Stronger, Truer, Accessibility: Sewanee’s need for an accessible campus

opinionsBy Sydney Leibfritz
Staff Writer

In recent years, Sewanee has been very intentional about re-examining itself from a variety of perspectives. Most visibly, the Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation began its work by digging deeper into Sewanee’s often mystified past and critiquing how we memorialize the University’s founding. We now have a full-time Title IX coordinator, Dr. Sylvia Gray, to give sexual misconduct on the Domain the attention it deserves. From an admissions perspective, efforts continue to bring more diversity to our student body, whether that’s in terms of race, socioeconomic status, or simply hometowns.

Yet, despite the conversations brewing about where and how we can grow as a University, a massive issue remains unrepresented: physical accessibility. Sure, we have Student Accessibility Services devoted to ensuring current students’ necessary accommodations are met, but physically, not a lot has changed.

When I mentioned I was writing this article, I heard students make the argument that this isn’t a pressing matter since, “we don’t have a lot of students with mobility concerns,” or because “disabled students wouldn’t want to go here.” Although I disagree with those claims and think they completely miss the point, even if we assume these claims are true, this isn’t an issue that extends only to one group.

During events like move-in and orientation weekend, family weekend, and Homecoming, a significant number of guests come to visit campus only to realize they may not be able to fully see everything they want to. For example, if a grandparent wants to see their grandchild’s room and can’t climb three flights of stairs in a hall missing an elevator, they’re missing out on a pretty significant milestone and family moment.

This issue affects everyone on this campus whether they are enrolled or not.

Even if we take visitors out of consideration though, imagine that catastrophe strikes tomorrow, and you suddenly require crutches or a wheelchair to traverse the campus. Your entire daily routine would have to change. Just ask anyone who’s sprained an ankle, torn an ACL, or broken a leg.

In many cases, students in need of temporary physical accommodations have to face a number of hurdles in the days after an injury. For one, remaining in their room may not be an option until they recover. Some buildings, like Johnson Hall, actually do not have an accessible entrance for wheelchair-bound students to enter the building.

Assuming you can even make it into the building itself, only five of the 19 multi-story residential halls have an elevator, which is a luxury none of the theme houses offer. Though many of these buildings offer a limited number of handicap accessible rooms on their ground floors, students still do not have full access to visit a friend’s room, unwind in all common spaces, or do their laundry. Then, of course, there’s the shortage of accessible bathrooms and showers, which creates a slew of more problems for students just trying to get through the day.

The most common and obvious solution to this scenario tends to be relocating the student somewhere else that can provide the accommodations they require. It’s still complicated, though. Who will move the student’s belongings out of the room? What if it’s finals season and the student must give up valuable study time to move to a new hall? What if the designated rooms are full and they must live with a new roommate? Although relocation certainly provides the most practical solution, it’s just a Band-aid on the much larger picture.

Also, getting to class could potentially be a struggle. Elevators can be tricky to find in some buildings, like how Walsh Ellet’s is hidden in the executive administrative offices or Carnegie’s lies tucked between it and All Saints’. The buildings may be accessible, but finding the ways to navigate the building requires more forethought than most students typically put in, especially with limited time between classes.

I don’t mean to place all the blame on any single party, because in reality, this isn’t really anyone’s fault. By the time that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) had succeeded in lobbying for more inclusivity, most of what Sewanee consists of today had already been built. To be fair, all halls built or completely remodeled post-FHAA pass the requirements.

Ultimately, our campus’ state of inaccessibility does not stem from deliberate acts of discrimination, but instead from levels of privilege that blind us from these facts until we are personally affected by them. It’s a matter of our facilities pre-dating the more nationally focused push for equal rights, which is difficult to undo now.

The time, effort, and funds it takes to design the older halls to fit the modern requirements becomes a lot for the administration to grapple with. It seems easier to just build a shiny new building instead of addressing the structural shortcomings of ones that already exist, but in doing so, we continue to ignore what needs to be addressed.

Truth be told, I don’t have an answer to this problem; in fact, I doubt an all-encompassing solution even exists. These problems are ingrained too deeply in Sewanee’s foundations to change overnight. Even if we begin our work to make Sewanee a more accessible environment today, it would take years to complete and require billions of dollars in renovations. 

If we are truly striving to foster a sense of inclusion and diversity for a “stronger, truer Sewanee,” we cannot continue overlooking the physical barriers put forth by our campus facilities.