Disabled Bearkats Desire More Accessibility

Anna Menke, freshman at SHSU looking at stairs inside the Lowman Student Center.

Photo by Tracy Downey

Under a new, cerulean blue sky or grey cloudbursts, here at Sam Houston State University, there are 368 acres of the green, piney bluff and roughly 3,752+ steps for a fit student carrying an umbrella to hike, stroll, or sprint to class. How long does it take for a healthy student to trek across campus?

“It takes about ten minutes,” said student Savannah Carr. But for disabled students like Anna Menke, a freshman studying psychology wheeling from The Raven Village toward the two-year-old Lowman Student Center through the bumpy, cobblestone tarmac takes about fifteen minutes.

To save time, she leaves earlier, especially during a heavy downpour. The Houstonian explored life on campus through Anna’s eyes for the past year, and the results were surprising.

The third, oldest university in Texas vaunts massive, historical shrines like Austin Hall, founded in 1851, complete with stunning, ample rose gardens veiled from view unless you descend a pebble stairway to get to it. Because of the narrow-cobbled stairs, Anna and other disabled students cannot access them. Whether crossing the George J. Beto Criminal Justice building from the CHSS building to trudging toward the Dan Rather Communications building, there are secret, brick stairways that fool the average student into thinking there might be an accessibility ramp when there isn’t one.

Back in September, we met Anna, a freshman studying psychology, steering through the LSC, venting over the difficulties of managing on the campus. After accepting that there are minimal disabled parking spaces and a gravel landscape to navigate, she sat down with us to unpack her concerns.

“[One day] I had to get scantrons from the bookstore, and I tried using the lift, and [it] wasn’t working [at the time],” explained, Menke. “I called the information desk and said, “Hey, the lift is not working. And they said that someone was on their way to fix it, and at that point, I just needed to get in and get out.” Meneke, independent at heart, created her own solution to enter the LSC.

“I just [wheeled] a bit more and used the ramp [outside of the LSC], and honestly, that is easier than waiting on the lift.”

Menke resides on campus, has a handicapped vehicle, and wheels her chair around the 368 acres with seven colleges.

Most days, she considers the commute from her dorm uphill toward the CHSS building more manageable.

But it becomes treacherous for her and many other students when it rains.

“[From the bottom of the hill], it’s a hike from the Margaret Lea Houston building. Toward the top, I get out of breath.” From piloting her chair up and down narrow sidewalks, Menke developed blisters on the palm of her hands during the first three weeks of the school year and had to invest in electrical gloves. “Four bucks from Home Depot,” she said with a grin. “The gloves are great; my skin is still peeling but healing.”

There are days where Menke feels “it’s not so bad” until she reflects on a new challenge, like handicapped parking. “There are a lot of disabled students on campus who use them. I’m not saying anything bad about people using the spots; it’s just, perhaps, adding a few more?”

According to student Savannah Carr, there was a discussion two years prior before Dr. White became the university president about students wanting to increase handicap accessibility.

“Before Dr. White got hired, they had a forum where they allowed students to come and say what aspects of a new president do the students want and [their expectations,] and one of the topics included was more ADA compliance.”

When asked if there should be more accessibility on campus. Carr agrees there should be more access. “Yeah, my roommate sprained her ankle last semester and [would park] in zone two [behind Paper Moon Apartments], and like, it wasn’t a horrible walk because she was right at the Smith-Hudson building, but her ankle would be like throbbing by the time she got to class,” said Carr.

“It was hard when she had on the boot, trying to walk around campus because it’s like…the hills hurt too, you know?”

For three years, students requested handicap accessibility expansion be in the pipeline. The Lowman Student Center is two years old and has only two lifts to enter the building and a lot of stairs. Disabled students believe the university could do more, including building a ramp to enter the LSC to get to the student bookstore and take out the stairs.

“Yes,” said sophomore Marina Lane, who uses a walker around campus. Lane, a friend of Anna’s, conversed in mutual agreement about the uneven pavement acting as a potential fall risk. “So, you know those sidewalks with the little circle bumps, I have to go slow on those because multiple times I have flipped over because of those,” said Meneke. “Some of these routes, I have to be careful because of the bumps.”

To forward Menke and Lane’s concerns, the Houstonian asked outgoing President Joseph Chavez of the Student Government Association how to approach the lack of accessibility on campus. Chavez, a senior, gave some sage advice to the new student government for the 2023/2024 academic year.

“It’s something that Student Government Association has been doing for years now, and that is the campus-wide safety walk.” Chavez explains that the walk is like a “student self-audit” where SGA invites student organizations to participate in a campus walk where each team points out issues. From cosmetics to infrastructure, whether it is safe or dangerous, the audit allows students to report problems directly to the university. “We have these kinds of things in place, take that data, gather it, and create a presentation to give to the Office of the Internal Audit,” said Chavez. “It is there that the SGA follows up on the data [from six months or so] and what’s going on with it, and what are we going to do with it?”

The Houstonian went to the top with that question.

“We’re having a master plan done for the whole campus, and one of my changes to the firm doing the planning is to consider how we can make the campus more accessible,” said Dr. Alisa White, President of Sam Houston State University. “Our campus is beautiful, but its terrain makes it challenging to navigate, and whenever we build or renovate, accessibility needs to be an essential consideration.”

One of the suggestions brought forth was for the university to create a committee for the disabled community to provide feedback to Student Government Association and then, in turn, report to Facilities Management. Chavez shared his thoughts.

“I think that would be a wonderful idea; if there’s a need for it, then it should happen. Because at the end of the day, these students are still students, and the beautiful thing about SGA is the voice of the students.” Chavez believes that campus surveys dealing with the subject [of handicap accessibility] are the ideal way to keep the pipeline open. “An able student walking and pointing things out might not be as efficient as a student using these facilities.”

The Houstonian has followed up with Menke since last semester to see how she is progressing. Now that she’s built up her muscles, she still struggles with unsafe ramps and parking accessibility. “It’s a little frustrating when there are only three handicap spots in the back of my building because if one is taken, then I have to park all the way at the end of my building, which is right across the street from the Margaret Lea Houston building,” said Meneke.

Still, Menke stresses that she understands that the campus is 144 years old, and although she maintains her independence, she does her best not to complain but feels it is essential to speak her mind. She hopes for the best outcome for every student on campus.

“I know that some of the entrances, like at the CHSS building, the major entrances have stairs, and I [must] go to the top of the hill from my dorm room. I love the school and my professors; it’s just that maybe they could make some easier ramps that are not so hilly if possible. I think that would be helpful and add a lot more handicapped [parking] spots for students because it is a hike going from the Margaret Lea Houston building. By the time I get to the end of my building, I’m tired,” said Menke.

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