Chatham’s compliance with ADA guidelines questioned by students

One thing students will tell you makes Chatham great is the inclusive environment on campus. Chatham prides itself on helping make students “World Ready” and positive influences on society. One aspect of inclusivity is being Americans with Disabilities Act accommodating.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became a law in 1990. According to the ADA national website, it is “a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”

Though Chatham includes many of its students in a variety of ways, some students argue that this community hasn’t extended its open arms to students who are differently abled.

Kit Gigliotti, a former student and employee at the Programs for Academic Access, Confidence, and Excellence (PACE) center on campus, is legally blind and maneuvers the campus with her guide dog, Scarlett. When talking about the state of the campus, Gigliotti was passionate about change.

“I’m legally blind, so while I do not personally experience all of the issues with accessibility on campus, many people do. This issue means a lot to me; even my tutorial is based on it,” said Giglioti. “Chatham’s campus is a horrific ADA nightmare, some of which is not Chatham’s fault due to the old structures. For example, Woodland Hall is the only accessible dorm on campus, so if someone has limited mobility that is where they will live. Getting from Woodland Hall to the chapel, a one minute walk, turns into a several minute long hike.”

With the multitude of stairs and limited alternative options such as ramps or lifts, people needing to get from close locations such as the Chapel parking lot to Café Rachel, would have to find an alternative route. Entering Anderson Dining Hall is also troublesome because the entrance that avoids stairs is on Woodland Road, an out of the way option if a student were in the post office or Carriage House.

“Braun is horrible, with only the first floor being accessible. While, yes, technically any classes a student is in can be moved to a location that is more easily reached, what about Chatham events? Students with mobility challenges cannot attend anything on the upper floors of Braun where there happen to be administrative offices [as well].”

Gigliotti went on to explain some of her personal endeavors with some of the resources on campus.

“In the library the supposed ‘ADA Compliant’ restroom is in the basement, which does not have a door for the stall. It only has a shower curtain. Personally, if I’m in the library and need to use the restroom, I go to Café Rachel, which is a huge pain during my workday, but that curtain makes me hugely uncomfortable. Braun/Falk/Coolidge has some accessible bathrooms on the bottom floor of the building, but I haven’t found them. So, again, I just go to Café Rachel. [This is] hugely annoying if I don’t have time to run over there before class.”

Gigliotti is asking for change, but she isn’t the first. In 2008, Chatham had a lawsuit brought against them after an investigation showed that the campus did not comply with Title III of the ADA. A settlement resolved the issue and Chatham agreed to changes in many buildings like Eddy Theater and Coolidge Hall, including amenities such as water fountains, repaving sidewalks, new exterior ramps, and braille on signage. Since then, many things have changed, making it possible — though not necessarily easy — for students to get around campus if they have mobility restriction.

Emily Packer, the undergraduate campus visit coordinator and receptionist in Berry Hall, has a first hand view of how difficult the campus is to maneuver around. When prospective students or their parents come to visit, they get a sneak preview into what their lives may be like for the next four years. Students are asked if they have any mobility constraints, and if they do, they are asked to clarify what their limitations are. They then receive a tour that fits their needs.

“If someone needs a wheelchair accessible tour and they’re already coming to us in a wheelchair, we have a specific route [that] kind of winds through campus more. It can sometimes be more time consuming because they have to go around [buildings] because students can’t necessarily [access buildings from all sides]. Our tour guides have to, when we know about it, [go] out early so that they walk the path and make sure that they are used to it.”

Packer says that Chatham only gets one or two tours like this a year. Though they don’t happen often, when they do, it isn’t without some setbacks.

“[Some tour guides] said that some of the [handicap] doors didn’t open around campus. Because they were together, they could adjust and do that.  But that’s something we try to go around and check so that they’re on and working.”

There are also limitations when having to use, often times, the only accessible entrance to a commonly used building.

“If we had a music major that was wheelchair bound or a parent of a music major, we potentially have to use the wheelchair lift in Laughlin [Music Hall]. What makes it tricky, though, is that if the Welker Room is being reserved for an event, you would have to go through that front door where the event is to get to the stairs versus using other stairs somebody who has full walking capabilities [could use]. There are other entrances with stairs that will lead you down into the basement, but if somebody was wheelchair bound, they would have to go through an event, which is a little bit unfortunate,” said Packer.

Wheelchair accessible tours aren’t the only options for students. There are also golf cart tours though these also have their own setbacks. When students came back to campus in the Fall of 2015, they were met with bollards placed on campus, seemingly to limit the amount of traffic seen on the sidewalks. However, this makes golf carts unable to travel through central campus without using the roadways on the campus’s perimeter.

