Reset. Once more, I hit reset. I needed five more minutes. It was 9:30 am, and I had hit snooze for the fourth time. With my class starting in about 30 minutes, I begrudgingly rose from my bed, reluctant to start the day. On any other day, I would have brushed my teeth, washed my face, changed out of my pjs, and flown out the door, but today was different. Today, was I had a physical disability, which I had the privilege of easily forgetting, as I had that morning. In fact, I didn’t remember it was my day of disability until I approached my bathroom door. To enter the bathroom in my residence hall, Hinton James, you have to cross over a step. For some disabilities, this would not be a problem, but for others, this would be an impossible task. From that moment on, and through the rest of the day, I remembered that I would have to throw my privilege away, and begin to think like one with a physical disability. To make the challenge more personal, I decided to picture my sister and what her experience might look like if she attended my beloved Carolina.
My 17 year old sister, Anna, was born with type 2 Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA II), a form of Muscular Dystrophy that weakens the muscles over time. Usually, those living with this condition cannot walk, have trembling fingers, feeding and skeletal issues (“Spinal Muscular”). If she had wanted to use my bathroom, she would need to have someone carry her in or have access to a ramp, assuming that the door was wide enough to fit her electric wheelchair. With Anna in mind, I quickly realized that I could run as late as I did on a weekday; many of those who suffer from chronic diseases have daily treatments that are essential to their well being. From personal experience, I know that Anna does not need to wake up on time but wake up early to do her breathing treatments that take at least 20 minutes, and this is all with the mandatory help of a caretaker. I could only imagine being a college student living away from home but still needing assistance on a daily basis. This is just one of many obstacles that students with disabilities face.
My first step out of my building, and I had already broken the rules of a day with a disability. The main entrance has steps in front them, which I used out of habit; again, I had the privilege of forgetting about my temporary disability. Thankfully, all the 3 buildings I had classes in that day had wheelchair accessibility, which is not always the case at UNC (“Building”). Because I was running late, I decided to take my usual short cut to the Stone Center, where my first class of the day was. I didn’t realize until today, but in order to take that short cut, I have to walk on mulch. Although some disabilities would find no problem with this, someone with a wheelchair might have a bumpy ride ahead of them. Once in my first classroom, an auditorium, I quickly realized that I couldn’t sit just anywhere as I normally would; if I were in a wheelchair, then I would have to sit in one specific area made for wheelchair accessibility (I didn’t here because I have a classmate that actually uses that space). For other disabilities, it might be important to be close to the door in order to exist with easy access. Once I was settled in, I followed the class as I normally would. However, it is important to note that if I had a disability such as my sister’s, I would not be able to take out my notebook from my backpack, move chairs, nor use the bathroom without the help of an assistant or friend. Many students with disabilities are sometimes if not always dependent on another person.
Though most of the buildings I went to were handicap accessible, I found little inconveniences every on campus. For example, Bingham’s wheelchair accessible entrance is on opposite end of where the elevator is; a minor problem to us, but annoying nonetheless. Also, one building’s accessible entrance may not be in the same vicinity as another. When I left Bingham, I had to take a long route around Greenlaw to get to Lenoir, all to avoid stairs. Stairs aren’t the only problem; so much of UNC’s campus is not just brick, but broken, lopsided brick that does not make for smooth travels for wheels. In addition to driving over unreliable brick walks, it would prove quite difficult for a wheelchair to effortlessly maneuver through a sea of people during class transitions. I have enough trouble walking through people as it is, often left with no other choice but to walk on the grass. Concerns like these are only the tip of the iceberg.
As mentioned before, my residence hall would certainly not suffice as easily accessible for students with a disability, not only in its architecture, but in its location as well. Hinton James is quite far from main campus. Considering residence halls near north campus are mainly hall style and on campus apartments are all on south campus, I could imagine it would possibly be best to live in off campus housing for someone with a physical disability. However, if you were a first year, that would require special permission as all first years are required to live on campus. After that, the student would apply for medical or non-medical mobility to access the necessary parking required, assuming the student has access to their own transportation. Otherwise, the university has exclusive transportation for students with physical and mental disabilities called EZ Rider. These applications are all on top of the general information one would include in the application to the university admissions office and the formal registration post admittance to the Accessibility Resources & Services department. That is a lot of extra time and effort put upon a student that not only lives with the everyday stressors of having a physical disability, but bears the same stressors of an average college student. It would certainly be enough for me to want to give up on my dreams, take the easy way out, which should never be the case for a student with a disability. In an article written for the ADA Legacy Project at UNC-CH, Lindsay Carter not only highlighted this struggle, but offered solutions:
It starts in the classroom. Professors and faculty can learn to work with all students in a way that makes the classroom an easier and more comfortable environment for students with learning disabilities. Training faculty in these techniques would be cost-effective, and fewer students would need to seek individualized accommodations. We can also offer trainings to students about how to advocate for themselves.
Students with disabilities should not feel like a burden to others nor themselves; however there were times during the day where I would feel bad taking the elevator up to the second floor and asking my friends to sit somewhere more accessible. These are only two instances that I could experience, but if I were actually in a wheelchair, I’m sure the list would go on. Once, my bus was stopped to load someone’s wheelchair onto the bus. It was a hot day and I had somewhere to go, but I was understanding of the situation. I never considered how the woman in the wheelchair felt, but I hope that she did not feel burdensome. Other moments I reflected on were classic college experiences that I would not have if I were bound to a chair. For example, many students like to climb over the gates at Kenan Stadium late at night and walk on the football field. Obviously, this would be completely impossible for someone in a chair. Another carolina tradition is rushing Franklin Street after a win against Duke. Besides the fact that it would be difficult and time consuming to get to Franklin, it would be nearly impossible to move freely among the swarm of people, tightly packed like sardines. Even during the week, when schedules tend to be set by classes and extracurricular activities, there are countless times where spontaneous plans are made. For someone with a physical disability, that spontaneity could easily turn into another headache.
The experience of being a student with physical limitations is not all encompassed within this post. There is so much more to be discussed on the matter, and there is so much more for me to learn. Because I grew up with my sister, I have a heightened awareness of the issues these students might face, but that does not mean that I did not learn from this experience; I certainly did. In fact, there is still much I do not know. That being said, I cannot express how thankful I am for this project for the insight it offered into opening the door for discussion and understanding on issues of disability. So often, these are the voices that are the softest, and it is time someone raised the volume.
Carter, Lindsay. “Neurodiversity in the Classroom: One Student’s Proposal.” The ADA Legacy Project at UNC-CH, WordPress, 13 May 2014, http://disabilityrights.web.unc.edu/2014/05/13/neurodiversity-in-the-classroom/.
“Building Abbreviations/Accessibility.” Office of the University Registrar, UNC Chapel Hill, https://registrar.unc.edu/classrooms/course-schedule-maintenance-information/classrooms-building-locations/.
“Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2.” Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/4945/spinal-muscular-atrophy-type-2.