The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

UI students push for DEI efforts to include more disability issues

First-year students Ella Christopher and Grace Nelson, who both use wheelchairs, want people to look beyond their disabilities.
Madison Frette/The Daily Iowan
Ella Christopher and Grace Nelson pose for a portrait in Iowa City on Sept. 24, 2023. Ella Christopher and Grace Nelson are navigating their Freshman year of college as students with a physical disability. Along with new classes and a new environment the two are dealing with the shortcomings of the University of Iowa in terms of accessibility regulations and resources. On a day to day basis, Ella and Grace encounter inaccessible—often broken—handicap door buttons, expensive care assistants, uninformed faculty, and much more. All of these factors impact their personal wellbeing and their education t the university.

Grace Nelson, a first-year student at the University of Iowa, had fifteen minutes to get to a classroom in the basement of Van Allen Hall.

Nelson said she found the experience a little scary because the elevators in the building were slow. As a wheelchair user, she couldn’t take the stairs. 

When the doors opened to the floor below, she discovered she had taken the wrong one. There was a different elevator designed to take her and other wheelchair users to the right part of the basement. 

“I definitely got lost trying to get there the first time,” Nelson said. 

When she arrived at the right classroom, Nelson could not find an access button for the door, meaning she had to wait for someone to come open it. 

As part of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the UI claims to practice and teach respect for every person and issue, including visible and invisible disabilities, according to the UI DEI Office website.  

Despite this, students who have disabilities at the UI often have to actively work for greater campus awareness of disability issues. 

Nelson, who lives in Currier Residence Hall, said she would like more conversations about people who have disabilities during DEI discussions at UI first-year orientation events and the required introductory course, “Success at Iowa.” 

Nelson — along with her roommate, first-year student Ella Christopher — uses a wheelchair. 

“I don’t like being called ‘the girl in the chair,’” Christopher said. “I prefer you getting to know my name. Obviously, I am in a chair, but me and Grace are both more than that.” 

RELATED: UI Disability Cultural Space undergoing planning for implementation 

The roommates said coming to college was an adjustment because of the question of accessibility. 

“Preparing for college is definitely the hardest part,” Nelson said. “There’s just so many hoops to jump through; housing and then hiring PCAs to help out during the day and night, and then making sure all my classes were accessible.” 

PCAs, or personal care assistants, are people hired to assist with daily activities and tasks, including getting ready in the morning, eating meals, and getting ready for bed, Nelson said. 

“I definitely think it was an adjustment to kind of figure out all this by myself,” Christopher said. “I feel like the University of Iowa is inclusive, but also they have some room for improvement.” 

Christopher said it can be frustrating when the buttons and student ID card scanner meant for accessibility in Currier Hall are a little high, are not located in certain areas where people in wheelchairs need them, or simply aren’t working. 

At the UI, accessibility concerns can be brought to the American Disabilities Act coordinator, Tiffini Stevenson Earl who ensures the university’s programs, services, and activities are accessible to the larger campus. 

The UI offers several ways for students to report concerns about accommodations or navigate conflict, according to the UI Student Disability Services website, including reaching out to their Access Consultant, the Office of the Ombudsperson, contacting the ADA Coordinator, or filling out the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion “report a concern” form or contact the DEI Office’s number. 

Earl said student accessibility is a group effort, and that she partners with IT services, Student Disability Services, Facilities Management, or other departments, depending on the issue. 

During the 2022-23 academic year, Earl said there was a concern brought to her attention, as the ADA coordinator, regarding an accessibility issue with a restroom for a student who uses a wheelchair. 

“When that was brought to my attention, I accompanied our facilities management staff member to the building and we looked at the space,” Earl said. “So we were able to get that issue resolved.” 

Earl said while the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires programs, services, and activities to be accessible, it doesn’t require accessibility features such as automatic door openers.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, elevators are required depending on a building’s number of stories and square space, Earl said.

“Although automatic doors can provide greater accessibility, they are not required by the ADA Standards,” according to the ADA National Network website. 

