By Sarah Likens
There are things you don’t think about or notice until it directly affects you. One of those things is accessibility.
I had a major hip surgery on Dec. 1, 2015. I tore my left labrum in 2013 and had congenital hip dysplasia. That’s some medical terminology for my hip hurt a lot all the time. It not only prevented me from doing the things I love, such as running, but it also prevented me from doing normal day-to-day activities like sitting in class, walking for an extended time, stairs and more.
After spending about a week in the hospital post-surgery, I was to spend a minimum of eight weeks on crutches. I was toe-touch, which meant my left foot could touch the ground, but I wasn’t weight bearing. So I applied absolutely no pressure to that leg.
I essentially needed help doing anything and everything back home, so it was a transition to return to campus post-surgery, where I would be living in the wheelchair accessible suite, alone, in Mitchell Towers.
If you didn’t know this suite existed, the doors are wider, the closets are lower, the bathroom larger and the shower allows one to roll into it and sit on a bench. There are also railings in the bathroom to help one in the shower and near the toilet. An apartment in the Mae and a room in lower Seaton Hall also have similar accommodations.
Living in this room helped me transition easier to living alone with no one to help if something went wrong. I almost always physically lifted my leg with my hands when I needed to move it, so having a shower I could just crutch into and a bench to sit on were essential. The railings also allowed me to be more independent. And I was only on crutches after having a major surgery.
I could tell you everything that Albion College has improved upon or changed in the past 30 years with accessibility in mind. Most of it would surprise you and includes things you or I wouldn’t even think about on a typical day. As someone who was suddenly all too aware of how accessible things on campus were to me, I realized first-hand there are some things that can still be improved.
For example, I struggled entering quite a few buildings being only on crutches, like the door to enter my own residence hall, the same residence hall that has an accessible suite.
In 1988, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. Prior to the ADA, Albion College had been around for over 150 years. Accessibility was not on the college’s mind back then; it really wasn’t on anyone’s mind.
“If we were doing a major renovation, (over 50% of the structure) then we would address the handicapped issues at that time,” said Don Masternak, director of facilities. “There were small things taking place through the years as budgets allowed or needs came about.”
Masternak has personally contributed to the changes in architect to assist with accessibility through heated steps and/or ramps for the Goodrich Chapel, Bobbit Visual Arts Center, library, Kresge Gymnasium, Whitehouse Hall, and Olin Hall.
“I would like to hope that as we do updates to entryways we incorporate [heated steps] in some way,” said Masternak, adding the steps help those with or without disabilities remain safe during the winter months. “We strive to improve in every project that we do.”
Despite improvements, there is still much work to be done. There is no automatic control button for Mitchell Towers. The doors are wide enough and the lobby has no stairs, but the door is pretty heavy. I struggled to insert my student ID and open the door. On top of that, I almost always had the door close on me as I tried to enter the building. Quite frankly, there are no automatic buttons in any of the residence halls that could house a person with a walking disability.
Mitchell Towers is not the only door that I felt closed rather fast. I never thought about how fast a door closed until I began fearing if I could catch it with my crutches before it would hit my left hip post-surgery. Chances are you don’t think about it either.
The ADA did, though. The whole list of requirements for doors, including how fast it closes, can be found here.
I brought my concern to Masternak, and I am glad I did, because no one had ever mentioned it before. People who aren’t in wheelchairs or don’t have walking impairments can try their best to think about what would work for someone who does, but sometimes things go unnoticed.
“I personally try to communicate with students as I’m aware of them. I ask, ‘What is a challenge to you on the campus that we can approve on?’ And lots of time we are able to incorporate their input in making a difference for others,” said Masternak. “We welcome that kind of feedback.”
That’s why it’s important to communicate with the right people.
Campus Safety is available to transport students on crutches, although I have been as late as 20 minutes to classes, even when I call ahead of time. Grounds can make sure the path a person will be taking is clear during the winter months. Residential Life can find a room on campus that would fit that person’s needs.
I’m not saying the college or facilities will fix everything someone might find difficult, but speaking up and making it known could spark the next project or at least have it on someone’s mind, and could be the difference from having your college experience bearable to enjoyable.
Photo by Sarah Likens