An audit isn’t enough for inclusion; that requires change and resources

As someone who regularly teaches about disability and writes on ways our culture is not inclusive of disabled bodies, I was asked my thoughts about the recent Chimes article, “The journey to accessibility: Calvin’s ongoing audit promotes accommodations.” Before I get to my response to that question, let me be clear: I appreciate each member of Calvin’s disability team and the disability services office as a whole. I support and value the work they do. But hardworking, well-trained individuals are not enough for a good system, especially in the face of larger cultural pressures. Having an audit performed by Disability Advocates of Kent County, as mentioned in the story, is a positive step. But if it’s the only step, then there’s not much grounds for celebration. And there are reasons to think the university is not as committed to inclusion for disabled students, staff and faculty as readers of that story might think. 

Calvin’s 2019-2025 Strategic Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan specifically mentions a commitment to making Calvin more diverse and inclusive along disability lines, which is good. And this commitment is mirrored in the way that disability is explicitly seen as one of the kinds of “diversity and difference” that the new core curriculum makes students engage in.

Are we to believe that in the present economic situation that the university is in, it’s going to renovate multiple bathrooms and install numerous elevators?”

The SDIAP admits, “there is still much work to be done.” And there is much in the plan to celebrate. The section “A Vision for Diversity” is especially well done. The plan has four themes, all of which mention disability. But if we look at some of the details, I think “much work to be done” is an understatement. The previous Chimes article specifically focused on the first of the SDIAP’s four themes: “access and equity.” In this part of the plan, objective G is to “ensure Calvin is in compliance with applicable American[s] with Disability [Act] regulations.” As the story notes, as a religious institution, Calvin is legally exempt from the ADA in part because Calvin’s parent denomination, the CRC, was one of the Christian groups that lobbied Congress during the writing of the ADA to make churches exempt. So I take the “compliance” mentioned here to be more than just the minimal legal requirement. Presumably, the accessibility audit mentioned in the story is geared toward helping achieve that objective. But if one looks at the strategies listed in the SDIAP to achieve the goal of living up to the ADA, there’s only one, strategy xii: “bring Calvin into compliance with ADA parking regulations.”

Approximately four years ago, I personally evaluated Calvin’s parking lots for ADA compliance, and sent the director of facilities the results of my evaluation. I was told that those issues would be addressed. But in the subsequent years, our parking lots have not been brought into compliance, even though many if not all of the parking lots have since been restriped.

Restriping parking lots to have the appropriate number of accessible spots and adequate access aisles is easier and cheaper to address than many other issues of ADA non-compliance. Even if we did address the university’s parking lots, there is no listed strategy to address other ways that our campus is not ADA compliant. And many of these are already known to the university. During my 2019 interim course on Disability, Community and Inclusion, I had DAKC come and do a presentation on the ADA, including a partial audit of Hiemenga Hall. Numerous issues were found, such as classroom door knobs that require a twisting motion to open, and lack of adequate access aisles between rows of desks. I passed those along to the administration. They have not been addressed. And these still were not the most difficult issues related to ADA compliance that Calvin faces. Some of our academic buildings do not have an ADA-compliant bathroom in them at all. I believe that only one dorm on campus, KHvR, has elevators. Are we to believe that in the present economic situation that the university is in, it’s going to renovate multiple bathrooms and install numerous elevators?

Even if it would, even more is needed to make Calvin’s campus inclusive of disability — and not just for students. Students have told me about faculty who refuse to grant students their disability accommodations. In his excellent book, “Academic Ableism,” Jay Dolmage differentiates accommodations from true accessibility. If an environment is accessible, accommodations don’t need to be given. One example of accessibility would be increasing the amount of time between classes so that members of the Calvin community with mobility impairments could get from one end of campus to the other during the break. I brought up scheduling as an issue of disability, and yet the newly modified academic schedule going into effect next academic year still has only a 10-minute break between classes. 

So is Calvin committed to accessibility campus wide? In word, yes. But in deed? As students have noted in the recent Remnant installation, language asserting a commitment to something, whether it be to the liberal arts or to disability accessibility, doesn’t always translate to the priorities needed to carry out that commitment in action.