Sep 282011
Authors: Elisabeth Willner

As Joseph Akmakjian made his way toward Morgan Library Tuesday morning, the wheels of his wheelchair made a steady whirring noise — a sound that would almost come from a coffee maker. He soon passed a familiar square, grey button not far from the door.

This button, which opens the automatic door of the library’s temporary construction entrance, is a good example of a campus location offering good accessibility to disabled students, according to Akmakjian.

“It’s very cool that they put that there,” Akmakjian said. “I don’t know if they did that just for the construction, but it went up when construction started.”

Akmakjian has motor neuron disease and needs a wheelchair to get around campus. The routes available to him as a student with a disability can present challenges. Cramped spaces in old buildings can be hard to navigate, elevators sometimes break down and access buttons for doorways don’t always work.

Overall, however, he said CSU is accessible to him.

“I don’t remember ever trying to get into a buildingand not being able to,” Akmakjian said.

In a year where CSU has the highest number of incoming freshman that the campus has ever seen, the population of students with disabilities on campus has risen also, posing challenges as the university tries to work towards an accessible campus.

And while access for students with physical disabilities like Akmakjian are perhaps the most visible type of accessibility on campus, some challenges faced aren’t physical, with disabled access covering a much larger range of students.

The majority of disabled students on campus are students with non-visible disabilities, such as learning disabilities, chronic health conditions and mental health conditions, according to Marla Roll, head of the Assistive Technology Resource Center (ATRC) at CSU.

For these students, challenges often arise in the electronic environment.

At many universities in the United States, not just CSU, professors are using more and more multi-media content to teach, and may not think to make that content usable to students with disabilities, according to Melanie Hamman, coordinator of Alternative Tech Services at Resources for Disabled Students (RDS). Videos for online courses, for example, may or may not have captioning.

“Our goal is to make all classes accessible,” said Dede Kleiwer, a coordinator for interpreting services for RDS. “Online are the toughest. When a student signs up for a class, we scramble.”

Another challenge for those providing services to students with disabilities at CSU is the increasing demand for space. According to Rosemary Kreston, the director of RDS, there are about 13,000 self-identified students with disabilities on campus, with about 60 percent of those students using RDS services.

Students with documented disabilities can opt to take exams in the RDS building, and on weeks when there are a lot of exams, it takes a lot of work to organize space for them all.

“On an average day 34 students take exams in the office, but for 600 person chemistry exams, we might have 20 people just for one class. It gets really busy,” explained Esther Miner, a junior environmental sociology major who volunteers at RDS.

“We need a quiet testing environment, but we’re right next to the train tracks,” Miner added.

To improve the situation, RDS has looked at changing locations, but finding a location with CSU current budget constraints has been difficult, Kreston said. At one point, an addition to the Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT) building was considered, but it turned out the move would cost $13 million.

Instead, a $300,000 renovation of the current building has been proposed, which Kreston says shows that CSU cares about students with disabilities and wants to support RDS.

“The thing that’s indicative of university support is that they don’t cut us. The $300,000 for more room: That’s not happening elsewhere,” she said.

Michael Marr, a senior social work major who currently serves on the multi-cultural board as the representative of RDS says he has advocated for more space to the board. CSU has been responsive to his requests, but from his student perspective, no one is talking about the renovations.

“They’re trying to give us space here and there, but from our point of view it’s always ‘we’re working on it,’” he said. “They fix it with a band-aid when it needs a whole cast.”

Marr said he nonetheless appreciates the support CSU gives.

“CSU has helped me a lot. There’s always room for improvement,” Marr added. “I do understand the resource constraints.”

One way in which CSU is working around resource constraints is through long-term structural change.

“We are experiencing more and more students with disabilities coming to higher ed,” Roll said. “How do you keep up with that? I think you change the culture.”

According to Roll, CSU currently relies on an individualized system. Once a student with a disability arrives on campus and self-identifies to RDS, the various departments that serve disabled students look for ways to support them.

The problem with focusing on individual needs is that university action becomes reactive rather than proactive, Roll said. A better method would be to make classrooms and courses accessible to everyone to begin with: a concept known as universal design.

In one of the new classrooms in the Clark A building, Akmakjian pointed out a removable chair, which he likes since it allows him to sit at the same table as the rest of his peers.

Akmakjian also pointed out, however, that in order to get to the professor’s podium, a student must descend a flight of stairs, something which he can’t do in his wheelchair. He said he has to send his aid if he wants to turn something in or talk to the professor.

Thinking generally about stairs on campus, Akmakjian said that, except for steep areas or areas that might get icy, it seems like ramps are often a good option.

“It costs more money to make stairs and a ramp, than to just make a ramp,” he said. “Then it’s accessible to everyone.”

Collegian writer Elisabeth Willner can be reached at

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