Under the microscope: How accessible is our campus?


Walter Merz

For her immersive journalism piece, Hannah Murray drove around campus on a wheelchair for almost a week to test JU’s accessibility

Hannah Murray

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— For many students, visiting a college campus can be an exciting time, one filled with opportunity and new adventures.

For others, it can be an overwhelming and admittedly burdensome process.

For students with disabilities, it can even be downright daunting.

A disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, including seeing, hearing, sleeping, learning, concentrating, caring for oneself or thinking.”

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, approximately 11 percent of all undergraduates have a disability.

Jacksonville University is lucky enough to have a Disability Support Services, or DSS, office. Olga Florez, the director of DSS, says that the college wasn’t always so lucky, however.

“Almost three years have passed since the department/office was created and opened to students and I am very happy to say that we have not only grown in number (amount of students receiving services), but also in the services we provide,” wrote Florez in an email interview.

According to Florez a testing center will open in the spring of 2019 and will serve students in need of testing accommodations.

The ADA requires that “reasonable accommodations” be made for students with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are modifications or adjustments to the tasks, environment or to the way things are usually done that enable individuals with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to participate in an academic program or job.

With this definition of reasonable accommodation, many schools take the approach of accommodating only to the degree that is legally necessary, and not with the focus of making the campus as accessible as possible.

For instance, not all buildings may be completely wheelchair accessible. However, to accommodate, universities often base locations for classes or housing on where students can physically go.

The result is a limitation on places that wheelchair users can live, work, socialize, or study.

Florez recognizes that there are challenges and areas to improve on campus, as is the case with any university.

“I believe there are challenges with accessibility when it comes to older buildings and older infrastructure on any college campus,” wrote Florez. “But the University is aware of improvements that would be of benefit for those with accessibility limitations. With any of these initiatives, though, it takes significant funding and planning.”

For a private university such as JU, funding can prove to be more of a challenge than it would be for government-funded institutions.

“We do not receive the same funding as public or state institutions,” wrote Florez. “Which means that we have to identify internal funding or fundraising to support upgrades to facilities,” wrote Flores. “That continues to be a top priority for the university.”

That being said, Florez hopes JU  improves accessibility in the future.

“Some areas that I would hope to improve in the future would really reach across all areas of accessibility, including pathways, walkways, bathrooms, and access to multi-level buildings,” wrote Florez.

Students with disabilities aren’t the only people faced with the challenge of getting around campus.

George Gresham, a professor at the Davis College of Business, points out that some faculty and staff also have trouble accessing various locations on campus.

“A lot of people, administrators, and professors, if they have some type of operation, sometimes they just can’t walk across campus,” said Gresham.

Gresham himself has had three back surgeries, while other professors might have other reasons for needing accommodations. Such reasons include operations, accidents, or even pregnancy.

According to Gresham, factors such as elevators not always working and parking issues can result in potential hazards for professors carrying materials.

“Quite frankly, it’s a liability,” said Gresham. “If the elevator was out today and one of my two pregnant colleagues went down the stairs and fell, if they were carrying a bunch of files or something, I would feel like we were liable.”

To gain perspective on the matter, I spent three days accessing various buildings on campus in a wheelchair. The results were eye-opening.

Many of the multi-level buildings with classrooms did not have an elevator, limiting me to the first floor. In addition, some preexisting accessibility aids, such as push-buttons for doors and elevators, were not operational.

Many of the obstacles I came across seemed to be an easy fix. For instance, I couldn’t access some sidewalks due to small ledges or uneven cracks.

In addition, some facilities on campus were accessible, but require wheelchair users to go out of their way. For example, the post office, except for a small ledge, was accessible. To access the post office, however, a wheelchair user would need to go through the Davis Student Commons, use the elevator to access the Fitness Center, then take the sidewalk up to the rear of the Kinne Center.

To illustrate the challenges associated with getting around campus, I have kept a video log that you can view by scanning the QR code below.

There is always room for improvement when it comes to any aspect of a college campus. The important thing to bear in mind is that we continue to strive to create a welcoming environment for all students.

Jacksonville University overall has a focus on creating a pleasant atmosphere. The question is if a wheelchair user were to tour our campus today, would they feel welcome?