New advisory committee plans to spark dialogue on accessibility issues across campuses

The President’s Advisory Committee on Accessibility will assist the university with disability legislation to increase the visibility on these issues. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

The future of accessibility services available on campus is steadily becoming a widespread effort across campuses with the creation of the President’s Advisory Committee on Accessibility.

The committee, formed Nov. 4, will serve as a helpful measure to increase visibility for disabled students on USF’s three campuses and members will discuss accessibility issues and concerns, according to Director of Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and president of the committee Deborah McCarthy.

“The charge of the [President Advisory Committee] on accessibility is to advise the USF president on matters of accessibility,” said McCarthy. “The committee is important because it is a visible sign that USF values accessibility and wants to encourage conversations about access and disability.”

McCarthy said the committee will recognize the contributions and importance of those with disabilities in the USF community as well as provide a resource for those who wish to know more about disability advocacy. The committee will also assist the university with disability legislation and begin campus dialogue around accessibility issues.

“That’s a new initiative for USF,” said McCarthy. “That is an exciting opportunity for myself and about 12 other people to get together and talk about accessibility on a campus level and what that means for the institution.”

Committee members are planning to hold their first meeting near the end of the fall semester, and will then begin to meet approximately every six weeks, according to McCarthy. The committee will hold three regular meetings for the fall and spring semesters and one meeting during summer.

Membership is open to any student, faculty, staff or USF administrator across all three campuses and lasts for two-year terms, if selected. Individuals interested in applying must fill out a form on the Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity website.

The efforts toward bringing more accessibility to campus are followed by concerns from students like junior Simone Till. She said the university faces a lack of social inclusion and adequate support that are necessities for a disabled student’s success.

In both a social and physical sense, Till feels the way USF handles accessibility for its disabled students has room for growth. She said the university should focus on creating an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accommodations map of campus and a website that showcases events and scholarships for students with disabilities.

“[It’s] just a simple way for those who use wheelchairs or might have some kind of limitation of walking, to know where to go around campus. I thought that was a really cool idea and something that we can easily add to the [USF] website,” said Till.

“I think with any person with a disability, you go through numerous barriers that other people can’t relate to and so it can be quite an isolating experience.”

Till, who was born with hearing loss, has struggled with being included, and she feels like disabled students should have a bigger voice at USF. Not having access to programs and organizations for disabled students such as the Delta Alpha Phi Honors Society or having a specific community space for disabled students has further echoed her concerns.

“Many students with disabilities do not recognize themselves as part of a larger community, with everyone else who may have a disability,” said Till. “Also, the majority of disabilities at USF are invisible.”

Achieving accessibility is a steady effort toward improving campus accommodations for the whole community, McCarthy said. SAS mainly focuses on providing students with academic accommodations and currently has approximately 2,400 students registered.

Some buildings on campus present accessibility difficulties for disabled students, such as the Argos and Juniper-Poplar Flip Kitchens, as they don’t have automatic buttons available to open the entrance doors.

However, McCarthy said accessibility-related renovations on campus are a complicated matter, as it is both priority-based and handled by multiple campus accessibility departments, such as ADA Accommodations and facilities, rather than just SAS.

“The priorities of ADA renovations have not necessarily risen to the need of ‘I need to do this now.’ Facilities have an ongoing list and an ongoing project scheduled for those kinds of things,” said McCarthy.

“The facilities regularly consult with the ADA coordinator and someone from my office to make sure that we have seen the plans for the building and we have talked about what is required accessibility and what is also accessibility that might make sense based on usage.”

ADA renovations are also not a requirement in Florida building codes, McCarthy said, and accessibility-related renovations after the initial build is a difficult process.

“Inserting an automatic door after the fact is a much more cumbersome and often challenging process than putting one in as you’re building a building,” said McCarthy.

“Some of that is cost, lots of that is wiring, some of that is weight-bearing because those doors are heavier.”

Increasing accessibility options across campus and fostering a community that is involved in this is a group effort and involves honest dialogue, McCarthy said.

“We are open to discussing accessibility with the university community and we want people to feel like SAS is approachable,” she said. “It’s also important to me to foster the message that a truly accessible campus is about lots of people being involved in accessibility.”