It’s Time for a Change: Handicap Accessibility at UNLV Falls Short
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is proud to call itself a handicap-accessible school. This sounds honorable but in reality, UNLV is simply obeying the law. Without minimal accessibility, the school’s doors would close.
Minimal is the key word here. There is a major difference between “accessibility” and “ease.” UNLV’s campus is beginning to bridge the gap between the two, but the school still comes up short in many ways.
Every public facility must be handicap-friendly, and there are standards that must be met in order to accommodate wheelchair users. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is a guide (the ADA Standards for Accessible Design) of minimal requirements that public buildings must follow. This guide includes necessities such as a “path of travel” and “curb ramps.” For those who are able-bodied, a ramp and a round silver button next to a door handle may seem adequate enough for wheelchair users. UNLV has both features. However, this does not mean the campus has immediate and convenient accessibility—just some of the minimal standards.
Jeff Bonner is an adult paraplegic student who is currently taking classes on the UNLV campus. Bonner is paralyzed from the waist down, but he has full use of his arms and hands. His form of transportation is a manually operated wheelchair. As an English major his classes are scattered around campus, and Bonner has split the campus into two—the new buildings and the old buildings.
“The newer sections are much more accessible than the older areas of campus,” said Bonner. He then pointed toward the BEH building. “That building is a pain. The auditorium-style seating doesn’t give me a chance to have a desk.”
Bonner explained he has felt more at ease while taking classes in the newer buildings, such as CBC. “The desks there [in CBC] are much easier to deal with. My chair fits right under them.”
It is strange to think that something as commonplace as a desk has the ability or the disability to be handicap accessible, but this attention to detail can make the difference between an accessible campus and an easily accessible campus.
Bonner mentioned that the architecture of BEH made the building difficult to maneuver in, but that is not the only challenging building on campus. Move down towards the physics and music departments and easy handicap accessibility almost deteriorates completely.
Every UNLV student knows about the famous Flashlight outside Artemus Ham Concert Hall. In front of that flashlight, coming from the south side of the campus, is a large staircase. To students coming from classes from any area of campus, the staircase is nothing more than a slight burn in the back of the calf muscles. For students in wheelchairs, the stairs is a sign to go around—all the way around.
There is no convenient way for handicap individuals to access Ham Hall unless they are coming from the west-most part of the Cottage Grove parking garage. It is not common knowledge to approach Ham Hall from that single, specific direction if you are a wheelchair user. There are no signs to help direct people to the ramp, which is located near the far-right front doors of Ham Hall. This means, if a handicap individual is approaching the Hall from the way of the staircase, it is impossible to see the top of the ramp near the door—because you would have to walk halfway up the stairs before it became visible.
For smaller, more intimate concerts or lectures, there’s the HFA building. Since there are no stairs needed to enter into the one-story building, this venue seems more promising for the handicap. The architecture is deceiving, though. Stairs are not the only red flags for wheelchairs.
On the short walk from the Cottage Grove box office to HFA, there are no curb ramps. This means a person in a wheelchair can take the straight path from the box office to the building only to find that they must take an unplanned detour to get through the doors. About 8 feet from HFA’s entrance doors, there is a small street sandwiched by two curbs. Neither one flattens into a ramp for wheelchair access. One again, a wheelchair user must go around, back towards the box office, and off towards the east part of the Cottage Grove parking garage, to find an indent in the curb.
Inconveniences such as those found at the entrances of Ham Hall and HFA are commonplace on the older side of UNLV’s campus. The handicap ramps are not visible unless one is leaving the buildings, and that does a wheelchair user no good.
“I had a class on the older side of campus once, and I had to go down 3 steps in my chair because I couldn’t find the ramp,” said Jeff Bonner with a slight chuckle. “And then, as I was leaving class, there was the ramp, right there to my right.”
FDH is another campus building that neglects the needs of students in wheelchairs. There is no ramp into the building from the east parking lot. The ramp that is provided is dangerously steep, and, up until three years ago, this ramp warned users of limited ability. A picture of a handicap sign with an ‘X’ on top of it was placed on the ramp. It doesn’t make much sense for the campus to provide wheelchair users with a ramp that they might be able to use.
Architectural flaws can be seen all around the UNLV campus and most prominently within and around the older buildings. This is not to say that handicap access is not there—it must be—law requires it, remember?
Minimal access does not make mobility easy for handicap students. Out-of-the-way ramps are like fine print on the bottom of a billboard or a coupon. Manufacturers have it there so that they cannot get sued. The driving force here is something other than the actual purpose.
Despite the shortcomings in UNLV’s architecture, there are people on campus who are trying to combat the struggle. The Disability Resource Center (DRC) is the primary source of support for those with physical handicaps, but their influence does not expand too far beyond their own doors. It is hard to fix struggles that are commonplace for the handicap and unnoticed to the able-bodied masses.
When asked about campus handicap accommodations, DRC office manager Linda Morgan covered the basics. “The classrooms are all suppose to be accessible. On occasion we find that, when we place a table in a classroom, there’s only space in the front [for a wheelchair] and it may have steps going down, so that becomes problematic. That’s where priority registration or a counselor can get a room assignment change for that class so that it is accessible.”
This raises the ever-lingering, uncomfortable question: Why isn’t every classroom handicap accessible?
According to Doug Sinclair, a handicap UNLV alumni who is starting his graduate studies in the fall, students in wheelchairs are still students. They should be accommodated from the get-go. They should not feel as if they are wearing a dunce cap when they are wandering around for a ramp or getting their schedules tweaked from classroom to classroom.
The DRC’s services work primarily from the inside out. Most wheelchair users, including Jeff Bonner, use the DRC’s notetaking and testing services. Notetakers are students enrolled in the same class as a student who is eligible for the service. They provide the DRC student with copies of the class notes they took for themselves. Alternative testing methods (including assistive technology or an alternative test format) is also available through the DRC.
Doug Sinclair made use of the testing services during his undergraduate career. “I would take my finals the same time as everyone else in my class, but I would go to the DRC instead. They’d put me in a small room and place a keyboard on my lap. And there was a little camera watching while I took my tests.” Sinclair is a c-4/5 quadriplegic. This means he has limited arm and wrist movement and no finger movement. He cannot hold a pen and write on his own.
Sinclair admits that, besides midterm and finals week, he did not frequent the DRC often. Sinclair’s mom, Dawn Sinclair, reminisced about her son’s undergraduate career. “I used the DRC as a bus stop,” she said with a laugh. “I would tell him to wait outside the DRC, and I’d be there in 15 minutes to pick him up.”
According to Doug Sinclair, finding a student on campus in a wheelchair is “like finding a needle in a haystack.” Perhaps this is why UNLV has yet to make any major accommodations to the campus, since an overwhelming majority of its students are not physically handicapped.
Linda Morgan supported Sinclair’s haystack analogy. “Everybody in a wheelchair doesn’t necessarily receive our services. They have to self-disclose, and I’ve seen many students on campus in wheelchairs that I have never seen come in before. But, just guessing off the top of my head, I’d say [there are] maybe a dozen, at the most, that we serve.”
Students in wheelchairs may not be the norm at UNLV, but they are still receiving university education. According to Doug Sinclair, accessibility should be accommodated to them on the same level at which it is accommodated to for the able-bodied student. The campus needs to start acknowledging their presence in a greater way. The minimum is not good enough for UNLV Rebels.
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