By Carson McKinney
Disability History Month just concluded, and while Ole Miss Student Disability Services sponsored events and panels throughout April to uplift persons with disabilities’ voices and educate able-bodied students and faculty, two students and one former student said the work to make campus more accessible is not done.
PJ Sheffield is a general studies graduate and part-time employee for Ole Miss Athletics who uses a mobility scooter to assist his movement. Sheffield said campus is currently more accessible than it was when he first arrived six years ago, citing buildings which have undergone development like the Student Union, Johnson Commons and the Pavilion as being accommodating for people with scooters. However, he also believes other buildings such as Peabody, Bishop and Kinard can be difficult to maneuver despite meeting accessibility standards.
“All buildings are accessible, but smaller containments like elevators, door entries and hallways need to be at least a little wider,” Sheffield said.
According to International Code Council guidelines, which the University follows, doorways must have an opening width of 32 inches minimum. Elevators must have an opening width of 36 inches minimum—unless the door is centered on the elevator—which then requires 42 inches minimum. An interior accessible route must be 36 inches minimum while an exterior accessible route must be 48 inches minimum, with exceptions that allow the width to be shortened for some distances.
He believes smaller elevators, like in Guyton Hall, could be difficult for people with wider and less-maneuverable wheelchairs to get into and might not be able to accommodate another passenger, such as an able-bodied assistant to a person in a wheelchair. Another problematic elevator is in Farley Hall, he said.
“In Farley, the elevator in the basement is the only way you can get up and down,” Sheffield said. “It kept going out, and they had to replace the whole panel on the inside. I got stuck in there one time.”
Senior Broadcast Journalism Student Maggie Bushway, who also uses a mobility scooter, is no stranger to this elevator and other difficulties in getting to class in her major’s main building.
“Sometimes the elevator in Farley doesn’t work, so I’ve missed a couple of classes because I couldn’t get upstairs,” Bushway said. “There’s an entrance down the stairs, and the door doesn’t work about half of the time. There’s another door on the side of the building that works most of the time, so I’m usually still able to get in. They always forget to unlock the door on the left that’s right by the entrance. They either forget to unlock it or its broken or sometimes both of them will be broken.”
Bushway tried to use the Campus Post Office service when she arrived to campus but had to discontinue because of how difficult it was for her to get to Crosby Hall and other buildings on Northgate Drive and Sorority Row.
“There is a whole side of campus that is inaccessible to me,” Bushway said. “It’s the side that Martin, Stockard and the sororities are on. It’s an older part of campus, so the crosswalks don’t have ramps. I have to go all the way to the other side of campus to cross the street and then go back down.”
Bushway said she has contacted campus offices about buildings she finds difficult to get around in, such as Farley, Isom and Peabody.
“I talked to Disability Services and Equal Opportunity, and they said a lot of the buildings I have trouble with are historical, and if they did extra construction, it would take away from the historical value of the building,” she said.
Not all disabilities are visible or apparent. Senior Investment Banking Student Rhett Unbehagen was a student panelist at the SDS event “Nothing About Us Without Us,” and has exercise-induced anaphylaxis along with three other disorders, meaning he cannot over-exert himself without experiencing an allergic reaction. He said he feels accessibility can be exclusive, only made for a specific kind of disability.
“The rule for handicapped accessibility is that a wheelchair needs to be able to access those places easily,” Unbehagen said. “There is a way to get around campus with the OUT buses that is handicapped accessible, but for me, being the special disabled snowflake that I am, it is not really enough.”
Another issue Unbehagen raised at the panel was handicapped parking, such as the complete lack of handicapped parking spaces at Lester Hall—where Student Parking Services is located—and the limited number of spaces near the Connor/Holman Hall complex where his classes are located. One of his classes has been particularly difficult to attend.
“We have been in school for 16 weeks now and I have been in that class seven times, not because I don’t want to go, but because either that entire complex of two buildings has six handicapped parking spots which are usually full at 2 p.m. in the afternoon because everyone is right there for lunch and stuff, or the elevators don’t work,” Unbehagen said.
“There are malfunctions, and I don’t have the choice to say ‘that’s fine’, and just go down the hall and up one flight of stairs and back down and then across the walkway. By the time I make it to my class I can barely breathe.”
While these students all agreed Ole Miss is largely an accessible environment, there are a few issues which they would like to see addressed.
“I do think it’s improving, and I’m proud of where we’ve gotten over my six years here,” Sheffield said. “I would like to see it continuously improving.”
When presented these student’s perspectives, Equal Opportunity and Regulatory Compliance Director Becki Bressler did not provide comment, but she did pass along the information to Associate Director of Strategic Communication Rod Guajardo.
“The University of Mississippi strives to provide a safe, accessible, and welcoming environment to all students, faculty, staff, and visitors,” Guajardo said. “The university makes every effort to include appropriate accessibility improvements in all construction and renovation projects, including a new ramp under construction at Peabody Hall as well as larger projects such as the Ole Miss Student Union, The Pavilion, and the new South Campus Recreation Center. The hilly and historic Oxford campus is not without its challenges when it comes to accessibility, but the university is committed to removing physical barriers to the 210 buildings on our campus.”
Guajardo said he encourages anyone who has concerns regarding accessibility to contact the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance at (662) 915-7735 or firstname.lastname@example.org.