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Disabled students encounter obstacles on campus

%C2%A9+2017%2C+Matt+Halverson.+The+side+door+of+HIbbard+Humanities+Hall+at+UW-Eau+Claire%2C+the+only+door+on+the+front+side+of+the+building+without+steps.
© 2017, Matt Halverson. The side door of HIbbard Humanities Hall at UW-Eau Claire, the only door on the front side of the building without steps.

© 2017, Matt Halverson. The side door of HIbbard Humanities Hall at UW-Eau Claire, the only door on the front side of the building without steps.

© 2017, Matt Halverson. The side door of HIbbard Humanities Hall at UW-Eau Claire, the only door on the front side of the building without steps.


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By Matt Halverson

Living with a physical disability can transform the simplest activities into a problematic experience. Something as mundane as an ankle sprain generates newfound difficulty in daily tasks. The three harmless steps on the front porch become a formidable barrier. An awkward shove on the bus becomes an awkward scene. Physical disabilities can generate obstacles in places that not everyone has to think about.

This isn’t an issue for Jaryd Seever, a freshman trumpet player in the Blugold Marching Band who suffers from a rare syndrome that affects his ability to walk. Seever is a music education major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, with hopes of becoming a teacher and a performer. Although participation in marching band is required for his degree, he says the marching band has become more than a course. It’s become something of a family for him.

“I should have been born without legs,” says Seever. “I’m the only one that I know of with my syndrome that actually has legs, and isn’t wheelchair bound.”

One of his legs is longer than the other, causing a rocking motion in his step. This begs the question: how can a student that isn’t supposed to have legs march in the Blugold Marching Band?

“It impacts my playing, for one,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s too hard to play everything, and I don’t want to risk messing up the sound.”

Seever says he has no problems marching in shows, something he’s excited and passionate about. The inclusivity of those with disabilities on campus is part of what drew Seever to the trumpet studio at UW-Eau Claire. Completely deaf in one ear, he faces a unique set of challenges as a mu sician in college, as well as in his future endeavors.

The American’s with Disabilities Act  passed in 1990 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. However, according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (USBLS), people over the age of 16 are 47.5 percent more likely to be employed if they do not have a disability. In Eau Claire County, the US Census Bureau reports that 7.8 percent of the 102,965 total residents have some sort of disability.

The daunting statistics start aside, frustration can begin before entering the professional workforce. College students with disabilities must overcome their own set of obstacles in basic activities, like where to live and how to get around. At UW-Eau Claire, any issues involving the ADA are handled by the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) Office.

“By law, we have to provide accessible education,” says SSD director Vicky Thomas, “no matter what their limitations are, if it meets the ADA, we’re required to provide it.”

One of the first changes made at UW-Eau Claire following the ADA was the installation of curb cuts in-between campus streets and sidewalks. © 2017 Matt Halverson

Thomas says their program has over 500 registered students, accounting for roughly 4.5 percent of the student body. One of the first implementations of the ACA at UWEC was the use of curb cuts on sidewalks, followed by ramp levels and wheelchair turning radius spaces. Just getting around can be half the battle for those living with disabilities, even in the most inclusive of spaces.

“I usually go to Haas [Fine Arts Center] at least 5-7 times a day, so I’m spending at least 2 hours just walking back and forth.” says Seever.

Designs for the new campus footbridge implement ways to make walks shorter, an adjustment made after initial blueprints showed an increase in campus walking times. Thomas says it’s common for her to attend meetings near the beginning of any campus construction project to ensure everything is up to standard. For example, the basement of Katherine Thomas residence hall was recently renovated to be more spacious and accommodating to those with disabilities.

“We’re a hundred-year-old institution, many of our buildings are older and have to be outfitted with various new accommodations.” Says Lissa Martinez, former hall director of Katherine Thomas (now in Governors Hall).  “Also, recognizing that we have a giant hill dividing our campus, and that is definitely a challenge.”

Seever says he has difficulty with the hill and will try to avoid it if he can. Recent graduate Pete Winslow (who uses a motorized wheelchair) added that the snowfall in Eau Claire impacted the accessibility of campus tremendously, especially if sidewalks were unplowed when he needed to go to class.

“It’s always extra, and above and beyond what anyone else would have to do,” says Thomas. “A lot of challenges that a lot of people never think about. Like if you’ve ever had an injury, even a temporary one, it breaks up your whole routine and everything you do.”

Completion of the newly constructed campus mall is expected to finish in the fall of 2018.© 2017 Matt Halverson

She says the SSD office provides students with reasonable accommodation to make anything education related accessible for students, although on occasion, there are things that don’t work.

After graduation, the transition off campus presents an entirely new set of challenges. The USBLS reports that people with disabilities (PWD) are employed at a significantly lower rate than those without disabilities. Those with a college degree are slightly more likely to be employed, but not at a significant rate according to the USBLS. Among noninstitutionalized civilians with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 75.6 percent of people without a disability were employed in 2016, as opposed to 26.2 percent of the same group of people with a disability. The US Census Bureau reports that all PWD’s who were able to work were still unemployed at a rate of 43 percent in 2000.

So what makes it so difficult for those with disabilities to enter the professional workforce? A research study conducted by the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation (CPRF) suggests several reasons for the statistical disparity between PWD’s and those without disabilities.

First, the study suggests that employers often stereotype PWD’s by their generated expectations. Since disabilities vary broadly in both physical and mental forms, the study also notes that it can be difficult to make generalizations about all PWD’s. According to the study, some employers also believe PWD’s may not have necessary knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) to perform job related tasks.

Additionally, the CPRF study states that “many employers believe that costly accommodations and other investments are necessary in order to hire and maintain employees with disabilities and equalize productivity.” The study references several surveys, finding that employers are “very concerned” with the costs of providing accommodations for PWD’s.

Above data collected by a survey conducted by the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities

A conclusion reached of the CPRF study also states that there is no direct research evidence based around stereotypes to entirely affirm their impact. However, the conclusion estimates that the combination of stereotypes toward PWD’s and job requirements can lead to unfair discrimination.

The ADA directly addresses employer discrimination, stating that employers cannot “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.” There are exceptions within the ADA as well, stating that accommodations that “would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business” are excluded. Although the ADA has had positive benefits since its implementation, most have been uncomprehensive in raising employment rates, according to the CPRF study.

As for people like Jaryd Seever, the statistics are unfortunately stacked against him. The CPRF study finishes by offering an employer centric approach to address these inequalities. Employment barriers vary greatly depending a PWD’s necessary level of resource support, but consequently prevents employers from discovering the many talented individuals living with disabilities, according to the study.

Seever says his disability can be personally demeaning, especially if people pity him. He adds that even if school can be difficult, his focus isn’t entirely about how far his career takes him.

“One of my major goals in life, outside my music, is to do the best I can to inspire people.” He says. “Having a disability, yeah there are challenges, but you can do anything you put your mind to.”

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Disabled students encounter obstacles on campus