In light of recent plans for new buildings and renovations near and around UNM's main campus, students representing the University’s disabled population and the Accessibility Resource Center have voiced several concerns regarding accessibility on campus.
Victor Torres and Tammy Ramirez-Harmon, representatives for ARC at ASUNM’s bimonthly Joint Council meetings, said they were concerned with how construction will affect accessibility and mobility for students.
In particular, Harmon said she hopes the architects involved in the projects truly consider the needs of the disabled community, from things like installing ramps to creating easily maneuverable bathrooms.
They emphasized the importance of following updated codes set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which dictates standards for accessible design. Specifically, Torres said he hopes UNM can one day go above and beyond the federal minimum to improve access for all students.
ARC Director Joan Green said there is work being done, on the part of the architects and planners, to include input from the disabled community in their construction plans.
An example of this is Green’s participation in the Campus Development Advisory Committee, which discusses upcoming construction projects like the newly proposed Farris Engineering building renovation.
Representatives on this committee are given the opportunity to see these plans ahead of time and give their feedback. Green said she hopes this renovation will have a positive result for disabled students.
While both Harmon and Torres hope to see positive additions like this to campus, they also pointed out several failings of current UNM facilities.
“ARC does a good job with what they got. But UNM could be so much better. We’re supposed to be New Mexico’s flagship university,” Harmon said. “Let’s show our students from all walks of life that they’re valuable, that they’re important and that they have something to contribute.”
Torres is concerned about the specific issue of bathroom accessibility.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the bathroom in Mitchell Hall, but it has an accessible button,” he said. “That can be a lifesaver for someone in a wheelchair. I would like to see more of those types of bathrooms around campus so people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues don’t have to go to just Mitchell Hall if they want their own independence.”
Torres mentioned that it is important to take into consideration changing standards and technology when it comes to issues of mobility.
“A lot of these buildings haven’t been updated since the ‘60s or ‘70s for all the new equipment — which is fine if that’s what UNM wants to follow. But they need to realize that it’s 2016 and there’s new technologies,” he said.
Harmon said she thinks the biggest problem is the University’s lack of signage and handicap parking convenience. She cited the ramp in Smith Plaza near Zimmerman Library as one of the most visible manifestations of these issues, as she hasn’t seen a sign designating it for students in wheelchairs or with other mobility needs.
Instead, Harmon said students use it for bikes and skateboarding.
“There is a lack of education about accessibility issues on this campus. People don’t understand that if you have a handicap placard you can park in any lot on campus,” she said. “I’ve even had parking attendants try to charge me for events. A lot of people don’t understand that borrowing other people’s placard is against the law.”
According to Green, as of last year, there were a little over 1,000 students who identified as having a disability, but she said this leaves out a part of the population that does not have an easily recognizable disability.
“We continue to have pretty stable numbers in terms of students that are blind and low vision, the number of students that are deaf and hard of hearing and the number of students with orthopedic disabilities,” she said. “But that leaves us with a wide range of other disabilities that people are not necessarily aware of. So I think we always need to keep in mind that there are many other needs that we might now be aware of outside physical access.”
For Green and the other ARC representatives, making students more aware of accessibility issues on campus and allowing opportunities for students to voice their particular concerns is an important step in creating a university environment inclusive of everyone.
Green says this responsibility often falls to student groups or programs like the Joint Council to advocate for the needs of this group of people.
“Certainly, us having students as members of the Joint Council for ASUNM I think is incredibly important. And having two people that can really voice their concerns. Because it’s such a small group of people on campus, you really have to be even stronger in those beliefs,” she said.
Gabriela Garcia Huff is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thegreen_gablin.