Phillips: AccessibleNU must do a better job for disabled, injured students

Ruby Phillips, Columnist

Over spring break, I suffered a nondisplaced fracture of the proximal tibia. Though this experience was incredibly painful in the moment, it did not compare to the terrible and cumbersome hurdles I have had to jump since returning to Northwestern as someone whose physical abilities have been temporarily hindered. Of course, in no way does my injury compare to those of disabled people who struggle with these issues on a daily basis in a much more real way, nor does my experience try to speak for these individuals, but I hope this account can push Northwestern and AccessibleNU to be more accommodating.

Once I got back from break, I immediately realized everything was harder. It took impossibly long to get to all my classes, especially if I had a 10-minute passing period, and I had to drop one of my classes in Technological Institute because I couldn’t get there in time. I constantly had to walk up steep flights of stairs. I couldn’t hold my food in the dining hall, and most of the service elevators I took were extremely slow. I just felt embarrassed.

I looked into ways AccessibleNU could help me. The only seemingly helpful offer was having a class moved to a different building, but ultimately this would simply be equally inconvenient for other students in my class. Furthermore, life at NU is very walking-heavy. Even with ramps, it is incredibly hard to get from class to class in a timely fashion, and University Police or AccessibleNU provides no means of supplemental transportation, other than shuttles. Most academic buildings have ramps and elevators, with the exception of Locy Hall. However, some dormitories do not have elevators and if they do, some don’t go all the way up the building. Although I could have moved to the first floor of my dorm, that process would have been long, inconvenient and ostracizing.

But the most frustrating part about my experience on crutches hasn’t been these nuisances; rather, it has been the overall emotional discomfort. I have seen a general lack of empathy from students on this campus for people on crutches or with physical obstacles. I know this feeling is temporary and that some people deal with it every day, but every person I have spoken to assumes I am in complete agony and makes comments implying that even the small things I do — like tying my shoe or drinking from a water fountain — seem pathetic. People automatically feel sorry for me, but maybe students should shift their mindset about injured and disabled people. Instead of expressing pity, people should remember times in their lives when they have felt similarly, or if they cannot, then simply try to empathize with different struggles in general. We all want people to understand what we are going through and to feel reciprocated — probably the most critical thing I’ve learned since being on crutches.

In applying to colleges, I never had to look into how accessible campuses were, or how accommodating administrations would be, but this experience has opened my eyes to the numerous ways NU and the student population, myself included, have failed to serve disabled students. In recent years, while 80 percent of high school students with disabilities list post-secondary education as a goal, only 60 percent actually enroll.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11.1 percent of all college students had a disability as of 2012. During his term, former president Barack Obama took steps to help disabled people have their student loan debts forgiven. With changes like these, I assume some portion of new students will be looking for important factors related to accessibility. How will this community welcome and accept new students that it cannot properly provide for? If NU claims to be a diverse campus that represents all identities, it must provide a climate that supports, empathizes with and accommodates for disabled students more than it currently does.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.