Renovated Heslep Amphitheatre difficult to access for people with mobility impairment
By GINNY BIXBY
The wheelchair accessible entrance to the Heslep Amphitheatre, a $3 million renovation project, is not visible from campus walk. Accessing it requires either parking in one of two handicap parking spots directly next to the amphitheatre or hiking up a steep incline located off of Sunken Road, starting behind Lee Hall.
The campus walk entrances are staircases.
According to the ADA National Network, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990, “All the programs of postsecondary institutions, including extracurricular activities, must be accessible to students with disabilities.” This includes providing architectural access to buildings and residential facilities. However, these accommodations are not mandatory if they “would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program or activity or give rise to an undue financial or administrative burden.”
“It is ADA compliant, but it’s not convenient,” said Sabrina Johnson, UMW’s vice president for equity and access, of the amphitheatre. Johnson said she has been engaged in conversations about making it more accessible for people with mobility access issues.
Johnson said there is a plan to build an access point to the amphitheatre from campus walk that would be ready by the start of the fall 2019 semester.
But until then, “what will be necessary is for the University to provide assistance to folks from campus walk to get to the accessible entrance,” said Johnson. She said possible methods of doing this include using the campus golf carts to transport people from campus walk to the entrance.
“Until we get it the way really want it, to provide the experience for everyone to be convenient and comfortable and inclusive, we’ll be taking those kinds of measures as needed,” said Johnson.
Susan Worrell, special assistant to the president for special events, said that there have not been any school events in the amphitheatre since it was renovated, although a Roman drama class has booked it for a play they are holding on April 26.
“There are three events on the books for this fall because we know that after August it’s going to be totally accessible,” said Worrell.
Johnson said it is not her understanding that certain events cannot be held in the amphitheatre due to the accessibility issue, but that for any events that are held, the University has to plan to provide assistance.
Worrell said that while the limited accessibility has impacted her decision to not promote the amphitheatre as an event space, she does not typically promote any of the other event spaces on campus.
“We haven’t had numerous inquiries about [booking the amphitheatre]. The majority of the inquiries have been people who are alums who want to have their wedding there,” said Worrell.
Johnson said she recognizes it is not convenient for students with mobility issues who may want to spend time in the amphitheatre on a normal day outside of an event. “That’s what we’re working on; it’s a priority,” she said.
Senior English major Kylie Bean said her disability affects her mobility on campus.
“I’m hemiparetic, meaning I’m partially paralyzed on one side of my body. I use a leg brace and a cane for better mobility, but stairs and hills are painful for me. I walk with a limp and walk at a slower pace than most people. I also get worn out by physical activity like walking around campus more quickly and easily than most,” Bean said.
Bean said her experience with accessibility at UMW has been mixed. “The Disabled Student Services office [and] Office of Disability Resources has been fantastic. However, the housing situation has been sub par. I have also had professors that have not been understanding of my tardiness when I had to walk across campus in ten minutes while being physically disabled,” Bean said.
“I think universities as a whole across the entire country struggle to meet the needs of students with disabilities. I think that some might have more challenges than others because of things are within their control and also outside their control,” said Jessica Machado, director of UMW’s Office of Disability Resources.
“Because we’re a beautiful historic campus, we have beautiful historic buildings that have a lot of value and are very important for our campus, so I don’t want to discount that in any way. Things were not always designed with acceptability in mind 100 years ago,” said Machado.
“Some of my classes were in buildings without functioning elevators and were upstairs. While I went to class, it was often painful to get there. One of the clubs I sporadically attend is [also] located in the [creative writing mansion], so it is rare that I go,” said Bean. Senior Brandy Fallon, a member of the DiversAbility club, suggested that the University could be doing more in terms of making campus more accessible. “UMW seems to make sure things are compliant with ADA laws, but they don’t really think things through as far as making things easily accessible,” said Fallon.
“Most handicapped parking is used by staff and nothing is specifically for disabled students. Some buildings have ramps behind the building to way out of the way so a disabled student has to take more time and energy out of their day just to find an accessible entrance.” Machado explained that some older buildings on campus are not accessible. “Because we are a historic campus, we also might be inadvertently setting ourselves up for not having a lot of students with mobility issues coming to our campus because of the challenges they face with just navigating,” said Machado.
“The Title IX building – and how important is that! – is not accessible. You have to be able to walk up those stairs in order to get to the front door and inside. Once you’re inside, the offices are also upstairs.” “We have buildings that are still used and [taught] in, like the creative writing mansion,” continued Machado. “If students have the need to be able to use the elevator or something like that, then we have to figure out how to change that classroom location. All of that requires time and coordination across the different departments.”
Johnson said that there is still much to be done on campus in terms of accessibility. “The campus in and of itself [can be inaccessible] because of all the rain; it’s just the nature of where we’re located. There are some very inconvenient access issues,” she said. Johnson said she is consistently working to make structures on campus more accessible. For example, she recently worked to create a more accessible entrance to the zen garden.
“For awhile that wasn’t accessible, and one of the things I advocated for and got immediate support with [making] sure that was accessible as fast as we [could], and now it is.” Additionally, Johnson is working to install automatic door openers in all buildings.
“We are adding door openers to buildings as those issues are brought to our attention,” she said. For example, she is working on adding door openers in DuPont and Woodard to doors that are closer to the elevator. She said there is a protocol to check that these are working and to respond if someone reports they are not working.
“As renovations are happening, of course we are making changes, and then in existing buildings we’re trying to understand the issues and address them as we can,” said Johnson.
Bean said that she hopes the University will work to “include elevator access in all buildings—academic, administrative and living. Include ramps and elevators in gender neutral housing. Have training for all staff, especially housing staff.”
“We’ve got 14 students who are classified as having mobility impairment. That number could change tomorrow if someone else wants to register. It’s a really small percentage of students, but that doesn’t mean that those students are not just as valuable as every other student here, and have the right to access the same opportunities,” said Machado.
Johnson said that as vice president for equity and access, it is important to continue to work to make all aspects of campus accessible for all students.
“The amphitheatre is a wonderful, beautiful venue; it’s nostalgic, it has historical value, so as one of the offerings that we’re most proud of and that we want to celebrate, we have to do our best to be sure that everyone can enjoy it equally.”
Kate Seltzer contributed to the reporting of this story.