The main entrance of a building is not always an option for student Leah Joslyn.
Born with a spinal disability, Joslyn (junior-psychology) uses a wheelchair as she navigates life at University Park, a campus that has made strides toward improving accessibility.
One of the main contributors to these developments is the University Access Committee.
“The University Access Committee approaches accessibility holistically and seeks to provide features congruent with known [Americans with Disabilities Act] priorities,” Dwayne Witmer, ADA Faculties Access Coordinator, said. “We provide accessible pathways, curb ramps, facility entrances, power-door operators, restrooms, wheelchair-lifts, platform-lifts, elevators, water fountains, tactile warnings, tutoring centers, as well as general upgrades to achieve structural compliance.”
Currently, the UAC is working to provide tactile warning indicators to the raised crosswalks on campus to aid visually impaired students, to upgrade six of the accessible restrooms in Walker Building and one bathroom in the Telecommunications Building, and to install a power-door operator for the Nittany Parking Deck.
The committee is also constructing a pedestrian connection accessible route at the Hosler and Deike buildings, an accessible entrance and ramp on the west side of Ritenour Building and is conducting a study to determine opportunities to enhance restrooms in the Boucke Building.
Of all the schools Joslyn toured, she said University Park was one of the most accessible.
In Joslyn’s home state of Wisconsin, she said accessibility was not as readily available as it is in other, larger towns. Consequently, she decided to tour universities in other states, one of them being Penn State.
She added that because Penn State is a large, public school, they are required to implement certain accessibility aspects to the campus, such as ramps and elevators.
“When I [took my tour], I had a really great tour guide who took the time to say ‘Hey Leah, this is not an entrance you can go to, but let me show you the routes you have available to you that don’t involve stairs,’” Joslyn said.
For instance, Joslyn said she has a lot of classes in Willard Building, which is a fairly easy building to access. There is a ramp outside the northern entrance of the building that provides easy access to her classes.
However, for buildings such as Sparks, Joslyn said she has a much harder time getting to class. After entering the building, Joslyn has to find an elevator to reach the floor her classes are on.
Sackett is another building that Joslyn said is difficult to navigate.
“To my knowledge there is only one [accessibility entrance] and it’s in the back of the building,” Joslyn said. “It’s really hard to get to that building if [the route] is blocked off.”
Snow, for example, is a common barrier when getting to class, so the winter creates another obstacle for Joslyn. However, as a Wisconsin native Joslyn said she has experience navigating rough winters with her wheelchair.
“But I mean it’s still hard, you know, it’s weather,” Joslyn said. “There have been times last semester when we had that really bad [snowfall] but classes weren’t canceled and I couldn’t get to class.”
She said she had to make the ultimate decision to miss class on those days because she did not want to risk falling and hurting herself.
For the most part, Joslyn said her teachers “get accessibility and disability issues right off the bat” and have been accommodating to her needs, especially around the winter time.
Student Disability Services also emails her after a bad snow storm to ask which routes she needs plowed first.
Recently, Joslyn said she has been exploring campus and looking at the accessibility of each building. To her knowledge, all buildings are equipped with accessibility routes.
Yet there are days, she still can’t use those options.
“One thing that I do run into is things blocking accessibility entrances,” Joslyn said. “For example in Sackett… there has been construction blocking [the entrance], there have been bikes blocking it.”
Accessibility additions are also being implemented at branch campuses. Witmer said they are constructing an accessible pathway to connect student housing to the main campus area at Penn State Berks and at Penn State York, they are creating an accessible route connecting the Graham Center for Innovation and Collaboration to the main campus mall area.
“Accessibility at Penn State is in a constant state of change and improvement,” Witmer said.
Since the establishment of the University Access Committee in 1993 — three years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became a law — the committee has been addressing accessibility concerns.
“We have come very far as a University, and we all know we have a lot more to do,” Witmer said. “It’s important to me for everyone to understand that achieving accessibility is a process. My goal is to work hard every day and to leave Penn State better than I found it the day before.”
Alongside the University Access Committee, Witmer said different organizations on campus all play vital roles in the implementation of accessibility accommodations on campus. He mentioned Housing, Food Services, Intercollegiate Athletics, Transportation and Physical Plant as pivotal groups.
Leah Zimmerman, executive director of the university’s Student Disability Resources (SDR) office said that students are always welcome to change their accommodations with Student Disability Resources as their needs change during their time at Penn State.
“Accommodations are fluid and may vary from student to student, class to class, and semester to semester,” Zimmerman said.
Resources available to students who use a wheelchair include priority registration, early snow removal and assistive technology if the student believes it would be helpful.
The SDR also offers a scholarship, funded through the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation that provides funding to students with a spinal cord injury.
“Our office offers a Transition Academy, which provides high school students with disabilities an opportunity to come to campus for a day to experience college life,” Zimmerman said. “Workshops are designed for students to learn about Penn State; how and when to connect with a disability office; and how to be a self-advocate.”
Cassie Kizis, a Penn State student, is also in the works to make the university more accessible.
In mid-September, Kizis (junior-geography) began planning a new club at Penn State, one that would focus on accessibility and advocacy for disability rights while creating a safe environment for members to find support among fellow students passionate about the same cause.
“I think it’s important to build this fellowship now so that after college we can fight for better accessibility,” Kizis said.
The idea came to Kizis two years ago during her brief stint writing for The Daily Collegian. Kizis said she was writing an article about accessibility on campus and was inspired by the passion her interviewees had for the issue.
