Panel addresses ableism and accessibility at UND
The University can and should take steps to improve its accessibility, UND community members say
Hunter Pinke, a UND graduate who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2019 skiing accident, had a simple message for attendees at a recent book-study launch: “I think the University of North Dakota can be a leader in making people with disabilities feel welcome, like they belong on campus.”
But as Pinke and other panelists said when they described their experiences navigating academia’s often-unaccommodating spaces, UND still has a ways to go to achieve that goal.
UND’s Teaching Transformation and Development Academy program sponsored the panel as part of a spring semester book study of “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education” by Jay Timothy Dolmage. The panel was meant to provide a platform for UND faculty as well as current and former UND students with disabilities.
Dolmage’s book focuses on the systemic barriers faced by people with disabilities at academic institutions. Lauded by members of the panel, the book offers important insights into the experiences that people with disabilities encounter in higher education.
Anne Kelsch, TTaDA’s director of faculty development as well the panel’s moderator, says that the book does important work by “asking you to rethink the structure of how we operate in terms of access.” Plus, “with a focus of UND’s strategic plan being equity and inclusion, this seemed like the right moment to really dive into it,” she added.
A panel of four UND community members including faculty and current and former students met via Zoom on Feb. 15 to discuss their experiences navigating UND’s campus and curriculum as people with disabilities.
From inflexible curricula to uncut curbs, many aspects of the campus environment prove to be difficult or outright inaccessible to students and faculty with disabilities, the panelists said. These inconveniences, which may be minor annoyances to able-bodied people, can compound to make the campus environment seem hostile for some in the campus community.
That’s why having conversations such as the panel’s is essential to creating a more inclusive campus, Pinke said.
“Every little bit, whether it be a curb that’s not cut out, or a door’s automatic open button not working, these things start stacking things on top of each other. And eventually, you start to think these things might not be really important here,” he explained.
Pinke, who’s now an architecture student at the University of Arizona, has taken a great interest in accessibility design. To that point, one of the reasons he landed in Arizona was the school’s consistently high placement as one of the most accessible universities in the country, he said.
“At the University of Arizona, they make a point to have people whose job is to go around campus and look for errors and fix them to make people feel welcome,” Pinke said. At UND, on the other hand, “new buildings are being built to code, but that code is still very minimal. One thing that I think would help UND would be to get a disability consultant or advocate for the university on every new build.”
James Grijalva, professor of law at UND, concurred. In addition, more consideration could be put in to helping people with disabilities navigate a campus they are unfamiliar with, he suggested.
“One thing that’s occurred to me,” he said, “is that there is very little signage to tell you where accessible doors are. At the law school, you may only have to travel 50 feet around the corner; but if you’re not from here, you wouldn’t know that.”
Sherry Fieber-Beyer, an assistant professor in UND’s Space Studies program, mentioned that she, too, often feels that UND’s architecture and roads can be limiting to people with disabilities. This is a problem, she stressed, which could be partially remedied by placing a greater importance on paratransit services for UND faculty, staff, and students.
Fieber-Beyer, who has been paralyzed since the age of 19 due to a car accident, says that coming from being a student at a fully accessible school to UND has given her a unique perspective on improvements that could be made to UND’s disability services. And one of her most important concerns is inadequate transportation.
“I rely on what is called paratransit to take me to and fro. You have to schedule your rides far in advance,” she said. Moreover, the current paratransit system available to faculty members with disabilities is limited — and even with paratransit services, getting to and from work remains difficult.
“The university does have a particular van that will take disabled students from building to building, but that’s not available to faculty,” she explained. “That’s one thing that I would advocate that the university does include in making the campus more accessible.”
Speaking after the forum, online Psychology student and panel member Stephanie Yarnell said that one area where she thinks UND excels is through the University’s Self-Paced Enroll Anytime programs. Yarnell has medical issues that require frequent trips to the doctor, which impact her ability to complete semester-based courses.
“I’ve studied at several universities, but every time I’d run into the issue of the courses being semester-based, and it just doesn’t fit with what I have going on in my life,” she explained. “After doing a lot of searching, I found the SPEA program at UND, so I got in touch with Catherine Olson at their office. So far, it’s been going really well for me.”
Yarnell said that she believes that SPEA programs are a “golden opportunity” for UND, given that many people with disabilities or medical conditions cannot commit to the fixed schedule of a regular semester-based program.
“That’s a big barrier for us,” she said. “So, to expand the SPEA program would open the doors up to so many people who are currently excluded. Right now the courses are limited, but with the technological advances in the wake of COVID, it could be expanded to be so much more.”
Yarnell, who is also an active participant on UND’s Senate Online and Distance Education Committee and Campus Accessibility Working Group, also elaborated on a statement she made during the panel’s discussion on disability and identity: her reluctance to be labeled an inspiration for being a person with disabilities in academia.
While people with disabilities aren’t monolithic and hold a wide variety of opinions on the topic, Yarnell feels alienated by such labels and sees implications that can hurt other disabled people. “There are significant disparities in terms of poverty and access that can create insurmountable barriers for a lot of disabled people. Singling out those of us in academia can devalue others,” Yarnell explained.
The good news, she said, is that panel discussions such as this one on “Academic Ableism” offer a chance for able-bodied and disabled people to work on a solution together. “We can do this together as equals and as peers. We can work together to reframe attitudes and restructure the systems that perpetuate ableism,” she said.
Dr. Kelsch of TTaDA said that much like the panel discussion that launched its study, the book may be uncomfortable for some people to read. This discomfort, though, is a necessary part of the process of creating a more inclusive campus.
TTaDA will hold more events in the future that are focused on disability, Kelsch said. “Since the panel, I’ve gotten multiple requests to do a panel focused on invisible disability,” a category that includes conditions such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness and cognitive dysfunctions, she said. “I’m hoping we can do that and offer it in the next couple of weeks.”
While registration for discussion groups on “Academic Ableism” are now closed, Kelsch said that she encourages interested parties to read or listen to the book and attend the wrap-up session on April 13.
TTaDA’s full Feb. 15 panel recording can be viewed here.