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ASU students 'disrupt disability'

Humanities Lab course produces projects that increase accessibility at the university

Wheelchair button access for bathroom in foreground, with man in wheelchair by door in background
June 04, 2021

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to prohibiting discrimination based on disability, it also required employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and introduced accessibility requirements for public accommodations.

For a while, the passage of the ADA seemed to have taken care of the issue, or so many thought.

Heather Switzer, an associate professor of women and gender studies in Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation, likens that assumption to those of “post-feminism” or a “post-racial” America – that the goals of the associated equity movements have already been met. That we live in a “post-ADA” world.

“Disability could sort of be considered the final frontier in this kind of thinking about societal structures and the roles they play in people’s everyday lives, because it’s often left out of the conversation or considered to be already handled,” Switzer said.

Rather, over the years, as society and technology have progressed, new concerns about accessibility have arisen. Questions like what exactly constitutes a disability or how infrastructure factors in have too frequently gone unanswered.

But people are working to improve that.

Switzer, along with Annika Mann, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, co-taught a course in fall 2020 called “Disrupting Dis/Ability,” one of several offered through the Humanities Lab, an initiative that began in 2017 to get students to understand the role of humanities in addressing today’s social challenges through hands-on research and an innovative instruction model that pairs professors with varying backgrounds to co-teach the labs.

As part of the curriculum of all Humanities Labs, students are expected to produce a public-facing outcome to a real-world issue by the end of the semester. Two student teams from Switzer and Mann’s course went above and beyond in that regard: Where once there was no established representation of students with disabilities among the ASU Council of Coalitions, there now exists the Accessibility Coalition. And where once ASU’s campus maps had no accessibility indicators, there now exists the Mapping Access project.

“I liked the idea of a community-facing outcome,” said David Jaulus, a graduate student in justice studies who took the fall 2020 “Disrupting Dis/Ability” course because he was inspired by the prospect of creating something that would have a lasting, positive effect.

Both Jaulus and fellow Mapping Access team member Melissa Richardson, a graduate student studying social and cultural pedagogy, use wheelchairs, so figuring out how to get around with as much ease as possible is part of their everyday life. After reading about universal design as part of the lab course literature, they realized it was an area ASU could improve upon in regard to its campus maps.

“Through our research, we were able to find that a lot of other campuses already have accessibility features on their maps, which was something that ASU was lacking,” said Mapping Access team member and women and gender studies graduate student Christine Leavitt.

The Mapping Access team knew their goal to revamp ASU’s campus maps with accessibility features was attainable. But it was going to take a lot of time and labor.

Over the course of the semester, the students took to all four ASU campuses, touring each one and noting areas that provided ease of access and areas that did not. They collaborated with Karen Fisher, an ASU software developer, and Peter Fischer, ASU’s accessibility compliance coordinator, to take the data they had collected and apply it to the campus maps.

Because it was such a big undertaking, they weren’t able to complete it in just one semester. Fortunately, through the Beyond the Lab program — an extension of the Humanities Lab that provides students with continued faculty support to further develop their lab outcomes beyond the semester’s end — the Mapping Access team has been able to fully map all four campuses for accessibility features. (Those can be found on the interactive ASU map; the accessibility options can be found in the layer list.)

Going forward, Fischer will act as the data steward, updating the maps as needed.

“With this project, we also wanted to increase awareness that you can report accessibility issues at ASU,” said Mapping Access team member and molecular biosciences and biotechnology undergrad Samantha Gillette. To do that, all one has to do is fill out a form on the facilities development and management website by selecting "ADA compliance" in the drop-down menu under "type of service requested."

"It's good to create a community that notices those things because it helps to increase the overall accessibility on campus,” Gillettte said.

Along with improved physical access, ASU students with disabilities also now have improved access to social networking and academic support, thanks to the recent addition of the Accessibility Coalition to ASU’s Council of Coalitions.

Accessibility Coalition team member Rachel Caldwell first began thinking about establishing the coalition while working on a project for student government that aimed to improve accommodations for students with disabilities following her own experience with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

“We realized that to do that, we also had to foster a community of inclusion and create a space where everyone could come together to focus on these issues across the whole university,” said Caldwell,  a political science and gender studies undergrad.

While a handful of student groups related to various disability and accessibility issues already existed at ASU, there was no unifying body to provide an overall support structure. Creating one meant drafting a constitution that would ensure its longevity, effectiveness and inclusiveness.

“One of the most powerful things about the Accessibility Coalition’s constitution was that they realized how much ableism was embedded in the language of other constitutions they looked to as examples,” Switzer said. “They really worked to make sure the language in their constitution was one of care and love and concern for all types of disabilities, visible and invisible.”

They also reimagined the hierarchical structure of the coalition so that it, too, accommodated for varying levels of ability.

“We made it so that there were two people in each leadership position, so that if one person needed to take a little bit of time for themselves, whether for their mental or physical health, they could do that without the work of the coalition suffering because of it,” Caldwell said.

In April, the ASU Council of Coalitions unanimously voted to add the Accessibility Coalition to its roster.

“There is a place there now that wasn't there when I was a freshman,” Caldwell said. “And maybe if there had been, there would have been more conversations about disability in the university environment and I would have had more support for what I went through. So I'm excited that students from here on out will have that resource and that community.”

Top photo: Justice studies doctoral student David Jaulus goes to open a Fletcher Library restroom door on the West campus on March 19. Jaulus was part of a student team mapping ASU's bathrooms, stairs, ramps, doors and other campus amenities for an accessibility project. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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