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No Access

November 19, 2013

At a gathering for scholars interested in the intersection of health, humanities and disabilities this weekend, a professor who uses a wheelchair was asked to ring a bell to gain access to the meeting.

William Peace, a visiting professor at Syracuse University, wrote in a blog post he hadn’t seen a sign directing people to “ring bell for access”— which he likened to “white only” signs — since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 23 years ago.  

“Before the ADA was passed into law, I rang many such bells for access to buildings. Half the time no one answered the bell. The other times after an extended wait someone would arrive to open the door,” Peace wrote. “In short, I quickly learned 'Ring bell for access' really meant there is no desire or commitment to wheelchair access.” 

The blog post has attracted considerable attention among disability scholars, who report that they do regularly confront issues with accessibility, but that they expect better -- or should be able to expect better -- at meetings that involve disability studies.

Peace’s post elicited apologies from the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where the event was held, as well as from the organizers of the humanities, health and disabilities studies working group. The group is co-sponsored by the Central New York Humanities Corridor and the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium. 

When Peace and Stephen Kuusisto, a professor of disability studies at Syracuse University and honors program director, arrived at the working group’s meeting, they first saw an “enter here” sign directly in front of a row of steps. The pair navigated around the building to find a wheelchair accessible ramp, Kuusisto said, but when they entered the building they discovered more steps leading to the meeting room.  They entered the meeting through a back entrance that instructed them to ring a bell for access.  

“These kinds of setbacks are so wearing and frustrating and humiliating that it’s hard to absorb,” said Kuusisto. “The organizers of the conference are well-meaning people and yet they were insufficiently mindful of ADA 101.”

A spokeswoman from Hobart and William Smith Colleges released a statement on Monday: “Hobart and William Smith Colleges regret the accessibility challenges faced by Professors Kuusisto and Peace. The conference organizers immediately apologized and the president of Hobart and William Smith also personally expressed his regret. We remain committed to ensuring that our facilities and programs are accessible to all members of the community. We have taken immediate steps to create more appropriate signage and to mitigate access issues.”  

Peace said the college has taken appropriate steps by issuing an apology and he looks to see how the working group will make its meetings more inclusive. Conference organizers did not respond to requests for comment. Peace said he will only participate again if more scholars with disabilities are included in the group.

But the incident is just one example of unequal access to higher education facilities, Kuusisto said. He said he’s never seen a lectern on a stage that had a ramp, making the “passive assumption that nobody in a wheelchair would be delivering a lecture.” He also spoke of a university that has its student disabilities office located in a basement with no emergency exit, which would prevent those who used wheelchairs from exiting if the elevators stopped working. Peace said the issue of equal accommodations illustrates a larger issue that higher education is not welcoming to scholars with disabilities.  

 “Access is a problem. No thought is really put into cultivating professors with a disability or students with a disability. And what happens is disability becomes a spectacle and it becomes a problem that has to be managed and solved," Peace said. "What took place at Hobart and William Smith Colleges was a microcosm of what could happen at any place.”

The ADA was passed almost 25 years ago, but those with disabilities must continue to call ahead to make sure public and shared spaces will be accommodating, said Tammy Berberi, president of the Society for Disability Studies. She’s frustrated by colleges and universities that pay lip service to equal access by insisting they’d like to offer equal access, but say they do not have the resources to do so.

“The kind of accommodations we can make to benefit people with disabilities would benefit everyone," said Berberi, an associate professor of French at the University of Minnesota at Morris. “Any one of us should be afforded access to public and shared spaces.” 

She pointed to the Bodies of Work festival hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago as an example of an academic meeting that provides equal access. The festival provides an accessibility manual that outlines accessible travel to the conference, access to services (including exhibitions, tour routes and lectures), access to amenities (such as restrooms and public phones) and empathetic and appropriate terminology. The Society for Disability Studies also provides recommendations for presenters. The recommendations range from providing audio descriptions of all graphics to speaking at a comfortable pace to allow for accurate American Sign Language interpretation and Communication Access Realtime Translation transcription. 

 

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