MSU Disability Services brings educational access to all students

MSU’s Office of Disability, Re-Entry and Veteran Services works to make sure that all students, regardless of the challenges they face compared to a traditional student, are able to access the support they need in order to succeed at MSU.

Because MSU is an older campus, built on a hill and located where it frequently snows, accessibility for students with physical disabilities can present a major challenge for campus designers.

After the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 were signed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination, anytime a new building is constructed, it is required to be built to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities. Buildings constructed before these acts, however, can be grandfathered in, and if it is not feasible to make the building handicap accessible, it can remain the way it is. One example is Montana Hall, where constructing an elevator or lift to every floor is all but impossible in the current space.

Disability Services understands that the MSU campus can present challenges to individuals with physical disabilities. Walkways that are too steep can be impassible for students with many physical disabilities. On the main MSU webpage, as well as the webpage for Disabilities, Re-entry and Veteran Services, there is a link to a campus accessibility map that highlights steep sidewalks, sidewalk curb cuts, construction zones and locations of automated external defibrillators. There are also accessibility maps for every building on campus that show where the lifts or elevators are in that building and where the handicap accessible entrances are.

During the winter, MSU’s Facilities Services respond to snowfall, clearing paths, roads and walkways as quickly as possible, as well as salting icy spots around campus, to make transportation accessible for all students, especially individuals with physical disabilities.

Maria Velazquez, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, believes in the importance of designing for physical disability access. Each semester she requires students in her class, Intro to Systems Engineering, to go a full day in a wheelchair. Velazquez said, “I ask them to do everything they have to do [regularly], attend classes, labs, go to lunch, meetings, just be normal [while] using a wheelchair.” She understands that her students are going to be designers and analysts. “My goal is for [my students] to keep in mind those that are disabled, because it’s not easy for them. It creates awareness early in their career so that they keep [handicap accessibility] in mind as they move along after they graduate.”

Although wheelchairs first come to mind when thinking about physical disability (the international symbol of access even depicts a stick figure on a wheelchair), Brenda York, director of Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services, stressed that there are more physical disabilities that inhibit transportation up stairs and across large distances. “One of the things that’s a misconception about physical disabilities is everyone automatically assumes wheelchair, and there are people with permanent knee injuries, people with prosthetics and individuals with heart conditions.” She explained that all of those issues and more could potentially make it hard for a student to get to a class located upstairs in a building without a handicap accessible lift or elevator.

On top of their work for students with physical disabilities, Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services works with students with learning, psychological and temporary disabilities. Currently they help 578 students that require assistance or special accommodations due to their disabilities. They also provide services for veterans and non-traditional students.

Although Disability Services provides an invaluable role on campus, ensuring that an education at MSU is accessible to all, York explained paradoxically: “The goal for disabilities services is to be put out of business, [where] everything is built and classes are taught with universal design so that everything is automatic.”