In Disability Awareness Month, Georgia State community evaluates university accessibility

Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

In an average semester, getting to class means putting on shoes and making way through the crowded, cracked sidewalks of downtown. This semester, getting to class requires just a few clicks of the mouse. Still, issues with Wi-Fi and inaccurate video captions can add stress for many students, especially those with disabilities.

October is closely associated with fall and Halloween, but many also recognize it as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. While most classes are remote, some students experience challenges on-campus and inside their virtual classroom.

Junior Madeline Gunawan is living on campus and navigating a semester of online classes. Since age two, she has used an electric wheelchair and receives accommodations through the Access and Accommodations Center, or AACE.

Navigating an open-campus in the middle of downtown is a difficult feat, especially when Gunawan traverses Atlanta’s narrow, bumpy sidewalks. 

For her, the sidewalks “tend to be really hard to navigate.” While she recognizes this as a city-wide issue, Gunawan believes the university could take the initiative to solve the problem.

Gunawan considers the Student Center to be the most accessible building on campus, as the building has ramps that allow wheelchair access to all levels. She said that some buildings on campus, like Arts and Humanities and Sparks Hall, have hallways and classrooms that are too narrow or small and have too few elevators. 

Gunawan added that Georgia State has significant room to improve its bus system Panther Express, which is notorious for overcrowding. 

“There aren’t enough regulations on how people with mobility devices can move through buses,” she said. “There are some drivers that know how to use the tie-downs and let down the ramps, but there isn’t really any priority. As an able-bodied person, it’s easier to stand on the bus when there’s, like, 60 other people on there.” 

Gunawan reflected on past experiences in the classroom, where she often felt rushed or uncomfortable when completing her classwork. While she misses seeing her professors and peers, she appreciates the freedom of working from home, as this allows her to work at her own pace. 

Although education in the past has not always been smooth sailing for Gunawan, she feels that the current state of education has been making positive strides to create equal opportunities for those with disabilities.

“In the past, I would ask for accommodations, and people would tell me that it couldn’t be done because they had never done it before,” Gunawan said. “Now, I think the education system is close to making accommodations for everyone so that, in the future, it won’t be as difficult to get the accommodations for people who need them.”

Kayla Jordan is a second-year student in the Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling master’s program. The program trains students to aid individuals with cognitive, physical, sensory and psychiatric disabilities. 

She also works with students in the Inclusive Digital Expression and Literacy program. IDEAL is a post-secondary program for students with mild intellectual disabilities and focuses on media literacy and production. 

Jordan finds this program helpful for students with disabilities to explore their interests and learn career skills like resume building and stress management.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of people that have had disabilities, they aren’t given a chance to express themselves or … showcase their talents,” Jordan said. “What I love about what I do is that I can [help] give them that confidence.”

Jordan’s master’s program meets on the College of Education and Human Development building on the ninth floor. These students saw accessibility discrepancies, similar to what Gunawan mentioned, within the building where they learn about supporting those with disabilities. 

The building originally had one wheelchair-accessible bathroom, and it was on the second floor, meaning that anyone with a wheelchair had to expend extra time and effort to access the restroom. 

Students within the department found this a massive oversight by the university and advocated for a wheelchair-accessible restroom on the ninth floor.

Graduate student Hannah Carter is in the same program as Jordan. As Carter works with students with disabilities, she’s begun to see how campus design caters towards non-disabled people. She cites the downtown campus’s difficulties, such as the bustle of the city and non-ADA-compliant sidewalks. Carter also notes that the buildings on Perimeter campuses are less accessible than the ones downtown. 

“When we think about Georgia State, we think about accessibility over all [six] campuses, and [Perimeter] is just not the same,” she said. “It’s just really interesting to see how great campus can be for those who are able-bodied, and how the rose-colored glasses are taken off when you think about it in terms of people with disabilities.”

Something as simple as creating more accessible bathrooms is not only a step in the right direction but can also make a tremendous difference for those who need it.

Sophomore Mads Andrews receives AACE accommodations, like Gunawan, which is necessitated by their deafness.

For their classes, Andrews uses CART, a stenography service that provides live captioning in class, either through laptops or in-person aides. Andrews added that the virtual captioning struggles with accuracy, cannot pick up classroom discussion and relies on Wi-Fi. 

Additionally, Andrews’ professors wear a microphone that connects to cochlear implants, allowing them to hear the instructor directly. 

Andrews is supposed to receive class notes ahead of time, but “professors have a hard time with this one and don’t like sharing their notes.

For Andrews, Georgia State’s inaccessibility lies within its communication. 

“[Often] I do not realize there is an event I am interested in until the same day,” they said. “The AACE Center can’t provide CART without at least a day [notice] in advance.”

Their largest grievance, though, lies with online class. As school has shifted virtually, Andrews relies on the captioning provided on WebEx lectures. Often, professors will assign videos and podcasts without captions, leaving Andrews with extra effort and energy required to learn the assigned material.

Like many students, Andrews misses the in-person experience, where instead of depending upon emails, one can “build a relationship and discuss issues when seeing a professor.”

Even though students see each other less this semester, Gunawan advises fellow students to prioritize treating their peers fairly. She also urges students to be more observant of what’s going on around them.

“I wish students would be more aware of their surroundings,” Gunawan said. “Obviously, we all have things to do, and we’re busy, but when you’re in the way of someone, and you’re not paying attention, it’s hard to see what’s right in front of [me].” 

Amidst a global pandemic, Gunawan asks professors to show a little more compassion, as everyone is handling life at their own speed.

“Professors have been pretty understanding, but some of them don’t realize that we’re going through things besides academics, and we have other things to balance in life,” she said.

Gunawan doesn’t have all the answers, but she envisions a place where everyone can feel uplifted and valued. 

“Accessibility is a process,” she said. “There’s no one answer to fix all the issues, but as long as we work towards a common ground, then, in the end, everyone should feel supported in one way or another.”