With 21,796 faculty and staff and 43,193 students all on a campus that spans 936 acres, accessibility is a challenge for the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW Facts). In addition to hosting students, staff, and faculty who travel around campus on a regular basis, the University is an important part of the Madison and state communities, which bring many visitors to this campus. This can be seen dramatically on a Saturday in fall when 80,000 people pile into Camp Randall for a football game. The topography, brute size, and the number of people in the same area, can make getting around UW-Madison a difficult task. While there are groups and individuals who are trying to improve accessibility on campus, some problems cannot be fixed with a simple solution. This essay surveys some of the work toward improvements as well as the continued challenges of campus accessibility.
One of the landmarks of UW-Madison is Bascom Hill. It can be a beautiful sight after a peaceful snowfall or in autumn when the trees are changing colors. But having classes or meetings at the top of Bascom Hill can be challenging because of how steep the hill is, and it can be even more difficult during the winter. One winter day after a snowfall, I was at the bottom of Bascom Hill near the bridge to the Humanities Building, when I noticed a slick patch of ice had developed near the Law School, a third of the way up. That is where I saw eight people fall victim to the same patch of ice. Thankfully, it looked like no one got injured.
Many students dread walking up Bascom Hill for class. Some might just be too lazy to put in the effort of the steep incline, but some have a tough time due to a disability. Cathy Trueba, the director of the McBurney Disability Resource Center at UW- Madison, says students with physical disabilities find Bascom Hill to be the most challenging part of campus, especially in winter. Bascom Hill is not the only difficult place to travel on campus, though. According to Trueba the hilly topography over towards Observatory Drive is generally very difficult, too. Areas like this create one kind of problem that does not have a simple answer, although some transportation solutions are available on request. Short of leveling out Bascom Hill and rebuilding that whole area of campus (or installing a ski resort-style chair lift!) the physical challenges will persist.
Leslie Stilson, an accommodation specialist at the McBurney Disability Resource Center, identifies a different part of campus that is difficult to get around. Stilson has a visual disability and uses a cane to get a feel for what’s around her. The McBurney Center is located across from Gordon’s Dining and Event Center, kitty corner to the Witte and Sellery residence halls, and is in the same building complex as the Student Activity Center, Walgreens, and Lucky Apartments. This location means there is a lot of foot traffic in the area. Stilson says that the narrow sidewalks of West Johnson Street, in addition to the heavy foot traffic, make it difficult for her to get around. She echoes Trueba, saying winter travel is the most difficult due to the challenge of finding the curb cut outs, not just because it is slippery. Curb cuts are the slanted areas that provide a gradual transition from the road to a sidewalk. After a snowfall, the snowplows come through and push snow into all the curb cuts or where you would step off the sidewalk and onto a bus. Even though the sidewalks may be clear, finding the curb cut outs is difficult in these conditions.
On the brighter side, according to Stilson, as the campus adds new buildings, they tend to be more accessible than the older buildings. This can be credited to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that was passed in 1990. As a consequence most new buildings, Stilson says, have “easier-to-access entrances without steps or hazards, more access to elevators, and accessible room numbers to the side of the doorway that include braille.” Even with the influence of the ADA though, Stilson still finds the new Union South building to be the most difficult place for her. This is because “it is very open on the first floor, does not have available walls to travel along, and has many obstacles like poles, seating areas and line indicators outside of the venders’ spaces” (Stilson). Even when adhering to the federal laws, there can still be design choices with the construction of a building that make it less accessible.
Which areas or features on campus are the most difficult depend on who you are and the extent of your abilities or limitations. Personally, for me just the size of the campus is the most difficult and that is due to the time it takes to walk from one end to the other.
In my conversation with Trueba, she pointed out something interesting: just because something is accessible, does not mean it is easy. She encourages people to spend a day only traveling the accessible routes (flat sidewalks, elevators, ramps, etc.) to and from classes and appointments and then see how much time it adds to their day.
One department that helps with providing an accessible campus is “Facilities Planning & Management.” I had the chance to communicate with facilities access specialist Vorakiat “Top” Tantivivat on the work that this department does. He informed me that they have assessed over 800 exterior handrail locations, and they are in the process of improving and repairing those in need. During winter, Physical Plant crews work mainly on clearing snow from sidewalks, steps, and entrances. They like to lay a mixture of sand for traction and salt to help areas where melting and freezing occur. The department website reveals that keeping roadways cleared is a number one priority (Grounds Management). I asked why that is the priority on a campus where most people get around on foot, and he pointed out that roadways are vital for emergency and service vehicles, which may be needed at any time. Tantivivat reports that he is particularly proud of being able to help provide accessibility on campus “whether small or big scale because it will make a difference to someone.” People like Tantivivat are among the ones who put forth the great effort of trying to ensure an accessible campus for all.
