Melissa Nieschlag
Contributor

More proactive accessibility services needed to support students with disabilities

As a student who uses a power wheelchair daily, I have experienced physical and academic hinderances at UTD. These obstacles are more prevalent than the average able-bodied student may realize.

For students with physical or mental disabilities, UTD offers the Office of Student AccessAbility, which provides a variety of accommodations such as adaptive technology, alternative testing and professional notetakers. Despite the resources provided, I have experienced a myriad of physical barriers as well as a major academic hindrance during my time as a Comet.

Handicap buttons are a recurring issue throughout campus. Even though handicap buttons are installed at a majority of UTD’s buildings, many times they do not work or fall into disrepair. This forces me to wait for a passerby to help open the door or find an alternate route. Not only do I often encounter faulty buttons, but I also have areas of campus that are simply not accessible to me. I am unable to access buildings like Einstein’s Bagels, IHOP or the ECSN building via the Berkner skybridge, all because of a lack of accessible doors. At Recreation Center West, a handicap button has been installed but has not been operable since the building’s opening. To address such problems, the OSA has established a questionnaire to address the location and type of obstacle that hinders or prevents access for people who are physically challenged. Multiple choice options are presented for the location (in other words the building) of the barrier as well as vague descriptions of possible obstruction. However, this questionnaire doesn’t allow for any specificity of where exactly the barrier was encountered in said building, and many of the handicap buttons have remained in disrepair.

Elevators have also often been a problem. There was a period last spring where the only elevator in the Student Services Building was inoperable. There are two inescapable problems with this, the first being that there is only one elevator in a heavily-trafficked building. The second, and perhaps most salient, is that (ironically enough) the Office of Student AccessAbility and Student Health Center, located on the upper floors of the SSB, become inaccessible to people who are injured or people with physical disabilities when the elevator is out of service.

In addition to physical barriers I face at UTD, I have also experienced an overall lack of advocacy for students with disabilities. For instance, I recently completed a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and child development and applied to the Master of Science in Communication Disorders program to continue my education. I met with UTD staff to discuss possible accommodations to pursue graduate school. This meeting turned out to be rather unpleasant, as the two employees discouraged me from my career goal and instead hinted that I should pursue a different career because of the hardships that I would face. Ultimately, I did not get admitted to the program. While I am unsure of the two employees’ influence on this decision, I feel that, with an advocate on my side, I would have been able to have a productive discussion without being shut out from the possibility of graduate school.

It is my personal experience that UTD treats students with physical differences as an afterthought. It is not acceptable for anyone to have to feel that their difficulties are only recognized and addressed after a student makes a complaint. Students with physical differences would feel more appreciated if the campus was more proactive in recognizing potential obstacles. Routine maintenance of accessibility equipment would greatly benefit students to travel the campus with ease. I would also suggest a recurring group to be put in place for students with accessibility concerns to discuss ideas or potential problems before they become an issue. A student with a disability should not have to work harder than their peers in order to become successful in college.