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Handicap accessibility

Photo by Sudhir Selvaraj
Most Cobbers don’t have to consider if they can reach their favorite meal at Dining Services. Most Cobbers can go to the Carl B. Ylvisaker Library without having to make sure that what they need isn’t in the stacks, because they can’t get to the stacks. Most Cobbers can sign up for housing in whatever dorm they want. Most Cobbers can get from class to class within the matter of a few minutes, without having to go out of their way to find elevators, or to get to an automatic opening door. Most Cobbers can go through their day without thinking about handicap accessibility.

But that’s only most Cobbers.

Katie Nelson, a senior majoring in youth ministry, has a rare disorder called sacral agenesis that requires her to use either a wheelchair or crutches every day. However, sitting down with her in Serendipity one morning last week it was hard to tell that she had been dealing with this disability since the age of four. Confident, smiling and eager for an opportunity to share her experiences, Nelson started in on the long list of suggestions she had for Concordia on ways to improve its accessibility.

“The library is probably the worst building on campus,” Nelson said. “No one ever told me where the elevator was. Oh, also, the elevator is so old. One time I was in there, it just decided not to open on the fourth floor.”

Lisa Heffernan, who graduated from Concordia in 2009, uses a wheelchair due to a disorder called spina bifida. She agrees that during her time at Concordia the library was the most difficult building to navigate because of the elevator. The library’s elevator, which is mostly meant for carrying carts of books back to their shelves, is barely big enough for a wheelchair to fit in.

Another challenge that Nelson has had to deal with is the bathrooms. During her first two years at Concordia she lived in Park Region, the only dorm building that has an elevator. However, one year she lived on the opposite end of the hallway from the bathroom, and trying to carry all her shower items while managing crutches was extremely difficult. In addition, the showers themselves were tough to use.

“My shower at home has a seat in it, but none of the showers here do,” Nelson said. “I’ve gotten used to it, but at first it was difficult to stand the whole time.”

Even though Park Region was accessible for Nelson, the inaccessibility of the other dorms made it hard to visit friends. There are also no non-apartment dorm buildings for men who are handicapped to live in.

And these problems aren’t just limited to students with long-term disabilities. Kyle Quimby, a senior majoring in graphic design, has had to deal with crutches several times from soccer injuries.

“Yeah…living in Erickson was hard,” Quimby said. “I was on crutches at the time and had to go up and down all those stairs. It wasn’t that difficult but just really annoying.”

The other thing that Quimby found challenging was the amount of time it took to get everywhere.

“Even though we have a small campus, it takes twice as long and it’s twice as tiring when you’re crutching,” he said.

Other problems that Nelson brought up are the built-in seating in Ivers and Jones that don’t offer enough room for walking between the seats or even sitting in.

“Since my one knee doesn’t bend, usually I have to just sit sideways,” she said.

Also, although the new Dining Services has plenty of space for students in wheelchairs or crutches to get around, Nelson is still unable to reach some of the food.

These struggles aren’t only limited to students either.

Dawn Duncan, an English professor at Concordia, has had a prosthetic knee for the last several years. And while she readily admits that there have been huge improvements made on campus recently, there are still some things she’d like to see get changed.

The problem that Duncan believes needs to be dealt with most is the lack of handicap parking spaces on campus. Often when she gets to school, cars will be double parked in the few handicap spaces available, and during the winter time, large snow piles tend to accumulate over the handicap parking spots.

“One time, all of the handicap parking spaces were full so I had to park a couple blocks away,” Duncan said. “I had to call my secretary to come get me from my car.”

She also said that that the new Knutson Campus Center was not built with visually impaired or handicapped people in mind. The building is composed of many half floors connected by a series of elevators that are scattered throughout the building.

“There is no one elevator that goes all the way up,” she said. “People who are visitors or who aren’t familiar with the campus must be incredibly confused.”

As Concordia works on the new science building and the Offutt School of Business, Duncan hopes that they will keep in mind the needs of their many handicapped students and faculty.

“I really hope they don’t just think about aesthetics, but accessibility,” she said.

Nelson brought up that during her freshman year at Concordia, she served on a panel about accessibility during a week of handicap awareness activities on campus. Several of the administrators had to spend one day experiencing what it was like to have a variety of physical impairments. For instance, one had to spend the day on crutches, another was blindfolded and someone couldn’t use their hands. President Pamela Jolicoeur was one of the administrators who took part in the experiment.

Duncan, who was also in the panel during the awareness week, remembered this activity well.

“It’s important to help those who are in a position of power to understand,” she said. Through this one simple activity, the administrators were really able to see what still needed improvements on campus.

Heffernan, who also took part in the awareness week, said that accessibility was one of the biggest factors in her college decision. But overall, she wanted to stress one thing.

“People with disabilities do face challenges, but each is different and can function to the best of their ability on their own,” Heffernan said.

Duncan, too, had something she wanted to stress.

“You cannot see all disabilities. Sometimes, you don’t know if someone is handicapped,” she said. She continued, and said it’s important to treat everyone with patience and respect, because you don’t know what each individual is dealing with.

Overall, however, Duncan said that the improvements she’s seen during her time here have only occurred because of Concordia students.

”There’s been a real move toward more accessibility on campus over the last few years because students got involved,” Duncan said. “ If students get involved, stuff happens.”

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