The McBurney Disability Resource Center provides mainly classroom accommodations, but there are several things that they do to make UW-Madison more physically accessible (Services). For example, the McBurney Center provides two-week wheel chair loans to students. This can be important, for example, for a student who just had foot surgery and needs to keep the foot elevated, or for a student who sprained an ankle badly and can’t put any weight on it. The McBurney Center can also provide elevator access in Van Hise Hall. In Van Hise, students cannot generally use the elevator to get to floors 2 through 4. However, some students need to be able to use the elevator to get to their classes because stairs are not accessible for them due to a variety of reasons.
Besides helping students with mobility disabilities, the McBurney Center also has an adaptive technology lab where they are able to convert textbooks to audio or provide closed captioning to videos. While such services might not always be considered when talking about providing an accessible campus, it is critical to have academic
materials accessible to students in the formats that they need for their learning.
At a campus the size of UW-Madison, accessibility is an ongoing challenge. The University has a variety of departments that are trying to do their part in providing an accessible campus, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Stilson says that UW-Madison falls “somewhere in the middle regarding accessibility.” She sees the progress that is being made, but still thinks that light needs to be shined on the issue of accessibility because some unusual decisions are still being made, as can be seen in the construction choices for Union South.
“UW Facts and Figures: At a Glance.” University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Board of Regents of the University Wisconsin System, Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
“Grounds Management.” Facilities Stewardship for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Campus: Division of Facilities Planning and Management. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
“Services.” McBurney Disability Resource Center. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Stilson, Leslie. “Questions.” Message to the author. 17 Mar. 2015. E-mail.
Tantivivat, Vorakiat. “Questions.” Message to the author. 12 Mar. 2015. E-mail.
Trueba, Cathy. “Questions/Interview for class.” Message to the author. 12 Mar. 2015. E-mail.
For the Sequence 2 project, I asked students to choose an issue relevant to the UW-Madison campus community, research a variety of perspectives on that issue, and then synthesize these perspectives into a cohesive conversation, providing readers with the “big picture.” The sequence included two short assignments to prepare them for this larger writing task. First, to help students hone in on a campus issue, I asked them to choose a spot or event on campus, simply observe the goings-on around them, and then write about their observations. From this short assignment, students generated potential research questions based on the most surprising or interesting things that they observed. For the second short assignment, students produced an annotated bibliography to help them consider the connections that could be made across their researched perspectives.
Early on, Brock identified campus accessibility as the issue he wanted to explore based on his work as a student employee at the McBurney Disability Resource Center. Conversations he had with McBurney co-workers led him to wonder whether students were aware of accessibility issues on campus and what accessibility resources were available to them. For his first short assignment, he observed one of the most basic campus events: he watched students walk to class. He chose his observation point strategically—Bascom Hill on a wintry day—and considered the difficulty of this task for so many members of the campus community. As evidenced in his final Sequence 2 writing project, these observations helped him frame his overall conversation. Peer and instructor workshops helped Brock to specify and clarify his thesis and draw out and connect interesting threads from each of his sources. The success of Brock’s Sequence 2 project demonstrates the importance of choosing a topic that matters, both to the writer and to the writer’s audience.
When first hearing about the prompt of writing portfolio 2, I wanted to make sure that I picked a topic that would allow me to shed light on an area of campus or the surrounding community that might go unnoticed by most people. While many people comment on the difficulty of climbing Bascom Hill, accessibility on campus is way more challenging than just that one hill. My idea for this writing project came to mind during an early Monday morning right after winter break. I work at the McBurney Disability Resource Center, and I was in the file room with Leslie Stilson and Cathy Trueba. They were discussing the difficulty of getting around campus with the snow. That’s when it clicked for me that not everyone is aware of the struggles some people face in getting around campus. I initially wanted to discuss only winter accessibility but then I decided that looking at accessibility as a whole would allow me to present a better overall vision. Hearing feedback during the peer review process helped me see other student’s issues with accessibility were not just during winter. To keep my piece balanced, I wanted to show two areas on campus that are difficult to get around, but then also show what the University is doing to try and help improve accessibility. In talking to my peers and teacher about this, I was encouraged to add some humor—realizing there are just some problems that the University cannot fix. (A chair lift is not likely to be added to Bascom Hill.)
If I went through the revision process again, I would let my essay sit for a longer time before coming back to edit it. This would allow me to have a sharper eye for detail. Throughout this writing process, the biggest thing I learned about myself as a writer is that it is important to have many people read over my work and give feedback on it. Going forward in my writing career, I will not hesitate to hone my writing skills by reaching out for help from peers, professors, or the writing workshops on campus.
— Brock Gilsdorf
Student Essay Award: Informative/Synthesis Essay
This essay was previously published in the 9th edition of CCC.