For Webster University graduate student Margarita Solis and undergraduate student Erika Ruth, a ramp, an elevator and a translator make going to college possible. Ruth is a deaf student, and Solis suffers from a disability called Cerebral Palsy.
by Ava Rosslein
Solis was born nine weeks early in Mexico, and moved to St. Louis later on in her life. She is bilingual, and she came to Webster to become a Spanish interpreter.
”Everything takes me a lot more effort,” Solis said.
Even though she moves at a slower pace, Solis refuses to use a scooter to get around because she wants to be as independent as possible.
“For a long time I felt like I just didn’t want to have that defining me,” Solis said. “If people saw me struggling they would offer their help, and I could have figured out ways to not be so awkward about it.“
It took Solis six years to graduate with her bachelor’s degree from Webster, and she feels that her stubbornness to ask for help was a factor in not graduating on time. Now, at the age of 27, Solis is back in school in hopes of getting her masters in education.
Solis said that having more people getting accepted to Webster with disabilities has helped increase awareness.
One of the improvements Solis has seen over the course of being at Webster is that the entrance to Marletto’s is now completely assessible. Solis said before it was “extremely limited.” Furthermore, Solis is also pleased with the addition of an extra elevator in Webster Hall.
“I think a lot of progress has been made, and I think Webster is trying to be a contender (as) one of the top universities in the country, and I think to do that they have to be accessible,” Solis said.
Ruth, a photography major, has been a student at Webster for almost two years. Photography is a love of Ruth’s because her eyes are a substitute for her ears. She likes that the people at Webster have an open mind about her disability.
“Good thing is, Webster supports disability by providing an interpreter, which is great for me,” Ruth said.
The Academic Resource Center provides accommodations such as these upon student request and documentation.
Webster also has a disability committee. Victoria McMullen, committee chair for the past two years, teaches in special education and has a son with a physical disability. She has been an advocate of accessibility for nearly 30 years.
The committee is made up of three faculty and staff members, as well as three students. McMullen said the goal of the committee is to survey and inform the administration about accessibility needs and to educate. In addition, the committee is very involved when it comes to new building plans due to incidents that didn’t consider students with disabilities. Greg Gunderson, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, now sits in on the commitee when new buildings are in the planning process.
“He is making sure we’re at the table as new buildings are being designed,” McMullen said. “We’ve pointed out some of the things that have happened in the past when accessibility was considered afterwards, instead of during the planning process.”
Webster had a hard time meeting the needs of students with physical disabilities before the accessibility committee was able to get involved in the planning for new buildings.
The entrance to Garden Park Plaza originally had no push button access when the building was first designed. This was brought up after a survey and eventually the administration got the funding to install the new door. McMullen said it would have been far less expensive if the accomodation would have been thought of before the building was made.
To prevent problems similar to Garden Park Plaza in the future, the architect for the Sverdrup Hall renovations spoke to the committee before they began planning it out. The accessibility committee has already made a request of accomodations to consider when updating the building. This includes: door knobs that students with special needs are able to open, sinks that can fit wheelchairs underneath them and adjustable and moveable tables.
In McMullen’s Introduction to Students with Disabilities class, she has a number of students participate in an activity during which she lets them borrow her son’s wheelchair for a couple of hours to see what it’s like to have a physical handicap in every day life.
“They become stronger advocates,” McMullen said. “You have to experience that ‘Oh my gosh, that ramp down to the light at Big Bend, you’ve got to have amazing upper arm strength to not roll down too fast’. It always helps people gain a deeper appreciation.”
Students in the class can also choose to spend two hours blindfolded to see what it is like for a blind student. Additionally, class members can choose to block out sound with earplugs and headphones with the inability to talk to anyone during the two-hour time frame.
The Campus Accessibility Survey is done every year at Webster to help raise awareness to problem areas on campus. The committee sections off different areas of the university and has people test out wheelchairs to see what issues need to be addressed.
Last year during the survey, McMullen said three different women in wheelchairs made an attempt to get into the bookstore. All three could not get in due to a three-inch cement threshold that enabled them to get in the doorway. In order to fix it, facilities built a tiny concrete ramp this past summer.
Due to the efforts of the university, Webster received the “Accessible STL Shine The Light Award” on Nov. 14, 2013. The award is given to businesses in St. Louis that make their environment as accessible as possible.
Solis is pleased to see just how far Webster has come with accommodations since she first arrived on campus in 2005.
“Having that combination of academic (help) and campus accessibility is making getting a degree a lot less stressful, and I’m happy to witness the improvements,” Solis said.
Students everywhere continue to struggle with disabilities, but at Webster, progress is being made in the interest of students with disabilities.