University of Georgia student Tyler Burrell poses for a portrait with her service dog on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Ryan Cameron rcameron@randb.com)

When Tyler Burrell was assigned to a class in Peabody Hall her sophomore year, it was virtually impossible for her to get around due to her physical disability. Often times, pain from her conditions makes it difficult to move around campus without her wheelchair or walker, which makes finding elevators necessary.

Navigating the many hills and countless sets of stairs on the University of Georgia campus with relative ease is something many people take for granted. Yet for students like Burrell, it’s not as simple. Along with other disabled students, she must rely on mindful construction and resources from the Disability Resource Center.

In order to accommodate Burrell’s needs, the UGA DRC relocated the entire class from Peabody Hall to the Zell B. Miller Learning Center. But within a week, Burrell’s professor changed the location back to Peabody Hall — unaware of Burrell’s condition.

“I can’t even really explain the onslaught of emotion that came over me when I realized that this woman had moved the class back to where she had been told it was inaccessible for a student,” Burrell said. “I felt so embarrassed and guilty, like it was somehow my fault.”

Now a senior, this incident would be one of Burrell’s many adversities on the campus.

Limited accessibility

Burrell is a senior international affairs and communications double major and member of the Disability Resource Center Speakers Bureau, a student advocacy group. She has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which require her to use a wheelchair, walker or service dog. When she is experiencing less pain, however, her disability is not noticeable to others.

Peabody Hall is one of the many older buildings on North Campus that is difficult to navigate, as much of UGA’s campus was built in the mid-1800’s to mid-1900’s, long before the 1990 implementation of the American with Disabilities Act. While the university ensures all new construction is ADA compliant, many older buildings were not designed with accessibility in mind.

“There are very narrow doorways, a narrow stairwell, there’s no elevator,” Burrell said about Peabody. “I can’t have classes in that building because it’s not accessible.”

Many disabled students utilize services offered by UGA’s DRC to combat these struggles. Students can register for accommodations by submitting an online application and documentation of their disability. Each student who registers is assigned a DRC coordinator to review their accommodations and work alongside the student to determine their needs in the classroom and around campus.

Students can use the Paratransit Service, which offers curb-to-curb van service for students with physical impairments. Provided by UGA Parking and Transportation Services, students can schedule recurring trips or use the on-demand service through the DRC.

“While our mission is to ensure equal educational opportunities as required by the ADA and other legislation, the DRC strives to promote a welcoming academic, physical, and social environment for students with disabilities at UGA,” said Stan Jackson, UGA director of student affairs communications and marketing initiatives, in an email.

Funding and prioritizing projects to increase accessibility are jointly determined by members of the DRC, Equal Opportunity Office and Office of University Architects and Facilities Management Division. According to UGA spokesperson Rebecca Beeler, UGA receives annual funding from the state to address “deferred maintenance and improvements” as part of the Major Repair & Rehabilitation process, which is used for accessibility projects.

The university completed summer construction on Herty Mall, which improved ADA accessibility.

University spokesperson Greg Trevor said the primary focus was “to improve upon accessible parking, walking routes, and facility entry conditions.” Additionally, Trevor said Brumby Hall’s $53.8 million renovation, “will have upgrades to meet the current ADA code.”

Lili Byce, a recent UGA graduate, has lupus. She said one of the most frustrating parts of navigating campus was finding parking spots designated for people with disabilities being used by people that were not disabled. The only thing Bryce could do was send a picture to Parking Services to resolve the issue, which often took a while.

Accessibility challenges are not limited to buildings and parking. For some, lack of accommodations prevents them from taking part in one of UGA’s most famous traditions — passing through the Arch.

Disabilities graphic

UGA students in wheelchairs have difficulty participating in a pivotal UGA tradition: passing under the Arch after graduating.

While the university has set up temporary ramps in the past, students have called for the installation of a permanent ramp so disabled students can take part in the tradition. In 2015, UGA denied the request on the basis that it would threaten the Arch’s “historic significance.”

“A lot of students don’t have to consider what it’s like to have a disability until they get up close and personal,” Byce said.

Empathizing firsthand

“Up close and personal” is what kinesiology professor Kevin McCully had in mind with his First Year Odyssey Seminar, “Communicating with People with Disabilities,” where students learn about the disabled experience.

For one of the assignments, McCully has half of his students sit in a wheelchair while the other half of the class are blindfolded and responsible for pushing the wheelchairs around campus. During the activity, students utilize accommodations around campus, such as talking crosswalks, to safely travel around. McCully hopes to relay the importance of communication and the difficulty of moving around campus with a disability.

McCully said the university has many adaptations and is willing to implement more, though much of the responsibility lies on students to request services. While UGA has a budget to ensure accommodations, they can’t provide everything, he said.

“What we teach our students is that if you go to a class and there isn’t an automatically opening door or if there isn’t a ramp, the university will put it in, but you have to ask for that,” McCully said. “If you have a disability, you have to learn that it’s on you to ask and the university will accommodate you if [it] can.”

Katherine Love, a sophomore political science major from Savannah, gained first-hand exposure to what disabled students go through daily. After suffering an ankle injury, Love has been navigating campus with a boot, which has made walking up hills difficult. Love said she took the convenience of walking without impairment for granted.

“For people who can’t walk at all that may be in a wheelchair, I just can’t even imagine how much strain that must put in their daily lives,” Love said.

Her doctors wanted her to use crutches at first, which she declined because she believed using them would be “unreasonable, especially on this campus.”

“The thing with accessibility is you don’t really think about it unless it’s something that becomes a problem for you,” Burrell said. “I think able-bodied people aren’t in a position to make accessibility happen in the scope that is necessary for people with disabilities.”