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The inaccessible nature of accessibility

If I am ever late to class (which I endeavor at all costs not to be), it is usually a result of one of three potential factors.  Maybe I just overslept — it happens to the best of us. Or maybe it’s raining and my journey time has doubled because I wanted to walk in the shelter of the arcades instead of taking my usual diagonal trajectory across Main Quad. But most likely, I am quite simply waiting for the elevator.

Not only am I waiting for the elevator, but I am also waiting for somebody else to also use the elevator at the same exact time so that they can kindly press the appropriate buttons on my behalf. I am an electric wheelchair user and, due to all the muscles in my body being affected by my disability, I don’t have the physical strength to reach or press the required buttons myself. For the most part, this system of waiting and hoping is effective, and I make it to my upstairs classes both independently (aside from the button-pressing) and on time. However, at times when this simple procedure thwarts me, leaving me stranded on a lonely fourth floor with no hopes of escape, I find myself questioning how elevators — an architectural feature designed in part to promote accessibility for those just like me — can be so inaccessible.

In the grand scheme of things, this really is a minor difficulty in my day-to-day life. But the sinking feeling I experience when noticing that a class on my schedule is located anywhere but the first floor makes me certain that there must be a better, more universally accessible way forward. After all, if an innovative solution — voice activation, motion sensors etc. — can be brought to life anywhere, Silicon Valley is the place.

The great news is that these solutions do not need to be either complex or costly. For example, I am unable to use the high-up push buttons to open doors around campus, but the simple idea of having a button nearer the ground means I can have the edge of my wheelchair footplates do the work for me. Again, all that’s required to make this work is a creative mindset and a willingness to communicate with those for whom a specific design is intended.

It has long been my belief that if a design is produced with those who face the most physical barriers in mind, it will likely be suitable for the rest of the population as well. My disability affects me in highly specific ways, and I do not claim in any way to be an expert on the experiences of other members of the disability community. These experiences vary across a far-reaching spectrum and it is extremely unlikely that the challenges faced by each individual can be addressed in a single design. However, it is necessary that we now spend time considering the possibilities at our fingertips, and utilize these resources to bring standard features of accessibility, such as elevators, into the 21st century.

And yet, at times when these resources are not so readily available, it is still necessary to find practical solutions that really can transform the experiences of students with disabilities. During my time on campus so far, I have come up with creative ways to tackle some of these everyday barriers, and this can be as simple as asking faculty or fellow students in class to accompany me to the exit if they happen to be heading in the same direction.

From my personal experience with Stanford’s Office of Accessible Education thus far, I have been impressed by the efficiency with which my academic accommodations have been implemented, but I now believe it is time to begin looking at the bigger picture. I believe the OAE is well placed to begin facilitating these conversations between students and faculty. These are not limited to the listed academic accommodations, but instead focus on implementing some of the small, yet extremely helpful practices, such as assisting with elevators, that can facilitate and enhance the day-to-day lives of the student disability community.

Contact Tilly Griffiths at tillykg ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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