Accessibility and Why It Matters

I’m going to be honest with you. ImageIt took me forever to start this post. I put it off and put it off, not just because I did not know what to say, but how to say it, and where to start. The campus-wide dialogue on disability related issues has yet to happen, so where do you get the guts to be the first one to say something out loud?

I meant to write this a year ago, and figured I had plenty of time, that other issues in my life mattered more at the moment. Well, here I am, a second semester senior and I’ve still kept my mouth shut. I’m going to admit to you right now it is really damn scary to confront issues of my own disability in an open forum, when I, like many of my Duke peers, have spent a bulk of my time trying to fit in. The thing is, having a visible physical disability means you can’t blend in to a crowd, no matter how much you’ve tricked yourself into thinking you can. It also turns out that being disabled runs smack-counter to the “effortless perfection” Duke persona that many of us try so hard to maintain. It’s your physical body, the most basic element of how you construct your identity, and society says by normative standards it’s broken in some way. It generates a stigma that is almost impossible to escape, so avoiding the whole “I’m disabled” thing, for me, was the best shot I thought I had at having a “normal” Duke experience and fitting in. But avoidance, I learned, wasn’t going to help me, or the disability community here anywhere anytime fast.

So here it goes: Hi, I am Megan Barron, and I am a disabled Duke Student. With the help of my friends, I started Duke Disability Alliance with the hope that the disabled community would have a voice and place at the table among all the other social activists’ voices on campus, and disabled students would have a safe space to talk about issues they’ve encountered while being a student with a disability here at Duke. For far too long, the disability community as a group had been left out or passed over in the overarching dialogue about campus life. DDA has been at it two and a half years now, and we are still fledgling, because it seems the disability community here at Duke was virtually nonexistent and creating something out of nothing is a lot harder than I anticipated.

We focused on Accessibility issues on campus to open the eyes of able-bodied students, as well as the Administration, to the extra challenges mobility-impaired students face just existing and navigating on and around campus, let alone managing classes and a social life. Our “Accessibility Matters” campaign generated some buzz and got people thinking but in the end, why does it matter?

It matters because as a student with a disability, I’ve come to realize that my physical isolation did not need to be blithely accepted as “just the way things are”. It matters because those who need to use the accessible entrances shouldn’t have to be made to feel like second class students because their entrances to the buildings are in obscure, out-the-way-locations, and ‘round the back or covered up by landscaping, as if they were a threat or an eyesore to the Gothic Wonderland look. Accessibility matters because the ADA van service should also run on the weekends. Accessibility matters because students who have special housing needs should never be told they cannot block with their friends. It matter because anyone, no matter the housing need, should be able to rush any house or Greek they want to without the fear of not being accommodated. It matters because it is unacceptable that whole buildings dedicated to whole departments are completely inaccessible, and Duke has no plans to change the situation. (See: Languages Building). It matters because neither the Mary Lou Williams Center, the Women’s Center, nor the LGBT Center are accessible, virtually eliminating any possibility for a student with mobility impairments to foster an intersectional identity. It matters because the Student Disability Access Office shouldn’t be tucked away by the police station, in such an obscure spot that it’s not even on a bus route, reinforcing the out-of-sight, out-of-mind feeling that we as a group face repeatedly. It matters because equality matters.

The Mary Lou and LGBT center will be fixed along with the West Union renovation, because an overhaul that big means Duke will have to make any remodel up to full ADA standards, but these spaces should have been addressed long ago. We need to get Duke to take on making campus accessible for it’s own sake, not as a side note to bigger, glitzier project ideas. Duke has a chance for real self-improvement here, as one of the nation’s finest institutions, to become an even finer one. Shifting the focus toward making ADA issues and campus accessibility a top priority in the Administration would say to the public that when Duke is dedicated to making sure all students have access to the Duke experience, they mean business. It’s that kind of attitude of commitment toward betterment for everyone, no matter how small of a group they may be, that I think we’d all like to see out of Dear Old Duke.

