Accessibility on campus is important, but overlooked

By Audrey Beard January 15, 2020

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is morally obligated to provide accessibility to all parts of campus for all students, regardless of ability. I truly can’t believe this needs to be said, but this idea is apparently controversial.

I am an active and (mostly) able-bodied person on campus, who lives in Downtown Troy. Generally speaking, I don’t need transportation services to attend classes, meetings, or visit my lab. I would venture to say this is true of most students here. However, people get injured, cars break down, folks wake up late, and disabled people exist here at RPI. All of these people have every right to access educational and support resources as those of us who are consistently able-bodied.

I am involved in Student Government, and I have participated in discussions about transportation and accessibility on campus for months. There is a worrying amount of cynicism in this discourse; it seems like many student leaders either don’t believe that accessibility is a fundamental right to students, or don’t believe that students have “real” disabilities.

This should outrage you. Accessibility should not be controversial. Ability should not be assumed.

Accessibility issues intersect with race, class, gender, religion, and orientation in ways that amplify seemingly mild inconveniences: transportation at night, cost of transport, and accessible hours, just to name a few. These aren’t just nice-to-haves. For many people, they are a huge part of their quality of life and ability to earn an education. Accessibility should justify itself, as people with disabilities exist and deserve equal opportunities for success as abled folks.

Ability itself, however, is fragile. As I mentioned earlier, any number of unforeseeable incidents can render an otherwise able-bodied person disabled in some way. There is a strong potential that an able-bodied person will encounter an accessibility problem for themselves in the future.

As much as we might like to, we can’t assume someone’s ability. That person walking into an elevator to ride it one floor might have knee or back issues. A person in a wheelchair may be able to stand up to shake your hand. Your know-it-all classmate might be unable to read large blocks of text, and the “slacker” at the back might have an undiagnosed neurodivergence. There are a lot of problems with assuming someone’s ability, not least of which being erasure, or the imposition of something that makes life harder for them in a world built for fully-abled people.

Just because something is invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there.

To generate the best possible outcomes for all students, faculty, and staff, we need to foster an atmosphere of inclusivity and mutual support across campus, in our communities, and in Troy. Among other things, this means consistently interrogating our infrastructures—physical, digital, and mental—to afford space for people who navigate these spaces differently.

Do we need need hoverboards for every student or free on-campus ride-hailing 24/7? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this: we need to do better. As colleagues, student leaders, advisors, and administrators, we owe it to each other to fight for, at the very least, equal opportunities for all.