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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

‘I make trouble to move change’: Saint Mary’s student speaks out about campus inaccessibility

Saint Mary’s has a long history of accommodating many students with disabilities who pursue an education at the College, but Natalie Davis, a senior who navigates Saint Mary’s campus in a wheelchair, feels the College is not doing enough to make the campus accessible for students with physical disabilities. 

For four years, Davis has been vocal about what she feels is miscommunication between the College administration and herself, often taking to social media to document and bring awareness to the struggles she faces in navigating campus. Before she applied to the College, Davis was promised by the administration that accessibility would not be an issue.  

“There’s a lot that they do and then there’s also a lot that they don’t do,” Davis said of the administration. 

While the College is in accordance with the rules and regulations stipulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Davis feels that miscommunication has inhibited her independence on campus and caused her to predominantly rely on the help of others. 

As such, the ADA also stipulates that institutions should contribute to an “... increase in one’s personal sense of dignity that arises from increased access and the decrease in possibly humiliating incidents due to accessibility barriers.”

Throughout her time at Saint Mary’s, Davis has worked with Iris Giamo, director of the Disabilities Resource Office. The office provides students with disabilities certain accommodations in order to ensure accessibility, either physically or academically.

Davis said she is provided with several academic accommodations that allow her to be a better student. 

“For me specifically, I get extra time on tests and then … if I have class in Regina [Hall] and then have a class in Spes [Unica] right after, I can put in an accommodation to have [the Disabilities Resource Office] let my professors know that might be an issue,” she said. 

But in other areas of campus life, Davis asserted life can be difficult for students with disabilities, especially students with physical disabilities. 

When Davis interned at Ave Maria Press in 2019, there were days she had to rely on campus resources for transportation. Occasionally, she was able to rely on resources from the Office of Civil and Social Engagement (OCSE), but that was as far as campus resources were extended to her. 

“One day, my friend couldn’t drive me, so I contacted disability services,” she said. “My email to disability services was then forwarded to [former director of campus safety Robert Post] who emailed me back and said ‘we can’t do this for you.’”

In an email obtained by The Observer, Post, then the chief of Saint Mary’s Department of Campus/Public Safety, said “the Campus/Public Safety Office can not pick [up] or take a student to work. The only services we offer is to students that fall under the ADA who need transportation from hall to classes.” 

Post also wrote the “walk” from Saint Mary’s campus to Ave Maria Press was “not that far” and “can be done in 15 minutes.” He then apologized for not being able to help more. 

Linda Timm, current interim vice president of student affairs, reiterated the point that Campus Safety is only available to provide cross-campus transportation to those in need. 

"While we do not have vehicles that provide specialized services such as lifts or handicapped accessible doors, South Bend Transpo does provide services to those individuals who are unable to easily access standard vehicles,” Timm said. “We’re more than happy to assist connecting students with Transpo."

Rides from the South Bend Public Transportation Corporation must be scheduled in advance. 

Davis said she feels the need to speak out about her experiences because many may underestimate the types of challenges students with disabilities have to overcome. 

“Before I got this motor on the back of my chair, I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. if I had a class at 9:30 a.m. just so I could be ready on time,” she said. “Normally, for an able-bodied person, it would take them 10 to 15 minutes to walk, but it would take me 30 to 40 minutes to get where I needed to go.”

During the winter, Davis said it is almost impossible for her to get around campus. On Jan. 27, 2019, Davis took to the “Saint Mary’s Class of 2020” Facebook page to amplify her voice. 

She posted about the inaccessibility of Le Mans Hall as “both accessible entrances were blocked off with barricades and not shoveled.” 

Former vice president of student affairs Karen Johnson commented that “the ramp [was] closed because the ice that falls off the roof is life threatening.” Johnson also commented that a ramp on the south side of Le Mans was open, although Davis commented that both ramps were closed off. 

The thread of comments concluded with Johnson encouraging Davis to speak with her about the issue offline. However, when Davis scheduled an appointment to speak with Johnson — an appointment that Davis’s mother drove from Chicago to attend — Johnson cancelled the meeting the same day. 

Davis decided to post about her mobility struggles online because it was a way to reach the most students and make them aware of the inaccessible nature of campus in the winter. 

“When I couldn’t get up the ramp [because of the snow], I posted about it on social media and the first time no one was taking me seriously, which happens a lot in general if you have a disability,” Davis said. “But then the posts started to make students aware of these issues because it is more than just an individual problem, but there’s no one else on campus who really understands what my experience is like.” 

On behalf of the College, vice president of strategy and finance Dana Strait said certain pathways to buildings must be blocked off to protect students from unsafe conditions.

“The ramp on the West entrance of LeMans Hall is occasionally barricaded due to falling ice and snow from the roof, similar to a section of sidewalk outside of Cushwa-Leighton Library,” Strait said. “At the library, we have a sign to indicate the safety concern. ... We are in the process of obtaining additional and more detailed signage.”

In her full statement, Strait emphasized the College’s commitment to accessibility and convenience while also prioritizing student safety. She said the College took time to make sure the current maintenance project — reopening the Le Mans Hall tunnel to the Cushwa Leighton Library — was accessible to all students, and that the College continually evaluates new ways to accommodate students with mobility concerns. 

“Safety always has to be our top priority,” Strait said. “When an entrance is closed due to safety concerns, we are very sorry for the inconvenience but we do ensure that an alternate, and accessible, entrance is provided. Because the historic buildings on our campus were not constructed with accessibility in mind, we continue to make improvements; in cases where those improvements are not sufficient, we also accommodate mobility needs at an individual level when requested.”

Davis said her goal is to make students realize that her challenges as a student with disabilities are a reality and they are no less real at Saint Mary’s. 

“Regardless if you’re a part of it, you need to pay attention to it,” she said. “I’m not speaking out to be difficult, I’m speaking out so changes can be made and something can be done. I make trouble to move change.”