It’s a realization every RIT student reaches, sooner or later: We’re trapped inside a brick prison. Combine a sprawling suburban campus with bleak Rochester winters, and the result can all too quickly become a transportation nightmare.
It’s a situation that can wear on even the toughest student, but what about those for whom the campus poses a particularly difficult challenge? What if, having broken my ankle, I had to cross the Quarter Mile on crutches?
In order to get a first-hand feel for accessibility on campus, I voluntarily confined myself to a wheelchair one Friday. Over the course of the day, I explored various locations on campus, getting a unique glimpse at the challenges of navigating this brick wasteland.
Set and Setting
Although my approach is likely controversial, I firmly
believe that experience is often the best teacher. I
establish two ground rules for my experiment in
order to not disrupt campus: I will not do anything
that puts myself or others in harm’s way, and to avoid
diverting services from students with actual needs, I
will not use RIT’s accessibility services.
As RIT does not stock spare wheelchairs oncampus,
my search leads me to Monroe Wheelchair,
a wheelchair retail and rental store in Rochester.
Settling on a simple manual chair, I sign the rental
agreement and leave, wheelchair in tow.
Later that night in my apartment, wheels glide
over soft carpeting as I begin to adjust to using
the chair. Even here, the difficulties of navigation
quickly become apparent. The narrow bedroom
door is joined to a wall, and the steep angle of exit
proves challenging to escape. It’s here that I learn
my first lesson of accessibility: Not all problems are
structural. Although my apartment’s living room
is large and open, tables, chairs and various other
obstacles prove impossible to navigate around.
The Ride Begins
I begin my journey in the Reporter office. Almost
immediately, I learn my second lesson: Persistence is
key. I find that many of the paths I’m accustomed to
taking out of the Student Alumni Union (SAU) are
difficult — if not impossible — to follow now. As a
result, I’m forced to backtrack several times before
finally discovering a successful path. Taking an
obscure basement elevator out of Eastman Hall, I
head towards my class in Gosnell Hall.
Outside, poor weather conditions only add to
the challenge. Light snowfall has made the ground
slippery, and my wheels slide, repeatedly catching on
a gap between merging brick and concrete walkways
outside Liberal Arts Hall (LBR). I sit, trapped and
frustrated, until a girl hesitantly approaches me.
“Would you like help?” she asks tentatively. Surprised
and grateful, I accept, explaining my inexperience.
Although it feels as though the campus is
peppered with blue buttons and automatic doors,
their numbers appear to wane now that I need them.
My normal entrance to Gosnell Hall is lacking,
forcing me to travel to the next available door. This
may appear to be a relatively minor complaint, but
cold weather and melting snow compound to make
even the shortest trip outside challenging.
Even with the convenience of automatic doors,
many access buttons aren’t arranged intuitively.
Throughout the day, I must back up in a race
against time, hoping to successfully navigate a
door before the timer resets.
Once inside, I rest for a minute while waiting for
the elevator. After some delay, I catch it, making my
way up to the second floor. Looking down, I’m glad
I chose to leave my coat in the office. My hands,
coated in a thick layer of muddy sleet, are numb
and frozen. One of my sleeves, which became
unrolled during the journey, is soggy and soaked.
Before entering the classroom, I decide to take a
brief moment to wash up and hit up the bathroom.
Although all the bathrooms in Gosnell Hall have
handicapped stalls, only certain, high-traffic ones
feature automatic doors. Forced to cope, I awkwardly
manage to inch open the door and shimmy my way in.
If entering the bathroom proved to be a challenge,
exiting proved even more difficult. Since the door
pulls inwards, I’m grappled for a moment with
conflicting ideas of how to leave. Fortunately, a
student entering the bathroom at that moment holds
the door for me, and with a little effort I slide through.
Class passes uneventfully, and I once again head
for the doors. With the slew of students leaving
class, I make my way outside reasonably quickly.
My editing duties have piled up, and I decide to
return to Reporter’s office.
Reluctant to snag my wheels near Eastman Hall again,
I head towards the SAU, deciding to try the ramp
near Artesano’s. The pathway, wide and not too steep,
appears to be a good choice. As I approach, I discover,
rather unfortunately, a large drainage strip spanning
the entrance. My wheels catch, stopping me abruptly.
While this would have brought me to a complete
standstill an hour ago, my navigational skills are
improving. With a forceful push, I hurdle myself over
the barrier. But greater problems loom ahead. Despite
my initial judgment, my wheels lack traction and I
slowly slip backwards. A student catches me just in
time, offering to push me inside.
If there’s any particular obstacle I face during my
day, it’s the SAU. Initially, I fail to find the SAU’s
elevator, nothing but two chairlifts.
After fumbling for a few minutes with one chairlift,
I decide to bypass the stairs entirely and exit through
the Schmitt Interfaith Center, where, unfortunately,
the elements are not in my favor, leading to my
only truly dangerous experience throughout my
experiment. A slick coating of snow and ice sends
me sliding downhill. Frantically pulling at my brake,
I begin to drift, landing violently at the foot of the
incline. My confidence shaken, I enter the Campus
Center, quickly returning to the office via elevator.
During the rest of the day, I remain primarily in the
Campus Center. Although I suffer minor inconveniences,
nothing compares to my journey outdoors. As is
customary, I learn to adapt. Whether visiting a vending
machine or simply crossing the building, I find myself
planning ahead, mentally tracing the route beforehand.
A Brief Recap
Slowly, my experiment comes to a close. Standing for
the first time in seven hours, I load my wheelchair into a
friend’s trunk and return to the store. Though I expected
it to be difficult, nothing truly prepared me for the
physical experience of being confined to a wheelchair.
If anything was pleasantly surprising about the
day, it’s certainly the interactions with staff and other
students as I traversed the campus. While most seemed
relatively ambivalent — with the exception of one group
I had to dodge — many students were quicker to help
than I expected. Several, based on prior experiences,
recognized my inexperience and gladly leant advice.
For my experiment, I simply spent a day in a
wheelchair. For many students, it’s a way of life. So
the next time I see a wheelchair-bound student
struggling to open a door, expect me to be the first
to lend a hand. I’ve been there, if only for a day, and
they’re certainly built from stronger stuff than me.
Easing The Troubles
Although they certainly help illustrate
the difficulties of navigating campus, my
experiences aren’t entirely typical. RIT’s
Disabilities Services Office, located in the
SAU, provides a resource to ease the daily
life of nearly 800 students.
The Disabilities Services Office does
not follow a specific set of guidelines for
accessibility requests, choosing instead to
work on a case-by-case basis. Students
apply, stating their accommodation needs.
After passing a verification process, the
necessary accommodations are made.
In conjunction with Disabilities Services,
RIT’s Parking and Transportation Office
operates the accessibility vehicle (AV) service,
providing on-demand transportation to
students with unique transportation needs.