Some students and faculty members with disabilities have experienced ongoing difficulties attending and navigating the UofA, while others say UA officials have made improvements.
Some members of the disability community on campus are not happy with how UA officials have handled accommodation requests and accessibility complaints. Graduate student Gordon Xiong, who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and is immunocompromised, is in his seventh year at the university and has no interest in returning after finishing his master’s degree. He is troubled by what he sees as poor treatment from the university.
Although Xiong got the right to attend classes remotely as a disability accommodation, he was on campus for a few days in August to meet with faculty before classes started, after the university moved to a 100% return to campus for fall. He contracted COVID-19 shortly after his visit and was extremely ill for three months and still has lingering symptoms, he said.
“I do not feel included in the UofA,” Xiong said.
In another incident, staff of the Equal Employment Opportunity Center suggested outfitting his wheelchair with a sort of battering ram to open bathroom doors in the Graduate Education Building, despite the potential damage that could cause to the wheelchair, Xiong said.
Xiong said he felt inclined to speak out after UA officials told Vocational Rehabilitation the UofA would no longer accept third-party payments from the organization. Vocational Rehabilitation, or VR, is a U.S. Department of Education-funded program that provides counseling, guidance, training and other resources to people with disabilities. The program had been helping Xiong pay his tuition.
UA officials explained to Xiong that VR violated the school’s third-party billing policy and they would not revise it, Xiong said.
“I just came from an academic conference, spending the last of my savings, to find the university can’t accept invoices,” Xiong said.
Xiong can cover his tuition the rest of this semester, but he worries about the next.
Macy James, a UA freshman who is blind, has faced her own challenges navigating campus life.
“There are a lot of buildings that don’t have braille signs and a lot of activities on campus that are very inaccessible for me,” James said. “All my classes are in the music building, but there are no braille signs in there.”
The Dine on Campus app and the Razorback Transit app are also inaccessible for blind students, James said. Nearly every activity sponsored by the UofA, including freshman A-Week events and homecoming activities, is inaccessible, she said.
“People are always willing to modify if I ask in advance, but I never really walk into a building or go to an activity and have everything just go smoothly,” James said.
The Center for Educational Access and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance are the main resources on campus for students, staff and faculty members with disabilities to request accommodations. The CEA staff wants people to know where to find any information they need, said J’onelle Colbert-Diaz, the university’s director of accommodation and accessibility services.
For those who believe the CEA has failed to properly accommodate their disabilities, there is an appeals process.
“Any university student who believes that they have been denied access or accommodations required by university policy shall have the right to invoke the UA 504/ADA grievance procedure,” CEA director Laura James said.
Brent Williams, an associate professor of counselor education and supervision, has been at the university for 20 years and is legally blind. He receives healthcare at the Pat Walker Health Center and said the crosswalk at Maple Street and Garland Avenue outside PWHC is dangerous. The crosswalk’s voiceover is broken, and Williams cannot simply watch for the sign to change.
Williams does not blame the CEA or any other organization on campus for the problems he faces. He blames the previous campus administration for the unresolved issues, he said.
“I was banned from communicating with the previous chancellor’s office for bringing up disability and criticizing the university,” Williams said.
One recent incident has shaken Williams’ faith in the new administration, but he is still hopeful for the future, he said. The provost’s office denied a faculty member in Williams’ department who has the same disability as Xiong the right to teach remotely after she provided a doctor’s note saying she was at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 if she contracted the virus.
All the accessibility problems Xiong has experienced or witnessed on campus have accumulated over the last seven years, and most are still present, he said.
“All I want is an environment I can feel safe in, and I don’t feel safe,” Xiong said. “I have to fight for (safety and inclusion).”