Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, December 17, 2017

Building an accessible AU

I am glad that students are talking about campus accessibility.

Our understanding of what defines an accessible educational environment has come a long way since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Ramps, curb cuts, and larger bathrooms were early signs of AU’s application of universal design. Universal design allows people of all abilities to have easy access without the need for special accommodations. Universally-designed SIS has no need for ramps because everyone can enter straight off the quad without climbing stairs. 

AU has also focused on the details. The edible garden outside of the library was modified to allow people of all heights to pick vegetables. Single-user restrooms have been added throughout campus to provide gender-neutral and accessible options. We think broadly about accessibility and inclusivity. Faculty, staff, and students must all play important roles if AU is to become a welcoming and accessible place.

Physical access

Physical access is a priority for AU that must be strategically addressed. Simply put, high impact modifications must be made before low impact modifications. For example, the university prioritizes modifying residence hall rooms so that all students have access to programs like University College and Honors. Students choose their academic program based on academic interests, not physical ability. Facilities staff, the Academic Support and Access Center, and the Disability Compliance Project Team have collaborated to inventory AU’s accessibility needs. An accessibility consulting firm fully assessed our buildings and grounds. 

AU took an additional step to include all aspects of campus, even those not required by law. The assessment has been reviewed, and we are strategically implementing recommended improvements. A guiding principle of this project is the concept of universal design. As this project progresses, student engagement will be vital.

Social connections

 Students have the largest impact on how included their peers feel at AU. I challenge students to step out of their comfort zones to improve the sense of connection that students with disabilities feel. Reserve an accessible room for your next event, turn on the captions next time your student organization shows a film, and discuss learning styles when dividing up work for your next group project. Simple steps like these will add up to a truly inclusive educational environment. We all learn the most from and are challenged the most by people who are different from ourselves. College is a perfect time to interact with people who move through the world differently than you do.

Continuing the conversation

 It is important that we all continue to talk about issues of access. People with disabilities should be included when we talk about other marginalized groups. We should work to bring people with disabilities as speakers to campus. Readings by people with disabilities and about accessibility should be included in the classroom. We all need to deepen our understanding of the lived experience of people with disabilities.

I am proud that AU has made accessibility and universal design a priority. The Disability Compliance Project Team will seek community engagement as we continue to improve physical access on campus. Although removing physical barriers is important, the kindness and consideration that we show each other is vital. I challenge all of us to think about the role that we could play in improving the sense of connection that people with disabilities feel here at AU. 

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Marianne Huger Thomson is the Associate Dean of Students and Interim Senior Director of the Academic Support and Access Center.

edpage@theeagleonline.com


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