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Saturday, June 22, 2024
UW-Madison behind in wheelchair access

tyler: Tyler Engel, a fifth-year engineering student, found more accessibility problems after transferring to UW-Madison.

UW-Madison behind in wheelchair access

Tyler Engel transferred to UW-Madison for its engineering program, but he faced more challenges than the average transfer student. Engel, a wheelchair-bound fifth-year senior who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, had to deal with accessibility issues he rarely faced at UW-Whitewater.

Engel is constantly confronted with buildings with only one handicapped-accessible entrance, bathroom stalls that are too small and doors without handicapped buttons, which Engel cannot open because his hands lack the strength.

"It's an old campus, it's a huge campus and it's definitely hard to do what Whitewater does because their campus is a block," Engel said.

He said the Whitewater campus has a better reputation when it comes to accessibility for people with mobility disabilities.

"They just have everything set up really well," he said. "I think it's a lot of their culture too. Because Whitewater is known for [accessibility], and it's not that big of a deal to have someone with a disability in a class there, it happens all the time. Here it's more of a bigger deal. They don't know what to do in a way."

On UW-Madison's campus, approximately one out of every 2,000 students uses the McBurney Center for wheelchair mobility resources. At UW-Whitewater's much smaller campus, a higher percentage, 20 out of every 2,000 students, utilizes campus accessibility resources for the same purpose.

Elizabeth Watson, director for UW-Whitewater's Center for Students with Disabilities said a long history of prioritizing accessibility on their campuses contributed to their success today.

UW-Whitewater received funding from the UW System Board of Regents to become the systems' model campus for accessibility following the Rehabilitation Act in 1973. The federal law guaranteed equal access to education for people with disabilities, which required the system to create at least one accessible campus in the state.

Michael Lenser, a UW-Whitewater physical therapist, said accessibility has been built into the campus mission ever since.

"It's not just ‘accommodate this student,'" Lenser said. "It's a full-blown, campus-wide, dedicated effort to make everything as accessible as possible and taking great pride in that."

Eventually all UW campuses created disability resources because the system did not want to "warehouse" those students on one campus, Director of UW-Madison McBurney Disability Resource Center Cathy Trueba said.

Today, all UW System campuses have those resources, but Trueba said that does not eliminate all the problems people with disabilities face on a day-to-day basis.

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"An elevator breaks down; well, that's got consequence," Trueba said. "The rest of us just take the stairs."

At UW-Madison, students facing issues like Engel's can work with the UW-Madison facilities' access specialist and the McBurney Center on an individual basis to solve problems with buildings, such as installing automatic door openers where needed.

Trueba said UW-Madison hopes to go beyond what ADA regulations require by encouraging universal design, making facilities "more useful for everybody."

Universal design includes concepts like family bathrooms, which serve families and transgender individuals as well as students with wheelchairs.

Engel said while getting around UW-Madison can be difficult, it is "not that bad."

He said the engineering department staff always offers help when he needs it and he understands the difficulties of providing access while working around the large hill in the middle of campus.

Still, Engel suggests others experience the challenges faced by people with mobility disabilities.

"Roll around in a wheelchair for a day. See how it is. Try to use the doors. Try to get into the bathroom," Engel said. "Try it for a day and see what it's like."

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