Accessibility Plan aims to tackle campus inequities

Image courtesy of Jyotsna Naidu ’25.

The 2022-2024 Accessibility Plan implemented through the Fearlessly Consequential campaign is the first in a series of plans to broadly audit and improve upon on campus accessibility and guide future construction over the next two years. 

“The [Accessibility] Committee is beginning to think about how we shift culture,” Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne H. Begemann said. This culture shift was informed in part by student input collected through surveys and open sessions according to Begemann. “How do we have conversations spreading the word and giving people the tools that they need?”

The Accessibility Committee, which authored the new plan, took into account student input through open sessions, membership on the Committee and a survey sent out to the student body. One in five students are registered with the Office for Accessibility and Educational Opportunity (AEO), per the Accessibility Plan. The plan is scheduled to be implemented over the next two years. Already, documents on Moodle are more accessible through tools like Blackboard Ally and the Moodle Accessibility Toolkit in conjunction with Vassar’s learning management system. 

“First, [the tools] give instructors the ability to scan their Moodle course sites for accessibility problems and assists them in resolving the issues. Secondly, they can let students automatically generate alternative formats for uploaded materials (such as converting a PDF into an audio file),” as stated in the Action Steps

Next semester, a daytime campus shuttle will run in addition to the nighttime safety shuttle. The shuttle will follow a consistent schedule and route from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. to help students get to Gordon Commons, for example. To help students receive such accommodations and foster community, Shira Freilich ’25, Thayer Lehman-Borer ’25, Sneha Das ’25 and Amber Eddy ’25 founded the Disability Self-Advocacy and Support Network.

“Our organization is all about self advocacy [and] teaching people how to really push for what they need,” Freilich said. “It’s frustrating because the resources are there, they’re just not being given to the students that need them because people don’t know about it.” 

According to Freilich, registration with the AEO is anonymous so students may not be able to find others with disabilities. Thus, a long-term goal of the group is to create a disability affinity center for meetings and recreation similar to the ALANA and LGBTQ Centers. The group has gathered 46 members with demonstrated interest as of Nov. 6, 2022, to apply to become a preliminary organization through the Vassar Student Association (VSA).

“As we get more into this work, we can begin to see how a lot of what we do is tied to questions of accessibility,” Begemann said. “The work so far has really opened my eyes to areas of accessibility that I maybe wasn’t paying so much attention to before. When we think about the undocumented, especially, or the invisible disabilities, [it is important to be] mindful about how we think about space and anything from how we create a calendar of activities for the week.”

The Campus Accessibility Audit will review physical accommodations such as ramps and elevators to determine sites for improvement and budget costs with an outside consultant to be released later this year. Previously, major renovations were not required to follow 2010 ADA regulations. Now, two sets of Accessible Building Guidelines—inspired by the Green Building Standards for sustainability—will be issued for renovations of existing buildings and construction of new buildings. 

“We can ensure that our new construction and major retrofits go beyond ADA requirements toward creating a universally accessible campus for all,” per the Action Steps. 

Universal designs, such as plans for automated paddle door openers on the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences doors, not only help students who require accommodations but all students, as survey data pointed to. In the near future, an all-gender locker room in Walker Field House will be opened alongside existing gendered locker rooms.

The plan states: “[F]or many transgender, metagender, and other non-cisgender individuals, a lack of gender-affirming facilities can make many spaces and activities inaccessible. Ensuring these spaces exist on a permanent basis affirms the College’s commitment to inclusion for all gender identities.”

Gender identity and transgender inclusion is one of several potential topics for virtual Voluntary Accessibility Training provided for students, faculty, staff and administrators asynchronously. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done but I think the only way to do it is to begin talking about it,” Begemann said. “There are definitely needs on campus and you can’t do everything all at once, but you can start to chip away at it.”

The 2025-2027 Accessibility Plan will be drafted in Fall 2023 to allow for the current plan’s progress to inform the next. 

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