UNC working toward accessibility for all

Carolina has a reputation for making a college education financially accessible for people from all backgrounds through programs such as the Covenant Scholars. The University also has excelled in physical accessibility, something especially notable for a historic campus.

“For a school that turns 218 this year, to only have two classroom buildings [Caldwell and Smith] that aren’t accessible by wheelchair is amazing,” said Michael Pierce, facilities planner.

During the flurry of construction funded by the higher education bond, he made sure ramps, accessible entrances, curb cuts, pedestrian bridges and other amenities were included in the design of the new buildings and their access routes.

“We go beyond the code,” Pierce said, by making all toilet seats the accessible height, installing lever-return door handles and putting room names as well as numbers in Braille.

One of the recent projects he is proudest of is the walkway from South Road that passes between Fetzer Gym and Bowman Gray Pool, named Koman Way for alumnus Bill Koman. The slope of the brick walkway is so gentle that it qualifies as a wheelchair ramp as well. “People thought it couldn’t be done,” Pierce said.

Brick paths crossing a compact campus made Carolina an appealing choice for Delphine Andrews, who uses a motorized wheelchair because she has a form of muscular dystrophy. Andrews received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism at UNC and now works for the journalism school.

Other campuses aren’t as wheelchair friendly, she found. “N.C. State is really spread out, and UVa and Duke like to use cobblestones,” she said.

As a first-year student, Andrews rarely asked for help, taking a stick to poke elevator buttons she couldn’t reach and turning desks around so she could scoot her wheelchair up to them.

But as she grew more comfortable with faculty and fellow students – and more assertive – she began to speak up. So did others. On the first day of class one semester, her friends realized that a Carroll Hall classroom with steps leading to it wouldn’t work for her and had talked the instructor into moving by the time she arrived.

For those who need help but aren’t comfortable asking for it, Jim Kessler, director of the Department of Disabilities Services, is happy to intervene. His office helps students with a wide range of conditions – from learning disabilities to irritable bowel syndrome – get the help they need.

“We’re here so students can be students,” Kessler said.

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Published 10/17/11.