– Wheelchairs in the lecture hall –

Alexandria Watson

Looking around the Northern Michigan University campus, it is rare to see an individual in a wheelchair. For the past six years there have only been 10 students in wheelchairs that have attended NMU.

Perhaps this is because walking through six inches of snow is one thing; attempting to roll through it in a wheelchair is another thing entirely.

However, all of the students in wheelchairs currently attending NMU already have experience dealing with winter weather.

“All handicapped students attending the university are from the Upper Peninsula,” Carolyn Lawrence, Assistant Dean of Students and coordinator of the Disability Services at NMU, said.

Lawrence was very forthcoming about efforts working directly with the grounds crew to make sure the sidewalks and buildings housing students in wheelchairs are plowed first.

In the winter months Marquette gets an immense amount of snow. Pushing a heavy chair on an unplowed sidewalk or street is unappealing, to say the least. Dealing with unplowed snow in a wheelchair would be borderline absurd, but thankfully that isn’t the case for NMU students.

Lawrence states that the university is up to code as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits the  discrimination of and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation,” the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has said. Drinking fountains must be 27 inches high, doorways 32 inches wide and elevators or ramps mandatory to reach upper levels.

Every building, dorm and sidewalk technically meets the demands of a student in a wheelchair. Desks are at a proper level; drinking fountains, doorways, elevators and ramps are all consistently up to the ever-changing ADA code.

Lawrence works directly with each handicapped student to make sure all of their needs are met. The renovation of Jamrich Hall was a huge step forward in reassuring that all new ADA laws were up to code.

While researching wheelchair-friendly campuses on 101mobility.com, I came across six that were highly rated: University of Illinois at Urbana, Embro University, Hofstra University, U.C. Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Arizona. These universities have more handicapped students than other campuses. Because they have an above-average number of students with handicaps on campus, disability services at each university are constantly checking ADA compliance codes to make sure they’re following the correct guidelines.

A few more questions came to mind: Where do the handicapped students live on campus? Are the rooms accessible? Does the university provide service aids to help students with daily tasks.

The Northern Michigan University policy states they will not buy new furniture to accommodate students. “We can’t spend too much on rooms to accommodate one or two individuals,” Jeff Korpi, associate director of Housing and Residence life at NMU, said.

Korpi made it very clear even though the Northern Michigan University policy has major restrictions and guidelines for residence halls, residence staff does everything they can to accommodate a handicapped student. Housing staff will lower light switches, install bathroom rails, lower sinks, have roll-in showers and clear the room of all extraneous furniture so that the student may bring their own.

Korpi also stated that one of the largest problems with the university is that there is not enough funding to provide aid to some of these students in need. This creates huge limitations on the type of students that are considering attending NMU. The policy is also strict because of liability concerns.

The older dorms on campus are currently limited on accessible rooms. This doesn’t mean that they are not up to ADA code; it merely means that it is not a barrier free zone for students in wheelchairs.

“All of quad two has been completely renovated, and there are 12 barrier free rooms,” Korpi said.

Lawrence and Korpi work close together to ensure that the handicapped students have a safe, accessible and enjoyable college experience at NMU, despite some challenges along the way.

Do students not needing wheelchairs notice the changes in certain areas of campus? Sophomore Hunter Belongia spoke about her interactions and experiences with students with handicaps.

“In my time at NMU, I have only seen one student in a wheelchair,” said Belongia. The student resided in quad two which is the most barrier-free area on campus. The main issue Belongia pointed out was the lack of cooperation by other students to help a student in a wheelchair.

There is a major lack of auto-opening doors, communication and everyday assistance. Belongia believes that students may be concerned with their own preoccupations, which makes them less likely to help a person in need.

As for noticing the barrier free areas on campus, drinking fountains, doorways and other areas that comply with the ADA, Belongia, like most students, doesn’t notice.

Because many students aren’t dealing with handicaps, considerations for the wheelchair-bound are often overlooked..

NMU meets all of the rules and regulations of the ADA. So why are so few handicapped students choosing to attend this institution?

“Some students may not realize the serious and challenging barriers weather alone brings to the Upper Peninsula,” Korpi said.

While the school can’t do anything about its winter weather, it can and has made advances toward full accessibility for students with handicaps.

Over time the hope is that students from all backgrounds, handicapped, disabled or not, will consider this university a great decision and investment for their future, bringing more diversity to the campus and the city of Marquette.