Until you’re in a wheelchair, you don’t realize how rare flat surfaces are. As I struggled to roll the few blocks from Searle Hall to my south campus dorm in my loaned wheelchair, I encountered hills I had never noticed — everywhere. The sidewalk by Scott Hall? Hill. The sidewalk ramp in front of the Arch? Insurmountable. The sidewalk itself? Tilted horizontally just enough to make rolling straight difficult.
Twenty minutes later, I had huffed and puffed all the way home. Then I realized I couldn’t get to my room because our elevator only goes from the ground level to the first floor.
The few hours I spent in a loaned wheelchair made me hyper-aware of topography I’d never considered. Where are the power-operated doors in a building? Do they work? How steep is that ramp? Is that path wide enough? Why isn’t it better paved?
Outwardly, Northwestern doesn’t seem like a friendly place to students with mobility impairments. Stairs are plentiful and not all dorms are accessible. Academic buildings have accessible entrances, for the most part, but finding them might be a challenge if you haven’t done your research.
When Satisfactory Isn’t
Elsbeth Klotz looks like any other student sitting in Norbucks, typing away on her Macbook. Today, the first-year chemistry graduate student is using a cane instead of her wheelchair.
Klotz has a muscular condition which has put her in “constant pain” since she was 12 years old. In the last few months, it has escalated to the point where she has been unable to walk unassisted, and she began using a wheelchair in August. Recently, Klot’s doctors suggested she quit grad school because of time constraints and her stress level.
Unfortunately for Klotz, Northwestern’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements is often not enough. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public accommodations, facilities, transportation and communication. It keeps institutions accountable for having handicap accessible entrances, visual fire alarms and other accommodations for those with disabilities.
“I know that the entire campus technically meets ADA requirements,” Klotz says. “However, I also know that ADA requirements are things that don’t meet my needs as an individual with a global muscular condition. Basically, it’s a case of not all disabilities being the same. The classrooms themselves don’t tend to be set up in a way that’s friendly to people that are using bulky devices like a wheelchair.”
Bump in the Road
Though all academic buildings are technically accessible, some are “inconvenient,” says Margie Roe, director of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities. Swift Hall, for instance, is only accessible through an elevator in the connecting Cresap Laboratory.
Getting to her class in Frances Searle is always a challenge for Klotz. “The sidewalk outside of Searle has what was meant to be an accessible ramp, but it’s a bump I can’t get up,” she says. “The front wheels of my chair won’t go up that far, and I can’t pop a wheelie or something like that.”
Part of Northwestern’s $20 million “Extreme Makeover” for student housing includes improvements to accessibility, like a new ramp for the Rogers House. Renovations at Harris Hall — once one of those “inconvenient” locations — are increasing accessibility as well.
But despite that, for the time being, construction is making Klotz’s life more difficult. When she gets to Tech, where she is a TA in a General Chemistry lab three times a week, someone has to push her up one of the ramps that’s too steep for her.
“With construction going on in a lot of the buildings, there aren’t necessarily ground floor entrances available, which causes some problems,” she says. “It’s difficult to get from class to class on time.”
For mobility-impaired students with classes in “inconvenient” buildings, SSD can arrange to have the class moved entirely.
“If a student with mobility impairment in a wheelchair is in an area that is not accessible, I have the ability to work with the registrar’s office,” Roe says. “I just have the class moved to a different location. This is done before the class starts, and nobody knows why.”
The office serves as a go-between for students with disabilities, helping to arrange for the accommodations they need. It is a resource for approximately 462 students at Northwestern, 95 percent of which have invisible disabilities, like hearing loss or learning disabilities.
For Tania Karas*, a Medill senior who has a cochlear implant, the office helps by getting her note-takers for her classes, arranging captioning and installing visual fire alarms in her room. It also helps inform students with disabilities of their rights.
“Before I would always feel like I was annoying people by asking them to do little things like [putting captions on a movie],” Karas says. “SSD has not only arranged accommodations for me, but they also are kind of moral support. Even if the professor acts annoyed, all you’re asking them is to include you in the lecture that everybody else is getting, too.”
Klotz is still in the process of registering with SSD, which requires detailed documentation from a doctor describing her condition and the accommodations she needs. For now, she manages on her own. In one class, Klotz had to request presentation slides because she couldn’t see the projector from the only spot where she can park her wheelchair.
“My professor was incredibly shocked that they weren’t going to build a modification to the classroom overnight to save him the trouble of posting his slides on Blackboard,” Klotz says.
Even with the help of SSD, Karas says students have to be prompt in requesting the things they need, like a note-taker, which can take a few weeks to coordinate for a class. At Northwestern, a few weeks into the quarter means students are studying for midterms. And despite its best efforts, SSD may not always have the resources to provide assistance beyond what the ADA mandates.
“I really feel like it’s up to the student with the disability to take that extra step and ask for things,” Karas says. “If I didn’t have the confidence I have about my disability, I would not feel like this place was accommodating at all. But because I took this step to ask, I feel like this university is very accommodating. You have to have the confidence to get the things you need.”
*Full disclosure: Karas has written for North by Northwestern in the past.