Invisible opportunities: Reframing accessibility at Rice
When I read last December’s Thresher news article, “Invisible Burdens,” and the accompanying staff editorial, highlighting the apparent lack of accessibility on campus, I was disappointed, a bit angered and saddened. Reading that Thresher editorial that day was the first and only time I have felt alone and completely misunderstood at Rice. I did not want to identify with the kind of “disability” the editorial portrayed. I felt alienated. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. As a wheelchair user and someone living with a disability, that was not the experience I had received on campus, nor was it the voice of real advocacy.
I felt the Thresher painted an incomplete picture by reporting only from a few students,
and subsequently, failed to report that accessibility is different for everyone, and solving it, let
alone defining it, is a complex, multifaceted issue. And to actually address these issues around campus, we need to openly acknowledge these differences.
How do we define accessibility? I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer, and some may discredit this letter because of that, but maybe that’s the point — maybe accessibility will forever be a gray area. There are no laws or rules or regulations that can adequately address and mend every obstacle. Rather, true accessibility is the openness and willingness to embrace change. Everyone here, from staff to professors to students, has had such an incredibly open and willing attitude toward addressing accessibility and accommodations that I have felt wholly accepted and appreciated. True accessibility is accepting individuals as they are, and true advocacy is honoring and creating space for all to thrive.
Exposing Rice’s accessibility issues in a critical and instigatory manner is no better than being exclusionary in the first place. If we speak harshly of disappointment and critique, should we not expect to get those in return? If the Rice community is given only criticism in response to their attempts to make our campus more accessible, I worry that we, the disabled community, further isolate and alienate ourselves.
Instead of guilt and hostility, let’s have a conversation. Let’s sit down and share our stories and experiences. We need to communicate what does and does not work, what is accessible and what is not. And we must do so in an organized and constructive manner, not one that is meant to elicit a guilt or pity response from a supposed victim-oppressor situation. Because these situations are exclusionary, they draw lines instead of erasing them.
In the end, I want to express my feelings of gratitude and appreciation toward Rice in
regard to their accessibility on campus. There are countless individuals that have helped make
my transition to college and greater independence a resounding success. I am thriving here,
despite my physical challenges, and I hope the Rice community knows that. I strongly believe we can make our campus better by sharing and listening to each other’s experiences, and then, building collaboratively off of what we’ve accomplished and creatively improving what still needs to be fixed. We need to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect and we cannot solve every accessibility burden; instead, we need to foster open dialogue and willingness to ensure progressive changes. We must retain the attitude to try and keep trying.
The purpose of this letter is not to minimize the voices who spoke out in the “Invisible
Burdens” article, but rather to offer the Rice community a different opinion on campus
accessibility and how I believe we can make impactful, meaningful and lasting change. I would
be more than happy to share my experiences with you in person — whether you’re concerned,
curious, or just want to know more. Be willing to embrace change and be brave enough to engage in dialogue. Remember, it’s okay to ask!
More from The Rice Thresher
Just a couple of months ago, Gov. Greg Abbott declared “election integrity” to be an emergency item for the 2021 Texas legislative session. This was promptly followed by the National Republican Party launching a committee to pursue state election laws, praising Abbott’s initiative. With Senate Bill 7 (SB 7) and its House equivalent (HB 6), in addition to other bills directed at restricting voting access like House Bill 2293, marginalized groups will be further restricted from their right to vote. Shift workers who rely on later voting place hours will be without options. Individuals with disabilities who require vote-by-mail will be burdened with providing proof of their condition. Drive-thru voting will be banned. The role of poll watchers, already infamous for attracting self-appointed vigilantes of voter intimidation, will be able to record voters who receive help filling out their ballots.
This year’s Beer Bike Week looks quite different from years past, even in name. Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman encouraged Beer Bike coordinators to rename Willy Week to reflect the different nature of the event due to COVID restrictions. Individual college Beer Bike coordinators chose a variety of new, college-specific names; many told the Thresher that they were further motivated to change the name to distance their college from William Marsh Rice and that they may carry the name change into future years. Coordinators’ swift renaming of Willy Week reminds us that students have a lot of power at this university — and that we can and should use it to foster a Rice community that we’re proud of.
Rice students don’t pay attention to the Student Association. This is clear from recent Thresher coverage on the low voter turnout during the SA election and students’ inability to identify the people they “elected” to the executive team. If it weren’t for current SA President Kendall Vining’s encouragement to apply for Academics Committee chair last year, I would have fallen into that category too. I learned that although the SA is designed to represent and empower all student voices regardless of whether they hold a formal SA position in order to better our campus and broader Houston community, it struggles with apathy (or worse, alienation) and a lack of participation.