) the average rating for the campus buildings was a 58%, which would be converted to a C by our rubric. The pictures that follow are taken from our accessibility reports, and show either positive or negative aspects of accessibility of SJU’s facilities.
The only way to enter both the new and old sides of the library is through narrow automatic gates, which require a person to swipe and then get through the gates in a matter of a few seconds.
The Perch/ Simpson Hall, shown above, is a building that does not have elevators yet has many different floors. Music lesson rooms and the Hawk Newspaper room are both towards the top of Simpson, making it extremely difficult for many people to reach them.
Simpson Hall is one of SJU’s historic buildings, with many inaccessible features, such as lack of elevators and extremely narrow and steep staircases.
Shown above are two different entrances to Campion. One is a ramp, for those in wheelchairs or who cannot use stairs, and the stairs have handrails on both sides, and non-slip gripping steps. This is a great example of making entrances more accessible to everyone.
Although SJU’s campus is far from being an ideal in universal design and accessibility, we hope that Project Bloom can shed some light on what can be improved and give so many people a better experience here. We hope that throughout this semester we can give our audience a resource to educate others about accessibility issues at SJU, and continue to come up with ideas that will improve accessibility on campus for everyone.
As professor Aimi Hamraie of Vanderbilt University put it: “Barrier-free design aspire[s] to become inconspicuous in built environments… Access[should be] unmarked, assimilated, part of the norm rather than opposed to it.” We hope to get to a point where administration will begin to look at campus design and attempt to design our future SJU for all bodies.
Please also check out the first podcast of the semester on the Project Bloom site under the Podcasts tab. Take a look at our social media accounts (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) @projectbloomsju as well as on this website to find out what is next for Project Bloom!