“[Tour guides] learn how to follow the posts, and we can’t drive on the grass,” said Packer. “I think the golf cart tour is, to me, the least desirable tour that we offer because usually it’s [with] somebody that can walk but can’t walk necessarily a lot because either they have pain or they have heart problems so they don’t get to see quite as much. When a student comes, though, like when we [do] the wheelchair tour, it’s just different. You just have to learn how to get in and out of the buildings.”

Maya Carey, a sophomore student, does not have a mobility restriction, but is frustrated with the difficulties in moving around campus, particularly within residence halls.

“Chatham only has one dorm building that has an elevator, and it’s already been broken once this [year]. There are no rooms on the first floor, so if the elevator broke people who needed to use the elevator would not be able to get up or down from their rooms.”

Woodland Hall is the only accessible residence hall on campus. This is because of the ramp and elevator that is a part of the building. However, the size of doorways and the placement of furniture within a living space also plays a significant role in whether or not a student would be able to live in a room.

“I think that the biggest thing that Chatham could improve on, though it would be very expensive, [would be] to work on the physical restrictions of our environment,” said Packer, “And it would be very difficult because of our old buildings, because of the architecture in the buildings. The newer buildings, clearly, like the new part of Buhl and the AFC are much easier to get around. I do think, and maybe making other buildings more accessible like for example Rea. Even to visit your friends on the first floor of Rea it would be pretty difficult to get to Rea to hang out, so you would always have to come to Woodland, which isn’t bad. I just think that, that would keep someone from being included.”

Unfortunately, being confined to Woodland Hall eliminates a student’s chances of being able to be a part of a Living Learning Community or take part in a Rea Coffeehouse event.

“If more students, especially with physical disabilities, come onto campus, people are going to need to make conscientious decisions about where things are located and what’s going on. To make sure that those events actually are inclusive and we’re not eliminating somebody’s attendance or experience at Chatham because of that,” said Packer.

Stephanie Alvarez Poe, the Director of Student Activities, said that, for students who need accommodations, faculty and staff will do what they can.

“If a student here were to ask for accommodations for an activity, we would do our best to make sure they were met. At this time this would be done on a case-by-case basis. If a student needs an accommodation, all they need to do is inform us of it. We make sure there is a contact area and phone number/email with all of our my.Chatham advertisements.”

However, being ADA accommodating isn’t limited to physical disabilities and mobility limitations, they also include mental and learning disabilities.

The PACE Center on campus provides a combination of academic support for students with disabilities, as well as the tutoring program, supplemental instruction (SI) program, the Writing Center, and general academic support for any student who may need it. Shannon Brenner and Cindy Kerr work as two of the four staff members working to make this possible.

“So [what students with disabilities] have to do is meet with myself,” said Kerr. “I ask what their disability is, how it impacts their academic life, how it impacts their life in general, and they are required to provide documentation from a licensed professional who can attest to that specific disability and what’s recommended for that student. For example, if a student has a learning disorder and one of the accommodations is that it’s better for her or him to have additional time for assignments. What we would do is talk to the student and say, ‘How much additional time might you need?’ and they can say maybe a day for really big assignments or on quizzes and tests, a time and a half would work for [them]. We just have a very long conversation with the student, and we put accommodations into place by notifying all their professors. We never ever disclose a student’s disability but we say they’ve met with someone at the PACE Center and these are the accommodations that are needed in the classroom and there is a whole post of accommodations that can be asked for.”

Like many departments on campus, the PACE Center has a full plate but few human resources. With two full-time staff members and two part-time staff members, the center is working hard to provide for an amazing amount of students. PACE assists undergraduate and graduate students on the Shadyside, Eden Hall, and Eastside campuses, as well as online students in various states.

“Since our enrollment levels have gone up, that means the students coming to our offices and seeking services has also gone up. We’re providing more services with the same amount of resources,” said Kerr.

“[The number of students with disabilities] is going up more than the enrollment is going up,” said Brenner. “More things are diagnosed, more students are on the autism spectrum, and that kind of stuff so it’s not proportional to the enrollment number so it’s [an] even bigger increase here. And we have a really small staff so obviously more manpower would be great. We sort of have to have everything we need to provide the accommodations [we do].”

“Working with students with disabilities it’s not a one and done process,” Kerr said. “Even though a student’s accommodations may be in place that doesn’t mean you’re done or the student is done seeking services. So they may be utilizing services on a weekly basis, on a biweekly basis so it’s a never-ending process. At the beginning of next semester it starts all over again because new classes, new professors, and sometimes even new accommodations and new diagnosis have been documented.”

Brenner and Kerr encourage Chatham’s community, students, faculty, and staff alike, to remember that not all disabilities are visible and to be supportive of all students.

