Autumn leaves lined the brick pathway outside of the Communications Facility on Sept. 27, 2023 as Western Washington University students approached the glass doors, ready for their first week of classes to begin.
Fall quarter excitement turned into confusion when students realized the central stairwell was gone, finding a white wall in its place due to construction work on the new Kaiser Borsari Hall.
With the main stairwell blocked off, students scrambled to find another way to get to their classes on time in the basement, second, third and fourth floors of the building.
Groups of students milled through the first-floor hallways looking for the other stairwells, most of them missing the small, inconspicuous sign on the wall depicting the two other staircases in the building. Eventually, students congregated in a large group in the atrium, opting to use the two elevators to reach their classes.
Olivia Sanfelippo, a speech-language pathology graduate student who works in the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, was among one group of lost students that week.
“We found both staircases, but neither one of them had basement access,” Sanfelippo said. “None of us knew what to do.”
At the time, it was not apparent that the north stairwell had basement access.
Sanfelippo’s classmates and professor used the elevators as a last resort.
“About 20 of us had to take the elevator at the same time as the rest of the people in the Communications Facility,” Sanfelippo said. “We lost over 10 minutes of class time.”
Crowds became common around the elevator doors that week, with students waiting up to five minutes to catch a ride, packing in tightly each time the doors opened.
Consequently, the elevators became less accessible to students with disabilities who cannot take the stairs.
“When access is limited on campus, it feels like the disabled community isn’t wanted or welcome,” said Angela Romeo, a disabled Western academic senior.
The Kaiser Borsari Hall construction has also impacted accessibility in other campus locations.
Located in the Academic Instructional Center, the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic no longer has access to the clinic's parking lot, said Sanfelippo.
“The geriatric population that frequently comes to the clinic have a much longer walk to get there,” said Sanfelippo. “The clinic had to buy a wheelchair so we can physically pick up our clients.”
The conversation around accessibility, accommodation and inclusion for students on college campuses is not a new topic. Construction is just one of many factors that affect disabled inclusion on campus property.
In a 2022 peer-reviewed study, researchers graded 50 of the National Institute of Health’s top-funded undergraduate programs in the United States on an A to F scale that assessed each university’s disability inclusion, accommodations and accessibility.
Out of the 50 universities, 6% received an A, while 60% received a D or F.
“It’s no wonder the general public thinks less of the population is disabled than in reality,” Romeo said. “They just don’t see us because we’re quite literally pushed to the margins.”
During winter 2018, Romeo attended a meeting of disability advocates on campus with WWU President Sabah Randhawa and other Western officials.
“We were promised so many changes,” Romeo said. “None of us ever heard back.”
The university had proposed — and failed — to revive the meetings every quarter, said Romeo.
Melynda Huskey, vice president for enrollment and student services at Western, was present for the meeting and does not recall the university committing to quarterly meetings with those students.
Despite the different accounts, questions are still raised over what Western will do to improve campus accessibility issues moving forward.
“I think the first thing colleges should do is assess where the accessibility issues are,” said Kerri Holferty, director of access and disability services at Whatcom Community College.
This could be accomplished by surveying students, staff and faculty, Holferty said. Focus groups could also be helpful with assessing what the concerns are, she added.
“If you ask for feedback, you need to be willing to talk through that feedback and implement ideas,” Holferty said. “They may not always look like what is asked for, but the conversation and communication around them is vital.”
The stairwell is expected to reopen in August 2024, said Lisa Brennan, the communications and marketing coordinator for Facilities Development and Operations at Western.
If Western students are looking for day-to-day campus information about maintenance that will affect students, they can find it in the weekly email, Western Today, said Jonathan Higgins, the director of communications for Western.
The email is sent out three times a week with multiple updates and stories about campus life.
Additionally, Western’s Facilities Development and Operations maintains a construction impact alert website that students can refer to, said Higgins. The construction impacts page has been updated to reflect the latest schedule of construction for the Communications Facility’s central stairwell.
Maria Kallerson (she/her) is a fifth-year creative writing major, journalism news-ed minor and film studies minor at Western. She enjoys hiking in the Cascades, live music, photography, writing short stories and reading. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.