Building structures aside, there is that even more pressing matter of stigma that needs our immediate attention. It is easy to see that as a group we have been ignored for the sheer fact that we are, and have historically been, so small. I can count on one hand how many people I’ve known here at Duke in my three and a half years who have a visible disability. But it turns out we are not as small of a constituency as one may think. In setting up DDA, I asked the Disabilities Office just how many of us were there. For privacy reasons, they wouldn’t give an exact number, but they did say several hundred.

Several hundred?

It blew me a way that this group could be that large. The SDAO also admitted that part of the logic behind their obscure location was that they needed to be in an area where people would feel safe enough to come and register for accommodations without being seen. Their explanation made perfect sense, and it also broke my heart.

If DDA does nothing more but chip away at that stigma, than my board and I have done our jobs. But as I said before, we are still fledgling. We need help. We need dedicated members and we need underclassmen to pass the baton to. Many people after the poster campaign expressed support for the cause, but merely expressing support won’t be enough to effect real change on this front. I urge you, if you care about expanding the definition of “everyone” on this campus, if you care about inclusivity, come to our next meeting. Bring a friend, bring two. We plan to meet every other Wednesday of the month, but keep an eye out for details.

So, with all the courage I can muster, I’ll say it again. Hi. I am Megan Barron and I am a disabled Duke student. This is why accessibility matters.

— Megan Barron

Note: Disability is a very broad term that refers to a highly diverse group. No two disabilities are alike, and my piece is meant to reflect my own personal experiences with my unique health condition, not speak on behalf of all disability experiences on campus. If you think you qualify for accommodations but don’t know where to start, contact to Student Disabilities Access Office to register.


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11 comments on “Accessibility and Why It Matters

  1. Thank you for your post and your voice. A better Duke is possible.

  2. Thank you for writing this post. It is moving and thoughtful and this is an issue that is way past time to be discussed.

  3. You say you meet every other Wednesday and to keep an eye out for more specific details. I’m interested, so where should I be keeping an eye out? Flyers in the BC?

  4. I know it’s not at all the same, but I had an injury that made me non-weight bearing for 3 months. I remember classrooms I had to go up two flights of stairs just to go down one more on crutches, so what used to be a 5 minute walk became 20 minutes. Not to mention the uneven flagstone isn’t the easiest. Even as an athlete, I agree duke could use accessibility improvements. I fully support you.

  5. I take for granted every day my ability to access the areas I need on campus. Thank you for putting yourself out there and giving a face to this issue. This post is perfection at its finest (and what’s best is you’re not pretending it’s effortless). I hope to see you at a future DDA meetings!

  6. Ms. Megan,
    I just wanted to say thank you. Not only for speaking out on the behalf of Duke students, but making other university students stop and think about this issue. I’m at the University of Oklahoma and this article has been passed around several colleges and brought to many peoples attention. We are trying to make sure that our campus does everything we can do to accomdate those in need with out hiding that we are doing it. Not saying we are perfect at all just something we are trying to be more aware of. I just wanted to let you know you are making more of a difference than you may realize.

  7. Thank you for speaking up about this issue Megan, I really had no idea that this issue was affecting so many students and had such a large impact. I run a student organization on campus, and I’d like to ask you a question that could change the way we run the organization. When we organize events or GBMs, I never considered accessibility to be an issue, but that may have been because the lack of access was discouraging to students with disabilities. What locations on campus are considered accessible for most students with disabilities? What locations should we avoid if we consider accessibility?

  8. This is a powerful and well-written piece. I really admire your courage and passion on the issue. Thank you for opening the eyes of many Duke students.

  9. You will graduate from Duke University in May and will leave Duke a better place for future disabled students as a result of your own industry. Congratulations you have become a True Leader!

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
    ― Margaret Mead

  10. I’m so proud of you for doing this as it is very much needed!

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