At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, it’s not unusual to see a student going to class in a wheelchair, holding the leash of a loyal guide dog or using sign language.
The university has gradually created a reputation of being disability-friendly since 1972, when a student showed up to campus in a wheelchair. His arrival initiated the implementation of accommodations for facilities and programs to ensure the student would receive a quality education.
According to Disability Services Coordinator Betsy Brandt, the student’s arrival helped UW-Whitewater declare their special mission within the UW-System: to provide supportive programs and services for students with disabilities.
John Truesdale, a former special education teacher filled with passion, kick started the disability program, which led him to become the Director of what is now the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD).
The current UW-Whitewater enrollment count for 2016-17 is 12,433 and CSD records state that 757 of those students at UW-Whitewater have a disability.
The university has seen growing numbers through the years. According to statistics from the UW-System Summary Report of Data Services for Students with Disabilities from 2008, compared to data from current 2016-17 CSD enrollment, there has been an increase of 317 more students with disabilities within eight years.
12 percent of the current student population has a disability. Of that, roughly four percent willingly receive services.
Although UW-Whitewater provides mandated and non-mandated services that ranks the university as the twentieth most accessible campus according to Collegechoice.net data updated in 2017, there are growing concerns throughout the university that call for change and attention.
These issues spell out the possible reasons why the university doesn’t hold the number one college accessibility rank.
Wheelchair Basketball Speaks Out
UW-Whitewater’s Wheelchair Basketball program holds 17 national championships, 14 from the men’s team established in 1973 and three from the women’s team created in 2008.
The program has proved excellence to the campus, but support seems to fall short.
“For the hours of work we put in, the lack of fans is tough,” Men’s Wheelchair basketball head coach Jeremy Lade said. “Just because we aren’t considered part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and are a Rec Sport, doesn’t mean there is any less effort or competition.”
Although fan turnout has slowly improved throughout the years, Wheelchair Athletics would like to see packed stands with students willing to come, as opposed fulfilling a class requirement or receiving extra credit.
UW-Whitewater Wheelchair Athletics, a Division III school, play much larger Division I universities such as University of Illinois and University of Nebraska. Despite the size difference, the teams bring home championship titles. The teams also match up against University of Alabama, which is currently working on building a $10 million facility solely for wheelchair athletics.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the schools we compete against have a ton of money from scholarships while we nickel and dime,” Lade said. “We work extremely hard.”
The 18 individuals on the men’s team and eight women on the women’s side follow the same practice schedule as NCAA athletes, complete with grueling workouts and more than 12 hours a week of gym time.
Lade said he holds his players to high standards. He enforces that there shouldn’t be a reason or excuse not get things done because of a disability. He believes that backing down from a challenge or adversity is not acceptable.
In addition to the hard work put in on a daily basis, Wheelchair Athletics tries to change the common misconception that players find reward only in participation.
“We play a sport, not just a rehabilitation sport,” Lade said. “We are continually working towards people focusing more on the game as opposed to people asking how we play or focus only on our chairs.”
To communicate this message to future college students, Lade and women’s head coach and three-time Paralympic gold medalist Christina Schwab created a program called Cornerstones for Success. The program dispels myths about people with disabilities.
During presentations to elementary, middle and high school students, wheelchair basketball players share their own experiences. They give the audience a better understanding of their lives. The presentation allows younger students to see the players for their ability, not their disability; a view that can be transferred to college.
On average, the teams give 60 on-and-off campus presentations per year, making around $50,000. The program is used as their largest fundraiser.
On campus, Lade said he would like to see more recognition, like many other sports would. While the teams are comfortable with their gym space, Wheelchair Athletics ideal dream is to have a facility in the centrality of campus.
Perkins Stadium, Fiskum Field, the DLK Kachel Fieldhouse and the Williams Center are a two-minute walk from one another, located in the heart of the UW-Whitewater campus. Wheelchair Athletics practice in Roseman Gym, which is an estimated 15-minute walk from the hot spot of athletics.
