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Duke aims to bridge gaps in disability access

As Duke works to improve campus accessibility for those with disabilities, some are looking to take the conversation further—focusing on how to make the University more inclusive in its social and academic environments, as well as the physical.

Following student advocacy beginning in 2011, the Disability Management System instituted a series of short- and long-term goals—attempting to implement policies and programs related to building accessibility, housing, dining and transportation. But members of the community are moving beyond the idea of a fully accessible space, advocating for accommodating these needs without a feeling of isolation for students. Although work still remains to make campus fully navigable for those with disabilities, the conversation is now shifting—asking how Duke can be made not just accessible, but inclusive.

"You can attach a ramp to a building, but is it still really an equitable environment?" asked junior Jay Ruckelshaus, who was paralyzed before his freshman year and has since founded the nonprofit Ramp Less Traveled. "Those are the types of conversations that are not happening around the country right now."

Ruckelshaus noted that, although Duke is making progress on campus accessibility, issues remain with coordination between different aspects of the student experience—such as study abroad and social opportunities.

In an effort to spark dialogue about higher education and the experience of students with disabilities, Ruckelshaus helped to bring a national retreat to campus last week, titled “Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance.” Held at the Fuqua School of Business last Wednesday and Thursday, the event aimed to explore challenges such as campus accessibility and extracurricular involvement. The conference focused on thinking about higher education in a proactive manner—one that extends beyond the confines of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act

“Our overall goal was to try to think outside of the box of traditional disability management and begin conversations about moving beyond the requirements of disability laws and moving forward to a place where students with disabilities truly feel integrated into our college campuses,” said Leigh Fickling, executive director of Duke’s Disability Management System.

Ruckelshaus said he was blown away by the speakers’ enthusiasm, intelligence and willingness to engage the audience. He added that although the conference did not solve any monumental problems, the energy at the event demonstrated striking potential.

“It was really encouraging to feel a sense of community right away, which was exactly what I wanted,” he said. “People will be able to transfer the energy back to their home campuses and finish the conversation.”

Ruckelshaus' activism has built on the work of other students from recent years. In 2011, the Duke Disability Alliance began to shed a light on challenges for those with disabilities through the “Accessibility Matters” campaign, which highlighted both the inaccessibility of buildings and the insufficient labeling of accessible entrances.

The following year, Duke Student Government passed a resolution that challenged the University to make West Campus 100 percent handicap accessible by 2022. The DDA then partnered with the administration, ensuring that the current West Union renovation would create a fully accessible space with features that meet—and possibly surpass—the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Vice President of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh noted that progress on accessibility is an ongoing topic—adding that last week's retreat left participants feeling encouraged about Duke's position in terms of its commitment to accessibility for disabled individuals, but still dissatisfied in terms of continued progress.

“The biggest thing is to continue to foster an environment that is inclusive, inviting and engaging for individuals who have various challenges,” Cavanaugh said. “That is the aspirational part of what we’re attempting to do.”

Ruckelshaus noted that there are several physical barriers for students with disabilities—including a number of inaccessible buildings, such as the Languages Building and many West Campus dormitories. He noted the disability administration at Duke is rarely involved outside the realm of academic and physical accommodations, including transportation for social events on the weekend and the attitudes of the student body towards those with disabilities. He advocated for the advancement of greater inter-office collaboration between the Student Disability Access Office and other campus organizations, such as the Office for Student Affairs.

“I studied in Oxford two summers ago and it was a logistical mess to coordinate between offices,” he said. “It worked out, but it would have been nice to have a more structured dialogue to make the process easier.”

Ruckelshaus noted, however, that although no university is perfect, he believes Duke ranks towards the top.

“I think it’s really easy to point at the inaccessible parts of campus,” he said. “Duke works with 100-year old buildings that are difficult to modify, which can certainly be difficult and at times disheartening to navigate. But I think you have to look at it in a new holistic manner.”

Addressing the necessity of a holistic approach towards campus disability services, he said that the university’s resources and accommodations in many areas make up for a less-than-perfect campus accessibility. Broadening the conversation to others will be the next step moving forward, Ruckelshaus added, noting that last week's retreat is only the beginning.

“The more people are talking about it, the better,” he said. “Disability is an essential component of the diversity conversation, but at Duke the broader conversation has been more in terms of race relations, gender and sexuality. There has been a general lack of awareness, and the more that it’s made a part of the conversation, the better.”

President Richard Brodhead, who made a welcome speech at the retreat, added that Duke has learned to understand a diverse set of needs and has made many accommodations over the years—though room for improvement remains.

“But every time you reach a new point, it gives you an understanding of new needs that may exist,” he said.


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