Accessibility Door Opener

A handicap door push button near Sheen Auditorium. Eckerd has added a good amount in recent years, but more can be added to help students.

Colleges can be inaccessible for those with mental or physical disabilities. Accessibility at Eckerd has seen major growth within the past couple of years, but some in the community say it still needs improvements to become an inclusive and accessible campus. 

A total of 15% of Eckerd students are registered through the Office of Accessibility because they have a disability. Although academic accommodations have decreased, individual requests per student request have increased. 

When Sydney Hart, the administrative assistant for the Center for Academic Excellence, arrived as a student in 2014, if someone needed accommodations, they had to go to the counseling center. According to Hart, student accommodations were not given proper attention because the staff was working a slew of various jobs at once. 

“The fact that now we have an Office of Accessibility with its own staff that is focused solely on providing reasonable accommodations for people has made a huge difference,” Hart said. 

Hart directed the Disability Awareness Series this year. Her responsibilities include making sure events run according to plan, checking and following up on requests and communicating with speakers to ensure they are prepared.

Hart’s senior year in 2018 was the first time the school hosted the Disability Awareness Series. 

“I didn’t feel like students were involved enough in the organization of it, for example, I didn’t have any idea about it and I didn’t like that,” Hart said. “I’m a firm believer in the ‘nothing about us without us’ motto.” 

Eckerd’s third annual Disability Awareness Series began on March 5 with activities such as a screening of the “Peanut Butter Falcon,” a demonstration and discussion about assistive technologies available to students and a talk led by poet Amber DiPietra titled “(a)Sexual (r)Evolution Through the Lens of Disability Culture.” Hart directed the series. 

“Accessibility isn’t just about whether a person can get in or around in a space, it’s also about making disabled people feel seen, feel welcome, feel wanted and feel safe,” Hart said. “By educating people on the disabled experience and encouraging interaction with disabled people and topics, we are developing a culture on this campus that values accessibility and hopefully provokes change.” 

But, this understanding does not happen overnight. 

Office of Accessibility 

Before 2018, the Office of Accessibility only had one full-time staff member working accommodations and requests. Now, Eckerd employs two full-time staff members: Marra Piazza Brass, the director of the Office of Accessibility, and Anne Anderson, the accessibility coordinator, to manage the office. 

Students request accommodations through the online portal Accommodate, according to Piazza Brass. The student will select which accommodation they need, whether it be academic, emotional support animals, housing or a meal plan accommodation. 

Attached to the request, students will document a third party document detailing their diagnosis. Piazza Brass reads the requests and focuses on students’ specific needs before scheduling a one-on-one to discuss the request. 

“What I’m looking for in documentation is a diagnosis. A diagnosis that rises to the level of a disability,” Piazza Brass said. 

Getting personal

Senior Tasha Pearce was diagnosed with EDS by an occupational therapist and faced issues with the accommodation process. 

Pearce’s occupational therapist was not able to give a proper diagnosis because she is not considered a medical doctor. 

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a condition resulting in joint pain and chronic fatigue. Genetic testing can take on average between 10 and 20 years to properly diagnose.

According to Pearce, she requested a button for an automatic door to get into her dorm in order to alleviate her joint pain. She also requested a single room during the 2019-2020 academic year because of her chronic fatigue and irregular sleep schedule. 

Pearce did not receive either of those accommodations.

“I just needed a single room that would solve all of my problems. And I never got a single room, my roommate ended up moving out,” Pearce said.

After communication between Pearce, Piazza Brass and housing, Pearce was allowed to buy out the second half of her room to guarantee that she would have a single for her final semester before graduation. 

“They can install more handicap door openers, I know it’s a pain, but it would be worth it to a lot of people,” Pearce said when asked how Eckerd could improve accessibility for all students.

Since 2008, Nancy Janus, part-time professor of human development, has used a wheelchair. She also has had issues with accessible doors. Janus teaches in BES 123 because that room supposedly has an automatic door. 

However, according to Janus, the door does not work. 

“It says it’s automatic, they put something on it and a student and I tried the instructions for it, but it didn’t seem to work according to what the instructions said. So that was a little hard. But as long as somebody’s there to open it for me, I’m good,” Janus said.

When Sarah-Kate Stone first enrolled at Eckerd in 2015, there were two accessible rooms on campus in Omega and Sigma. 

Since Omega is reserved for upperclassmen, Stone was placed in Sigma for her first year. In between the summer of her first year and her sophomore year, Beta was renovated to be ADA compliant. 

Stone lived in Beta for a year and a half, and when she applied for Omega for her senior year, she was not placed in the accessible room. She was offered Nu 11 and with some communication between housing, Dean of Students James Annarelli and Stone, the bathroom was renovated to ensure Stone an accessible living space. 

Stone spearheaded a project to install a lift in Nu because the ramp to the dorm was steeper than comfortable for everyday use. Stone’s bones break easily and if she is injured it is more difficult for her to navigate with her wheelchair. 

“So we pushed to get a lift put in and the housing department was really helpful with that,” Stone said.

The lift in Nu was installed in March 2020 for the last three months before Stone’s graduation from Eckerd.

“If they [Eckerd] can do small action, putting in buttons and making sure that they all continuously work and making sure that potholes get filled,” Stone said. “Inclusivity means so much, it means not pausing your conversation to go up a ramp and then they go up the stairs.”

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