Students: college no friend to physically disabled

In response to long-standing complaints about handicap accessibility at Geneseo, students toured the campus with wheelchairs and crutches on Wednesday, April 16. Their aim was to make it known that many physically disabled students find the campus unaccommodating.

Chris Hilderbrant, the Rochester Center for Disability Rights director of advocacy, visited Geneseo to lead the tour and participate in a panel discussion. Over 20 students joined Hilderbrant to simulate the difficulty of getting around campus with a physical disability.

Hilderbrant, who has been paralyzed since the age of 14, uses a wheelchair.

"There were some significant barriers," Hilderbrant said. "Certainly we experienced some places where we couldn't go and others that if you are in a wheelchair you have to face dangerously steep barriers."

The tour was organized by student group Students Educating About Ableism, which formed last semester after hearing complaints that the Geneseo campus is extremely hard to navigate for disabled people.

Senior Catherine Urban, who participated in the tour, is among those people. She has been pushing for more action regarding students with physical disabilities for over two years. During her sophomore year, Urban injured her knee and was forced to use crutches for almost a full semester. Urban said her complaints have generally not been well received by the administration.

"Specific complaints were brought about two years ago and nothing has been done," she said. "They [the administration] know what the difficulties are. They have yet to address them."

Several students on the tour expressed difficulty and pain in attempting to make their way around campus. Many students using crutches had to take breaks. Most of the handicap-accessible doors with buttons to make them open did not work. When one of the doors in Brodie Hall actually opened, the group let out a mock cheer.

Dr. Tabitha Buggie-Hunt, assistant dean for disability service, said she understood that many students want more services for the disabled, but questioned the practicality of some of the requests.

"There is a huge difference between what we would like to do and what is possible," she said. "I would love to give all students perfect accessibility."

Several other students have had similar complaints.

"It was the worst experience of my life," said sophomore Kristina Nikiforova, who spent time on crutches. "I almost went home for the semester. I fell on the ice constantly. I fell on the stairs going into a residence hall."

Junior Vanessa Estrada injured her knee in 2005 and after spending three months on crutches, ended up with a more severe injury. Estrada said she attempted to get help from Buggie-Hunt, who was out of the office for at least two weeks after Estrada's injury. Estrada said there was no else to help her.

"It was a pretty miserable semester," Estrada said. "I couldn't go to many places. Someone told me to use the LATS bus service - that doesn't even go through campus!"

"The school was unaccommodating and I was late to class a lot," said senior Aspen Ainsworth, who was on crutches for about two months. "I slipped on the ramps in South Hall all the time. I had been told that Dr. Buggie-Hunt was unaccommodating so I did not contact her."

Several faculty members have acknowledged the need to help physically disabled students. Dr. Linda Ware of the School of Education has supported SEAA in their efforts.

"Historically what is perceived to be a small group of students on campus are not perceived the same way a large group would be," Ware said.

Dean of Students Dr. Leonard Sancilio also advocated for more action.

"If there's something we as a campus can do to help people with physical disabilities or limitations, we should do it," he said.

Some students feel that a system to transport disabled students to their classes would be a good move for the college. Such systems, utilizing small vehicles, are in place at many areas colleges, including Cornell, the University of Rochester, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Binghamton and Hamilton College. At SUNY Albany, scooters are available to students with disabilities.

"The GEM cars that could easily be utilized for transportation of those with mobility impairments are often times used to transport mulch or garbage," said senior Dan Koch, who toured the campus in a wheelchair. "Clearly Geneseo is giving the message that garbage is worth more than people with physical disabilities."

Although the current LATS bus route does not go near most academic buildings, Buggie-Hunt said that a service would not likely be feasible.

"You have to hire someone to drive [a service vehicle] on an on-and-off basis," she said.

Urban and others have been calling for the school to take action on several fronts. One solution they have offered is the addition of more staff to help students with disabilities.

"It is pathetic that one person is responsible for students with all disabilities," said Urban. "It's not fair to the one person and it's not fair to the students," added junior Elizabeth Squairs, president of SEAA.

Hilderbrant noted that the school could be held liable if certain changes are not made.

"Failing to make accommodations such as parking really puts the school in jeopardy of being sued and losing a lawsuit," he said. "Making a hilly campus accessible can be done, it's just difficult."

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