For a school that touts its accessibility, Hofstra isn’t exactly super-friendly terrain for someone new to being in a wheelchair. I learned this the hard way. Going into buying my first wheelchair, I knew I’d be facing some hurdles. I live on the only floor in my building that isn’t accessible by elevator, and I can’t carry a chair that’s five times over my lifting limit to my room. Fitting a wheelchair in my already-cramped dorm is also a challenge. I went into this expecting both of these things and knowing I’d find myself facing any number of other unfamiliar and difficult situations. What I didn’t expect was to be surrounded by them constantly – or how much of a group effort navigating my daily life would become.
Because I’m not in a motorized chair, anything that isn’t perfectly flat, level ground is either an upper-arm workout to get to the top, or an exercise in grabbing my wheels as tight as I can and hoping I don’t burn my palms trying to brake going downhill. The unispan is out of the question entirely; even on a good day when I’m walking I struggle to make it all the way across. Now I need someone to push me across it, including up the ramps that lead to the building’s entrance on either side.
Finding someone to help me get from my dorm to class – including lugging a fifty pound wheelchair down a narrow flight of stairs, helping me up and down ramps, opening doors that don’t have automatic buttons or whose buttons don’t work, and more – has become my morning routine. A lot of my day has turned into pulling out my laptop and trying to get some work done as I sit in random places, waiting for someone to answer my texted pleas for help.
Accessibility is a lot more than having an elevator in a building, or a ramp on a side entrance. Accessibility in my life means having someone willing to lend a helping hand when a bad pain day means that even using my wheelchair on my own all day is too painful. It means being able to navigate a crowded classroom without plowing into desks, and having a place to store it during class. Accessibility to me is also everyone being understanding when I need to go back to my room to get my chair halfway through the day, and my friends offering to help me decorate my chair so I feel better about needing to take it to an event.
What constitutes accessibility for me might be completely different for someone else. Wheelchair users, and disabled people at large, aren’t one homogenous group that all need the exact same things. Accessibility isn’t a one-size-fits-all, cut-and-dry solution. It isn’t parking signs that say “Person First Parking” because the other half of the conversation won’t actually take the time to listen to the people they’re trying to put first. Accessibility is listening to the needs of disabled people, each individual one, and not denying them accommodations because their paperwork is older than six months.
My friends have always gone out of their way to accommodate me, both before I got my wheelchair and especially now that I have it. They make sure I have someone lined up to get my chair down the stairs, and someone else to make sure I make it across campus in ten minutes to get to class on time. My friend in my class offers to hold my coffee every morning so I don’t spill it trying to get across uneven sidewalks.
Hofstra, meanwhile, denied me any accommodations for an entire semester despite having x-rays and doctor’s letters, because my paperwork was “too old.” Automatic door buttons don’t work. The shuttle’s “wheelchair lift is broken right now” and I’m forced to wait and gamble on not being in pain the next day when the shuttle runs to Target and I have to walk.
How am I supposed to believe Hofstra is accessible when my friends, a bunch of stressed-out, overworked, exhausted college students do so much more to help than the entire University?