In the future, Lade and Schwab would like to see a continuum of support, especially in regards to seeing Wheelchair basketball as a true sport and not a rehabilitation activity.
“Winning is cool and we plan to continue that, but making a difference and spreading that awareness is cooler,” Lade said.
Fix what is broken
In 2015, Fricker and Arey Hall, two of the 13 residence halls on campus, were renovated.
Frank Bartlett, Director of University Housing, said the “link” model, which connects the two dormitories, is the future for the rest of university housing. The renovation made students with disabilities a priority, using laminate floors for easy wheelchair accessibility and off-set hinges to access any room.
The total cost to upgrade the buildings was $12.2 million, which was funded solely by student dorm fees.
While the new features are appealing, students with disabilities regularly experience difficulty with the building after the large amount of money was put into the project.
“Nine times out of ten, the elevator doesn’t work,” freshman Rachel Tournier said. “When I moved into a new building, I didn’t expect it to always be broken down.”
Bigelow and Benson halls were initially next on the list for renovations, in part because Benson does not have an elevator.
Plans have changed, and a completely new residence hall across from Fischer was approved in the 2013-15 biennial budget, according to Jeff Arnold, vice chancellor of administrative affairs. The new residence hall will cost an estimated $34 million and is scheduled to open in fall 2019.
“Before money is spent on other things, the university’s focus should be to keep everything that is considered accessible, updated,” senior and president of Moving Onward to Disability Empowerment (MODE) student organization Jada Avila said.
Students in wheelchairs rely on elevators and handicapped accessible doors around campus to attend class. They often experience difficulty when trying to get from building to building.
“At least one door in the University Center that is considered accessible is broken,” freshman and Education Outreach Coordinator of MODE, Ben Spengel said. “The door to enter Warhawk Alley rarely works and I usually have to try several before getting in.”
Spengel and Avila said University Center maintenance reiterates that the doors are fixed once a request is received, but the malfunctions seem to happen frequently. The University Center maintenance staff was unable to provide breakdown records.
Lade takes breakdowns into consideration when it comes to athletes following the academic standards. They must be present in class, but Lade realizes these incidents happen, usually at least a few times a semester.
“I don’t accept a lot of excuses,” Lade said. “But if an athlete can’t make it to class because of a mechanical issue, there’s nothing they can do to control that.”
On Feb. 22, Whitewater Student Government presidential candidate Thomas Kind contacted MODE, a student organization with a mission to advocate and educate all students and the community about the different disabilities both on campus and in society.
He wanted to hear about disability concerns to incorporate their input as part of his campaign.
Aside from awareness issues, MODE members discussed the issues regarding accessibility in academic buildings.
“There are new benches in the University Center, but elevators are still broken which doesn’t seem logical or fair,” Avila said.
Kind, who previously worked with University Center maintenance, said that the proper equipment to fix the elevators can’t be purchased because the elevators are too old. He plans to address this issue, as he is now president of Whitewater Student Government after the March election.
Many of the older buildings on campus create barriers for both students and professors.
“Winther is the worst on campus,” associate professor of special education Rowand Robinson said. “I have to make sure my classes are on the first floor or I risk the chance that students won’t be able to be there.”
On April 20, the university send out a mass email to inform all students and faculty that the elevator in Winther was operable. Faculty was responsible for changing their classrooms, and students were responsible for contacting their instructors to let them know if the outage impacted their ability to attend class.
The initial breakdown email stated the elevator was expected to be out for the remainder of the day or even longer. The elevator was not operable until May 1, nearly three weeks after the breakdown.
With an array of potential renovation plans in the midst, MODE, Wheelchair Athletics and faculty hope to see accessibility reliability as well as upgrades.
Invisible is Important
When one thinks about disability, the mind often immediately goes to wheelchairs or a visible difference in an individual.