“If it’s a building that’s not accessible and a person needs access to that building, we may have to come in, evaluate it, and make it accessible,” Earl said. “That could include putting in an accessible restroom, maybe widening something.” 

If a certain building does not contain an elevator, accessibility accommodations might include moving a scheduled event to a different space, Earl said. 

For older buildings that were not up to code at the time of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s passing, Earl said accessibility is often a priority during renovation. 

Earl said these buildings are often put on a priority list to be made accessible. However, if there is an accommodation request from a community member needing to use that space, Earl said the question of how to make it accessible will be answered quicker. 

“We just don’t say no, throw our hands up. We can’t do it. We have a responsibility to make sure that our campus is meeting the needs of the UI community,” Earl said.  

Lack of UI student awareness  

Christopher said she experiences instances where able-bodied individuals utilize accessibility aids, which unintentionally make situations more difficult. 

She said when she goes into one of her classes in a large UI lecture hall, tables that are at the front of the rows of seats meant to be accessible are often taken up by able-bodied individuals. 

“I think people are just unaware,” Christopher said. “That’s something the University of Iowa lacks a little bit, is the discussion of people with disabilities and like accessibility, because I feel like it’s very unknown until you live with it.” 

Nelson said she has liked seeing the community of students who have disabilities on campus. 

“It’s so crazy coming from like a small town and like a smallish high school where there’s like very few people with disabilities and then like coming here and like I see people with disabilities all the time,” Nelson, who is from Sioux City, said. 

At the UI Student Engagement Fair on Aug. 30, Nelson said she saw the booth for the student group UI Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness and is looking forward to getting involved with the organization. 

Oz Braslavsky, a third-year student on the executive board for UI Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness, said the executive board has been thinking about adding covered benches, or shelters, to bus stops to increase convenience for users, they said. 

Braslavsky said the initiative is aimed toward the general community, not just people who have disabilities. 

“If there’s a bench there, we want it to be covered,” they said. “We’re trying to have negotiations with Cambus to see if we can do something about that.” 

Braslavsky said an overarching goal is to make spaces fit for people who have disabilities. The UI Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness organization was invited to the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, which was built in the 1970s, to take a look around and provide usable feedback on its accessibility, they said. 

“Something that we’ve noticed is the fact that anytime [students] ask for accommodations, it’s a very difficult process,” Braslavsky said. “Each professor has their own qualms with the process and we want to make it easier and more unified as well.” 

Braslavsky said the organization is in the process of speaking with hall coordinators to make dorms more accessible. 

“Perhaps with just being able to enter the rooms more easily just because it feels too narrow and not really friendly,” they said. 

The organization is continuing to meet with Maria Bruno, the executive director for belonging and inclusion and assistant to the vice president, to plan a cultural space on campus for people with disabilities, Braslavsky said. 

“Basically, it was announced the fact that the cultural space was kind of greenlit, and at this point, we’re just kind of like thinking ‘What can we add to the space?’ and ‘What do we need?’” Braslavsky said. 

Christopher said issues surrounding accessibility for people with disabilities can also limit participation in organizations on campus. 

“There’s that part of it too, like, I can’t join those clubs even though I really want to get to know people,” she said. 

Christopher, who is studying biology and genetics, said she is planning on being a genetic counselor. 

While most medical professionals can diagnose patients with cancer or spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic counselor is able to diagnose and counsel patients, provide resources, and talk about treatments. 

“I would be good with patients because I actually live with it,” she said. “I feel like it’s very comforting if someone heard that from someone who actually lives with a genetic disorder.” 

Moreover, the roommates emphasized the importance of talking to people with disabilities because it isn’t scary, and they are students on campus too. 

Nelson said, in her experience, people have been pretty good, but a general rule of thumb for people is to help with opening doors and getting out of the way on sidewalks.

“I feel like some people just don’t know or sometimes tend to look down on us,” Christopher said. “People should say ‘Hi,’ and smile.”

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About the Contributor
Archie Wagner
Archie Wagner, Amplify Editor
Archie Wagner is a second year student studying English/Creative Writing and Journalism/Mass Communications. They previously worked as a news reporter for student life and undergraduate student government.