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COVID, construction affect accessibility at Rice

Illustrated by Andrea Gomez

By Nithya Shenoy     3/8/22 11:26pm

Ever since the pandemic started in 2020, classes, events and more were moved online. Learning virtually came with its own challenges, such as Zoom fatigue and monotony; however, the shift also increased accessibility to things like classes and social activities, a change especially helpful for students with disabilities. 

Ling DeBellis, a Martel College junior, has a polio-like undiagnosed neurological disorder that causes severe weakness in her hands and legs. DeBellis, who uses a power wheelchair, said that the shift to virtual platforms during the pandemic has increased accessibility. 

“In a way [the shift to online platforms] granted accessibility for people who might not be able to go to certain events,” DeBellis said. “At least for stuff on the students with disabilities council … a lot of stuff has been virtual and online. I liked it for a lot of the film festivals and events.”

Trey Weltens, a Duncan College sophomore, said that his bilateral hearing loss is a bit of an invisible disability. During the pandemic, Zoom has been extremely helpful, he said. However, the return to in-person classes posed a new challenge.

“I’m also a lip reader. On Zoom that made things easier. But when we went back to in-person [classes], still during the pandemic, that’s probably been my biggest struggle,” Weltens said. “Just trying to find the balance between ‘[wearing masks] is important’ and if there’s ever a chance I’m talking with a professor one on and on and if I can ask them for just a second to pull down their mask.”

Weltens said he greatly appreciates the policy allowing instructors to lecture without a mask.

“I was in heaven with in-person class and the professor took down his mask. That was super helpful and I was able to read his lips,” Weltens said.

Elise Gibney, a Wiess College senior, said that COVID has made classes far more accessible in comparison to pre-COVID times. Gibney said her disability is dizziness caused by a neurological problem for which there is no name yet. Her condition forced her to take a medical leave of absence soon after matriculating in fall 2016. 

“If I wake up and everything’s moving around … then I can just email the professor and explain the situation and they can just send me a Zoom link for the class. I really hope that’s something they keep,” Gibney said. 

Gibney also said that professors have been extremely accommodating. According to Gibney, she was able to return to Rice in fall 2018 and didn’t experience the dizziness outside of sporadic occurrences. However, she said the dizziness returned last November.

“It was under control. And then suddenly, out of nowhere ... everything was moving again,” Gibney said. “My professors were very understanding about it. Since it was so close to the end of the semester I was excused on some things.”

Weltens said that he has had an extremely positive experience with professors at Rice. 

“I think [the professors] don’t often have the opportunity or the necessity to use that [disability] clause in their syllabus so when they do, they are super open to work with you,” Weltens said. “My experience getting accommodations has mostly been getting them to wear a microphone during class that syncs up with my hearing aids.”

Weltens said that other students in his classes have been helpful as well.

“I’ve also spoken with professors about getting copies of lecture notes sent to me after class in case I miss anything or didn’t hear anything. That process involves other students in that class. I’m super grateful anytime a student volunteers to do that,” Weltens said.

According to DeBellis, she hasn’t experienced any issues with professors either. In the Multi-Media Composition class DeBellis is taking at Shepherd this semester, the professor has been extremely accommodating, she said. 

“When I initially reached out to the professor about [accessibility for the class], he was like, ‘The catwalks to the theater are not accessible, but that’s totally okay because we actually need someone on the ground level to help us direct light and control the soundboard,” DeBellis said “He was very accommodating: [he said,] ‘Even though you can’t be up in the catwalks there is still an important role for you.’”

DeBellis also said that the pandemic has put a new light on how mental health is treated. 

“I think for anyone the pandemic has been hard on our mental health and has really sort of reinforced and put a lot of new light on how we treat mental health,” DeBellis said. 

According to Alan Russell, Director of the Disability Resource Center, the DRC has been interacting more with the WellBeing Office in order to help students with accommodations.

“There is an increase in students seeking academic accommodations due to mental health issues, which are probably related to COVID stress. There has been an increase in DRC interaction with the Wellbeing Office to assist students with accommodations,” Russell said.

Physical accessibility is another aspect to consider. DeBellis said that the physical plan of Rice is extremely accessible and that the automatic doors with wave swipe sensors are very helpful. While Rice tries to do the best they can, some details can be overlooked, according to DeBellis.

“I think one of my biggest things that people overlook are the doors to the bathrooms. The bathroom can have an ADA accessible stall, but the door to get in the bathroom is not propped open,” DeBellis said. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to go to the bathroom without bringing a companion [and asking] ‘Hey, can you open the door for me?’ One thing that can really improve accessibility is … handicap door openers on the bathroom that connect the doorway from the hallway to the interior of the bathroom.

According to Russell, the newly constructed buildings on campus, such as New Sid, show how much Rice has improved over the years when it comes to increasing accessibility for students with disabilities. 

“The building of New Sid is a good example of how far the university has progressed with regard to accessibility improvements for students with disabilities. This office [the Disability Resource Center] continuously works with FE&P to identify priority areas for accessibility improvements around the campus,” Russell said. “The number of new buildings being constructed on campus is a great opportunity to implement good accessible design, which can benefit the whole campus community, irrespective of disability.”

DeBellis, a wheelchair user who needed accessible housing, was placed in one of the accessible rooms on the first floor of Martel her freshman year. She said she felt isolated since the first-floor accessible suites were all in one area.

“I remember in my freshman fall semester [in 2019], I felt very disconnected from Martel,” DeBellis said. “I am a very extroverted person so I was forced to look for friends outside my own residential college. Yes, it’s nice Martel has a suite of ADA accessible rooms, but why did you put them in a corner on the first floor?”

Later on, DeBellis said, they discovered there is an ADA suite on every floor of Martel, though they were not architecturally finished to be ADA accessible. According to DeBellis, H&D completed the suites and she was able to move to a different room the second semester of her freshman year. 

“Once I moved up to the fourth floor of Martel, I instantly felt like I was more involved and more ‘in the know’ with everyone else. I didn’t feel like I was outside,” DeBellis said.

Gibney also had to take housing into consideration her freshman year. She said that she needed a first-floor room at a college that would be accessible for her. 

“A lot of the colleges don’t have rooms on the first floor. At the time I [also] wanted one that would have an in-room bathroom so that on the really bad days … I would not have to go very far,” Gibney said. “With those stipulations the only colleges I could be placed in were Wiess and Lovett.”

DeBellis said that she views her disability as a conversation starter more than anything. She also said that while some people may be afraid to ask questions, she appreciates it when they are upfront. 

“As a bigger sort of societal thing, I think we are sort of afraid to ask people what they need,” DeBellis said. “A lot of people think it’s sort of indelicate or offensive to ask people about their disabilities. But when it comes to classes and stuff, professors should be like, ‘I understand, I see that you have any kind of disability. How can I help you?’”

Weltens said that he appreciates people’s desire to support students with disabilities and that believes that it’s important for the conversation to focus more on giving agency to the disabled students themselves.

“The key thing for anyone with a disability to know is to develop the courage and agency to take matters into their own hands and to stand up for themselves and seek out the accommodations they need,” Weltens said. “I want to focus on empowering and giving back to the students with disabilities themselves.”

Editor-in-Chief Savannah Kuchar contributed to this article.

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