“We’re considered a campus that embraces diversity and is accessible but we don’t do anything about it,” Avila said. “We may recognize someone in a wheelchair, but it’s much more than that.”
Of the 757 students on campus with a disability in the 2016-17 school year, Disability Services Coordinator at CSD Graciela Colin-Dealca said that only 53 of those students have a physical disability.
Physical disabilities rank as one of the lowest categories but has the most emphasis because of visibility.
The highest disability category is learning disabilities, which accounts for 173 students.
The other categories include:
- 152 with a health condition
- 144 with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- 84 with mental health
- 74 with Asperger’s/Autism spectrum
“CSD and the campus in general needs to work on educating the campus community more on the invisible disabilities,” Brandt said.
Brandt believes universal design in all residential and academic buildings and not just in Starin Hall will help all students, but specifically those with invisible disabilities.
UW-Whitewater’s Policy for Universal Design states that the underlying goal is inclusivity. The purpose is to design products or services for the fullest range of human function, taking into account not only the physical, but also the sensory, cognitive and language needs or abilities of the broadest spectrum.
The third principle in the policy is for simple and intuitive use, meaning the design is easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge or concentration level and accommodates a wide range of literacy and language skills.
“If the university incorporates more universal design, it will help take every student into account,” Brandt said. “It’s the subtle features such as options for modes on devices or options for communication that make a big difference for anyone.”
In addition to building design, there are other visual ways to address the importance of invisible disabilities.
A common debate among MODE organization members brings forth an element that some believe may limit what others consider a disability. The logo for the organization, which is seen everywhere from Facebook to apparel, is a student in a wheelchair.
“We’re buying into that idea that disabilities are all physical disabilities,” Brandt said. “On the other hand, it is a universal symbol that is recognizable, so we stuck with it.”
As president of the organization, Avila said it was a debate she lost due to majority in favor of keeping the logo. In the upcoming years, Avila and a select number of members would like to see it change in hopes that students will view disability as a broader category.
“Awareness of eating disorders, depression or bipolar disorder are equally important to be informed about,” Vice President of MODE, Amy Vanderheyden said.
This year, MODE took part in Eating Disorder Awareness Week on Feb. 26 to March 4 and plan to attend the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) conference in May to learn steps on how to educate the campus in the future.
“More events on campus about these invisible disabilities will help,” Brandt said. “The more exposure, the better.”
Only four percent of students with disabilities willingly receive services and from Brandt’s seven years of experience at CSD, she recognizes why.
A large number of students on Brandt’s caseload have ADHD or learning disabilities and lack confidence.
“Some of the students grow up feeling as if they are stupid and it breaks my heart,” Brandt said.
She believes these attitudes transfer from how they were treated in high school. Some students were bullied and often carry baggage, making them hesitant to receive services because of what others may think of them.
“It’s really sad students feel ashamed to go because that means they are not embracing who they are to their full potential,” Avila said.
Brandt feels it would be beneficial to find a way to show students that there is nothing to be ashamed of, while still receiving help needed to succeed.
CSD currently offers non-mandated programs such as Project Assist, a program that provides comprehensive and individualized support services and a Summer Transition Program with coursework to help prepare for college classes.
Together, the programs cost anywhere from $3,000-$5,000 depending on the student’s Wisconsin Resident status; money that some students may not be able to afford coming into college.
“We would like to try to find more ways to blur that line to make students feel confident and not ashamed,” Brandt said. “That starts with being an accepting and aware campus.”
Lack of education leads to low awareness
Although 12 percent of the campus population has a disability, there are only four student organizations, including MODE, that support and promote awareness.
The three other organizations include Delta Alpha Pi, Best Buddies and the American Sign Language Committee.
“Within the last year, MODE really went downhill as far as retention,” Avila said. “That’s why we are trying to recruit on a regular basis because we aren’t like Black Student Union, we don’t have fifty dedicated members who come every week.”