Her fellow students’ passion coupled with Kizis’ own disability — hearing loss — inspired her to join the Student Access Committee as a student representative to learn more about accessibility on campus.
The committee is comprised of Penn State workers and student representatives “who are dedicated to addressing various accessibility projects from smaller scale projects like renovating bathrooms to larger scale projects like redoing walkways and making buildings more accessible,” according to Kizis.
From research and experience, Kizis said she believes, like Joslyn, that Penn State is a relatively accessible campus compared to other universities.
Kizis said the University Advising Council and Student Disability Resources typically evaluate accessibility concerns on a case-by-case basis, working with each student to provide the necessary accommodations.
“The process involves establishing a need, having the issue vetted, determining possible solutions, design, permitting if necessary, securing funding, hiring of Penn State renovation services or an outside vendor and execution,” Witmer said.
Witmer said this process is standard for the installation of a new accessibility features, such as a ramp or modification to a dorm room.
Kizis said she appreciated the thorough nature of evaluating the accessibility needs of each individual, given the individualized nature of each request. However, she also expressed concern for larger scale issues where resolution would benefit more people.
“I think there are some broader scale issues, like the evacuation issue, that need attention and can’t be assessed on a case-by-case basis,” Kizis said.
There are always improvements to be made, according to Kizis, and the club is designed to combine the ideas of students on campus to improve Penn State accessibility.
Joslyn, is one student in particular that has been working with Kizis to make her idea come to fruition.
“This had been a project that I had always wanted to start, however, didn’t necessarily know how,” Joslyn said, “so as soon as [Kizis] sent the message [about the club] I was like ‘Yes, count me in for that.’”
Given university approval to establish the club next semester, Kizis is excited to become a recognized club and begin tackling accessibility issues on campus.
“On one hand, we do want to be a space for students to meet and talk about issues that are important to them and find comradery and fellowship in people who care about similar issues,” Kizis said. “But on the other hand, there are real issues that we’d like to address and take action on.”
Kizis outlined one issue — dorm accessibility — as being a top priority of the club. She said that all dorms are not equally accessible, which can make it difficult for a student with a disability to visit their friends in other dorms.
“I think that’s a really important part of the student experience [to be able to visit friends], especially first years getting to know people,” Kizis said.
Joslyn recalled her experience with on-campus housing after accepting her offer to attend Penn State three years ago. She said she contacted Jennifer Garvin, director of Ancillary Services, to get the necessary accommodations for her dorm room.
She said she asked for a bigger dorm room, swipe access that physically opened the door and an accessible bathroom. She said that Garvin was very accommodating and worked with her to get the necessary amenities.
Joslyn lived in North Halls for her first two years at Penn State before moving to Eastview Terrace for her junior year. Again, Joslyn said Garvin helped her transition into her new living situation with the required amenities.
“I love the accessibility in [Eastview Terrace] and it’s a lot bigger than my old one,” Joslyn said.
The only problem Joslyn recalled from her time in North Halls was access to the emergency exit in the event of a fire. During fire drills, she said her dorm room was far away from the exit she needed to leave the building, which posed a problem potential should there be an emergency.
Evacuation routes in buildings is another concern Kizis wants to address.
The current evacuation procedure outlined on the Student Disability Resources webpage is “not very comprehensive in the event of an emergency,” Kizis said, which can leave students with a disability feeling unsafe in the event of a fire or other emergency.
In high school, Joslyn acquired advocacy experience, working with her hometown community to improve her high school’s evacuation procedure for students with disabilities.
Before intervening, Joslyn said the evacuation policy listed two exits for students with disabilities on upper levels of the building, both requiring teachers to carry the wheelchair down the steps.
Joslyn found multiple liability issues with the policy and worked with faculty and school board members to improve the policy.
“I genuinely enjoy advocacy,” Joslyn said. “It brings me a lot of joy.”
Thus far, interested members of the upcoming disability-related club have met to discuss their agenda for next semester and to get to know each other better.
The group is predominantly comprised of students with disabilities, but Kizis said one group member without a disability has identified herself as an ally to people with disabilities.
“It’s not a club where people are going to question the degree to which someone has a disability because sometimes what you find is that people with an invisible disability — sometimes their accessibility needs aren’t taken as seriously as someone with a visible disability,” Kizis said.
Both Joslyn and Kizis said they recognized most of the members through involvement with different organizations, but there were some new faces, which they are both excited to get to know.
“One thing that I’ve always wanted to have, especially since I’m from so far away [from home] is just a community that I can relate to,” Joslyn said. “Just a group of students with disabilities that get why I’m frustrated about an elevator not working properly or why I’m frustrated about a bike on a ramp without me having to explain it.”
Because she comes from a small town where few people had visible disabilities, Joslyn said she was not previously able to find a community who understood what she was going through until she joined the track team for students with disabilities at Penn State.
“I kind of became that person [in my hometown] that people come to when there was an issue with disabilities because I was so outspoken about it because it is something I care so deeply about,” Joslyn said.
She said she has experienced a variety of reactions from people upon seeing her wheelchair.
In general, Joslyn said she is very open to talk about her disability and answer questions, a personality trait she attributed to her upbringing.
“My parents taught me never to be apologetic for my disability or the fact that I need certain accommodations,” Joslyn said.
However, some questions cross the boundary of curiosity and are too personal, to the point where she does not feel comfortable answering them.
“You definitely get people who are really rude,” Joslyn said. “I’ve had a lot of really ignorant comments, just using the wrong terminology when referring to people with disabilities.”