“When it’s a person with a visible disability, say a student with a mobility issue or a student with a visual or hearing [impairment], the community in general and the world in general are more apt to assist them because they can see something. [For] students with non-visible disabilities, students and community members might sense that there’s something different about them but since they can’t see it, [the student] is treated differently. Our goal is to help students advocate for themselves, but then at the same time teach the community [that] just because you can’t see a disability, doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t have one. That may be why they are a little different in the classroom or that’s why they don’t take tests in class. It’s not something they want to have to do. It’s something that they need to do to have equal access to Chatham’s educational and activity programs that are on campus.”

Carey has found the non-visible impairment aspect on campus a tough situation to maneuver. She believes that Chatham isn’t as supportive as they could be.

“There’s not readily accessible technology for people who have needs [within the classroom]; like a magnifier when there’s [reading] handouts,” said Carey who experiences hearing loss. “I don’t think there’s training with professors to deal with students with hearing loss or [similar limitations]. When I’ve brought it up, it’s sort of just been pushed aside and not really addressed. I just think it’s wrong for Chatham to call itself an ADA approved campus because it’s not [accommodating] at all. Disabilities aren’t always physical. A lot of them are mental, and I can thoroughly say that I don’t think that Chatham is capable of accommodating people with mental disabilities, people who need special accommodations, or people who need counseling.”

Though there are many struggles on campus, there is a sense that the community on Chatham’s campus will help alleviate some of these problems as long as they work together. The Admissions office, for example, has found itself communicating with the PACE Center.

“[Based on] the amount of work that I’ve done with the PACE Center, I don’t work with them super regularly, but every time I need to talk to them they’re so accommodating. Cindy Kerr has come to campus on a weekend to meet a student before and I was just amazed,” said Packer. “To have somebody in another department go that extra step was really cool. And I think that’s just something about Chatham anyway. We are tight enough; we’re really close knit. The staff here really loves students, and I think the student population really cares about each other in general. I think to me that’s the thing about it. There’s going to be a large support network.”

Brenner and Kerr agree with this sentiment and have found that the support they receive is what helps their resources work as well as they do.

“I think there’s a sense of community here that’s really good. It seems to be overall that people feel very supported and feel welcomed,” said Brenner.

“Faculty [is] always willing to work with us when working with students. [When working with] staff and administration, I’ve had no problems getting what we need to accommodate a student,” said Kerr.

    These collaborations lead to fantastic results. Gigliotti reflects on the impact that the PACE Center had on her as a student.

“First and foremost, Chatham’s PACE Center is amazing. I mean the best. I’ve been to a lot of universities, all over the world, and Chatham’s PACE staff is simply top notch. During my first year orientation they provided me with all the materials I needed in braille, and they once built a tactile cell diagram for me because I couldn’t see the handouts and I was having trouble grasping what a cell looked like,” said Gigliotti.

Though there is so much support, the school still has far to go. Whether change will come when there are more students with physical disabilities on campus or before is unclear.

“[A student’s ADA experience] is definitely going to come with more challenges because of the geography and the actual landscape of our campus is hilly. We have a lot of steps so you have to be strategic about where you’re going. You’re going to have to learn so if you’re [moving] around campus, your friends would have to know where to walk with you because you’re going to [get places] differently,” said Packer, “You may always, no matter where your classroom is, enter through the same door or two. I’m wondering if it would take a student longer to get around campus, to their classes and such. I do think that Chatham is the kind of community [where] everyone would come together and make it happen. I think there’s that. But there are just some physical restrictions on our campus. We have some sidewalks that may or may not be wide enough for a wheelchair. Even along the road; the sidewalks are pretty narrow when you’re going down from Berry Hall towards Chapel Hill. You don’t even walk two people side by side sometimes. I imagine that would be difficult in a wheelchair. And if somebody were just using a walker or [forearm crutches], I feel like that would be really difficult. I think it would be easiest if somebody came in a power chair.”

When thinking of inclusivity, Gigliotti reminds everyone that supporting minorities on campus is the job of every person on campus.

“It’s kind of like asking ‘Why should Chatham be accepting of Black or LGBT students?’ Every student, faculty member, and guest on Chatham’s campus deserves to have the freedom to go to all events hosted on campus without feeling excluded — just like every other minority group,” said Giglotti.

Chatham has a new year to show support to students on campus who may have disabilities, take part in awareness months like Developmental Disability Awareness month in March, and even put forth some initiatives.

“Students pick up on who the administration values,” said Gigliotti. “Our students are going to go on to be employers and members of the wider community. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in the United States is about twice as much as the national average. As students and the future employers of the world, we have a chance to challenge stereotypes and to change this statistic. By making campus more accessible, and making students more aware how their actions affect people with disabilities, my hope is that our ‘World Ready’ students will take on these issues. Which they can’t do if they don’t know there’s a problem.”

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