The common misconception for low participation addressed by Brandt is that students automatically think they need to have a disability to be part of the organization, which is not the case.
“Everyone is welcome,” Avila said. “Ideally, I want the room completely full.”
MODE’s overall mission is to advocate and educate all students and the community about the different disabilities both on campus and in society.
While having a disability or not affects retention, MODE executive board members feel the biggest factor is that some people are still not comfortable around those who have disabilities.
“A lot of students are under the impression that people with disabilities automatically need help,” Avila said. “People with disabilities aren’t literally disabled.”
This is not only an issue for students, but it also a problem for professors as well. Avila has witnessed this type of interaction in the classroom.
She recalls a professor approaching her on how to help an individual in the class and she responded by saying, “we’re people, ask him.”
This assumption of constant need for assistance and being underestimated hits home for Avila. She is an individual with spastic and dyskinetic cerebral palsy and depression. She hates the word “disabled.”
“Disabled means not working and I work my tail off every day,” Avila said. “I identify myself as differently-abled because I get up every day, go to school, come home, sleep and it’s a typical day in the neighborhood.”
Avila has experienced this kind of stigma throughout her whole life. In elementary and middle school, she was placed in special education classes even though she scored high enough to test out of them. Teachers didn’t think she could keep up.
In high school, faculty had bets about whether or not she would be accepted into college.
She has proved everyone wrong. Avila will graduate in December 2017 with a degree in Social Work and is working on her applications for graduate school to receive her Masters.
Avila uses her life-changing obstacles as a base for her disability advocacy and awareness on campus. She initiated the two-month planning process for UW-Whitewater’s first annual Disability Day on March 14.
The all-day event began at 11 a.m. with a luncheon in the Warhawk Connection Center, followed by simulations and card making stations in the Hamilton Room.
Avila held a discussion, where she addressed how important it is to spread awareness, embrace acceptance and kill stereotypes. She informed the audience about differences between visible and invisible disabilities, person-first language and shared her own personal story.
The goal was to have every individual leave Disability Day with a mission and break down the division between those with or without disabilities.
“We can all spread the message,” Avila said during her speech. “Awareness does not stay in this room and we can all make a difference to help everyone feel confident and beautiful.”
Out of more than 12,000 students on campus, 40 showed up to Disability Day and six people attended the MODE follow-up meeting.
While the participation is not where MODE would like it to be, it was a potential starting point and an eye-opener to see the lack of awareness on campus.
As years go on, MODE and CSD hope that events such as Disability Day helps students and faculty realize the impact they can have.
“I’m an individual with a disability and this is what I live for,” Avila said. “I walk out the door and people automatically see who I am, but if someone without a disability were to put on an event along with other able-bodied people, that would kill the stigma.”
Vanderheyden, who does not have a disability, feels that if society and other people without a disability start to put in the work, the line between people with or without disabilities can be blurred, paving the way for equality.
Plans for the future
In March, Avila attended a meeting held by Artanya Wesley, the Dean of Students, on behalf of MODE.
Although it is not confirmed, there is a high probability that Student Segregated Fees Allocation Committee (SUFAC), a bill that funds a number of programs and student organizations will cease to exist in the 2017-18 academic year.
Without SUFAC, events like Disability Day are not possible. In Avila’s proposal, she suggested coming up with ways to bring in sponsors and create other programs to unite the campus community.
While the idea is in still in the works, Avila said others at the meeting were on board. Before graduation in December, Avila plans to work hand-in-hand with Wesley to help make a Disability Day alternative in place for March.
Vanderheyden plans to assist Avila in this process. The MODE executive board is hopeful that the organization will live on with the passionate members.
Overall, the organization and CSD would like to see other groups develop that will initiate change. The goal is to help resolve issues to make a better functioning, aware, accepting and united campus.
“Within this disability community, we don’t stop,” Avila said.