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Duke students work with admin for West Union accessibility

The West Union Building renovation is slated to enhance the structure with unprecedented access for students with disabilities.

The student-run Duke Disability Alliance has partnered with the administration as well as the West Union architects to make sure the new building will be completely accessible for all of Duke’s students. This is part of a broader campaign to expand accessibility in the house model and elsewhere on campus.

The West Union plans feature fully integrated ramps and easily accessible elevators. Although the current building is partially accessible for those with disabilities, the new renovations will create a space that is fully accessible.

“[The West Union architects] were thinking about absolutely everyone being able to experience the space in the same way,” said senior Megan Barron, president of DDA.

The construction plans for the new building meet and surpass the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Barron, who identifies as a disabled student. The original West Union Building was completed decades before the 1990 passage of the ADA, which bans discrimination based on disability.

There is more to making a welcoming structure, however, than just fulfilling the ADA requirements, said senior Tyler Bray, vice president of DDA.

“You can bring a building up to code, but still give a student the feeling that they are being isolated,” Bray said.

In addition to the accessibility plans for West Union renovations, Barron said the administration is working to make the residential house model more accommodating for students with disabilities.

In the past, only certain living areas were accessible to handicapped students, making greek houses or selective living groups more difficult to join, Barron said. The administration, however, has made new commitments to providing accessible housing in every building regardless of the building’s original accessibility level. There are specific funds set aside each year in order to provide these accommodations.

“It’s not about just making my room accommodated,” Barron said. “It was the bigger picture of how are we going to accommodate any student that has a housing need without making them feel isolated.”

The Disabilities Management System organizes the accommodations for residential and classroom requests to accommodate disabled students.

“[Our goal is] to try to help students be able to participate in the Duke community as much as they absolutely want to,” said Director of DMS Leigh Fickling.

Contact with the office is completely voluntary, meaning that a student or employee must ask for accommodations. Fickling noted that these accommodations vary on a case-by-case basis, and no two students, even with similar disabilities, necessarily require the same accommodations.

“We have had students in wheelchairs in the past who have not asked for anything,” she said. “You would think that a student in a wheel chair would need lots of accommodations, but there are some that do not need any at all.”

DDA, formed in Spring 2010, began to draw attention to the needs of disabled students with their “Accessibility Matters” campaign in 2011. The campaign highlighted the disparities on campus, including inaccessible buildings and insufficient labeling of accessible entrances.

“There are a lot of accessible routes on this campus, but they are not very well labeled, so it makes the campus seem a lot worse than it actually is,” Barron said.

This year, the group has continued to advocate for universal accessibility on campus with their “See something, say something” campaign, which encourages students to report broken automatic doors, blocked ramps or anything else that would impede a disabled student from maneuvering around campus.

“The campus is so big that you can’t expect everyone to know that every ramp is broken or every button is blocked, so [the administration] really counts on students to report this stuff,” Barron said.

The Disabilities Management System also provides services such as sign language interpreters and doorbell light systems for the deaf and orientations and guides for the visually impaired. These are offered to students as well as employees.

For instance, when Rodney Dinkins, a deaf online application developer, was hired by the technical staff at the Duke School of Nursing, the DMS stepped in. Before he began working on-site, the DMS set up appropriate safety measures for deaf staff, such as fire alarms with flashing lights to visually alert the staff in case of an alarm.

When Dinkins began working, the DMS provided sign language interpreters, but he found text-based communication more efficient for conveying specific technical terms.

Dinkins noted in an email Monday that although he has found Duke to be accessible for his needs, people with other disabilities, such as the blind, would probably have difficulty. He also added that recent Duke construction projects have made maneuvering throughout campus more difficult.

“Now that we have construction on buildings going on, it is difficult for me to be aware if construction vehicles are behind me,” Dinkins wrote. “I cannot hear their ‘honks’ at all and wish I could tell them, ‘Forgive me, I am deaf! I don’t mean to be in your way.”


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