Creating a 'Universally Designed' campus setting for all
If we are to create a campus environment that is welcoming and accessible for all, sometimes we must start with an important thought experiment.
Let's try a thought experiment. It's 1956 and you are a young person about to begin your college experience. You are bright, shiny, and have a wide-open mind, ready to experience all the world has to offer. On your first day, you are told you cannot use the grand entryway everyone else uses. You must go around the back and use a different door. You cannot use the same bathroom everyone else uses. There's a separate bathroom for you. You cannot wander around the campus like everyone else. You must stick to one particular path that has been set aside for your use. So, here's the question: what have we filled your wide-open mind with after your first day? Resentment? Anger? Isolation?
Now, you say to yourself, "Thank goodness we saw the error of our ways 60 years ago and took steps to eliminate segregation and discrimination." In some respects, you are correct. We have made strides in many areas regarding the civil rights of various groups, but we still have plenty of room to improve. The advancements in civil rights only happened, though, after we as a society understood the injustice perpetrated against a group of people. After that enlightenment, the scenario described in the first part of the thought experiment seems like an anachronism and certainly nothing we would tolerate today.
Now, let's return to the thought experiment. It's 2016 and you are a young person about to begin your college experience. You are bright, shiny, and have a wide-open mind, ready to experience all the world has to offer after you survived a skiing accident that left you paralyzed from the waist down. On your first day, you are told you cannot use the grand entryway everyone else uses. You must go around the back and use a different door. You cannot use the same bathroom everyone else uses. There's a separate bathroom for you. You cannot wander around the campus like everyone else. You must stick to one particular path that has been set aside for your use.
Certainly the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have made it easier for those with disabilities to physically access public buildings and obtain an education, but society still has not gotten around to understanding the injustices committed against this group on a daily basis. Let's also remember this is a group any one of us can join at any point and membership is usually permanent.
If we truly wish to make education accessible to all, we need to move away from the segregationist idea of accessibility and move toward the inclusionary idea of availability for everyone. This concept is known as Universal Design and it has to become part of the way we all view our environment - from replacing door knobs with door handles to developing curriculum which is available to every student without special accommodations. Learning is an activity each person approaches from their own perception of the world - a perception colored by their experiences, abilities and challenges. That being the case, our curricula must be approachable from any perspective since, by definition, no two people can share the same perspective. Our goal as a top-tier institution of higher education should be to blaze the trail toward Universal Design and change the way society approaches education.
We often hear "One Community, One Pack" or "The strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf." As a student and staff member of this university, those words fill me with great pride and offer us a daily challenge. Every day, we must ask ourselves what we have done to ensure every student feels they are a member of this pack, this community. In any pack, every wolf has the right to the protection of the pack. In a sense, this is a wolf's "civil right" within the pack. So, too, should members of our community feel their civil rights are protected by their pack. At the end of the day, this is all a wolf really needs or wants.
Why, then, do we not extend this same right to the members of our pack who are differently abled? How can we, in good conscience, ask them to accept lees freedom than we expect for ourselves? When we limit the freedom and deny the rights of one, we diminish the freedom and rights of all and this is something our society has determined to be unacceptable.
So the challenge to all of us is understanding and accepting something we all take for granted, simple unimpeded access to all aspects of this university, is a basic civil right. As such, we must find it unacceptable to ask any member of our pack to use a different door, bathroom, walkway, textbook or desk than the ones we choose to use ourselves. If we are truly one pack, we need to make every wolf equal.
Darrin McCarthy is an AT/EIT Specialist in the Disability Resource Center at the University.