Opinion: Accessibility should not be an afterthought

Photo courtesy Calvin.edu.

Photo courtesy Calvin.edu.

Does Calvin adequately meet the needs of students with physical disabilities and impairments? Is “adequate” enough, considering Calvin markets ideals of “shalom” and restoration?

Calvin’s architectural response, such as accommodations in our buildings, to physical disability is shaped by our mental framework–definitions of equality and how we prioritize features which promote accessibility.

If we do not prioritize awareness in our lives and equality of access in our buildings, rather than only accommodation we may build barriers in our community rather than breaking them down.

Calvin’s architecture, as oriented toward individuals with physical disabilities and impairments, manifests in two basic ways: service structures, principally those offered by disability services out of the office for student success, and physical architectural features, such as ramps, elevators, automatic doors, etc.

Lisa Kooy, Calvin’s disability coordinator, said that her office works with over 400 students on campus, which is approximately 10 percent of the student body, but only some of those students have visible, physical disabilities.

I choose to discuss physical disability because it is visible. Kooy noted that during Disability Awareness Week (held this year Oct. 9-13), students seem to attend events that discuss disabilities in their personal experience. This suggests that we often do not seek awareness until we are affected. This defines the divide between individuals with disabilities and individuals without.  We need to bring the issue out of the sidelines into interaction.

Kooy and her team work to improve awareness and provide accessibility services.

Members of her office sit on the campus accessibility advisory committee (CAAC) with members of physical plant, ensuring that there is appropriate infrastructure for all students at Calvin (e.g. accessible dorm bathrooms, an audible signal at the Burton crossing for the visually impaired, a ramp for events in the Spoelhof Fieldhouse).

But disability services is also limited in their impact by financial and structural barriers.

Kooy mentioned BHT as an example. Although BHT is fairly central to campus and is suggested as a more accessible option for students with disabilities, there is no elevator on the male side due to the placement of a boiler, inhibiting access to the social/study areas in the basement. CAAC has discussed solutions but expense bars progress.

Kooy’s office insures Calvin meets the requirement of the the Americans with Disabilities Act but Kooy also stated that, “law guides our work but we go beyond…because we want equal access for our students,” Kooy said.

Philip Stegink, a professor who teaches courses on special education and disability, offered an additional perspective positing an idea of overt messages — the physical features of accessibility, and covert messages — the nature of the accessibility.

Is there a difference between accessibility and true equality?

Stegink drew attention to the CFAC, where the accessible bathrooms do not have automated door buttons, which to Stegink seem to convey the covert message that persons in wheelchairs must have “an attendant” to open the door. Additionally, the CFAC’s accessible entrances are located off to the side. “Go around back,” Stegink said was the message of those doors. “What does that remind you of?” he asked.

Stegink called into question the whole terminology of accommodation. It conveys that people without disabilities condescend to those who do, “inviting” them into a space that “belongs” to persons without disability. People perceived as “normal” have power over the space. This is not equality.

The accessibility features of most of Calvin’s buildings, as in nearly every other building, seem to be a design second-consideration. The majority of building designs center on accessibility for people without disabilities — pragmatically perceived as serving the greatest number of people first. Features like ramps, automatic doors, and elevators are added to modify the design and are placed to the side or in corners. I am, however, unsure that it accurately conveys the Christian doctrinal theme of concern for the “least of these.”

Ye Joo Oh, one of the panelists in the Disability Awareness Week student panel, where students shared their own experiences with disability at Calvin, pointed out the need for bigger and more elevators in the Spoelhof Center, but acknowledged that Calvin might have aesthetic concerns for the space which welcomes prospective students. Is the aesthetic message we present to prospective students more important than messages of truly equal access, such as Stegink urges, to our neighbors?

Due to the age of our buildings, much of Calvin’s architectural approach to disability must be retroactive. But are we prioritizing better accessibility? There is a lot of talk about money and inclusion talk at Calvin right now. This its intersection.

The fulfillment of our ideas is hampered by the limited resource of time as well. Only six audience members, including myself, attended the student panel on disability where all four of the panelists mentioned the importance of listening. I was disappointed in this turnout. Yes, awareness takes time just as better designs take money. But awareness is achieved when others’ struggles enter our experience. This is the point of the “unto others” command—the recognition that our passion-to-action impulse regarding issues that affect our lives is extended to those affecting others and spurs us to use our resources as if for our personal interest.

Stegink, when I asked him if he was personally willing to take a pay cut if it would allow for improved accessibility initiatives, said yes.

“That’s my vision of what it means to be in community. We do what is necessary to include all folks,” he said, but added, “that’s probably not the universally held perspective.”

No one would decry an elevator. But would I campaign for a tuition hike for it?

My aim is not to accuse or devalue any element of the Calvin community or their efforts, only to experiment with envisioning a Calvin where our external architecture better matches the internal framework of our belief. That looks like awareness, not ideals on the sidelines of our thought, budget and buildings, but central in our actions.

It might look like a combination ramp/stair main entrance to the CFAC. It might look like bigger, central elevators. And it will probably look like sacrifice of time and money in other areas on campus.

Kooy said the mission of Disability Services was to “meet the gaps to bring students up for equal access.” I would urge the Calvin community to consider the question I put to Stegink: what are we willing to give up to meet the gaps in our ideal of equality?