From Anger to Action: Understanding Accessibility on College Campuses

October 5, 2018 | Morgan Dunnigan, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

The summer after my sophomore year of high school, my parents and I decided that I should do a college summer program to experience independent living as a wheelchair user. Once I found the criminal justice program that interested me, I went on the university’s website to confirm that it was accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which it was. With that in mind, I disclosed my disability on my application and was accepted into the program a few weeks later.

Unfortunately, I soon learned that the label of “ADA accessible” does not mean that getting around will necessarily be easy, nor does it take into the account the lack of understanding that some people have about what it means to be accessible.

My first indication that this university summer staff did not understand what it meant to accommodate a disability came on move-in day. I specifically said I would like a roommate but would need an accessible room. When I arrived, the staff had decided not to give me a roommate. When I went to breakfast the first morning, I had to call the main office, where they explained to me that while the campus is ADA accessible, I would have to cut through an academic building, take its elevator down a level, go outside and into a different elevator, take that elevator down another level, and walk through a basement parking garage to get to the cafeteria. Accessible? Technically. Easily accessible? Nope. The person in charge of the summer program had made it very clear to counselors that they were not permitted to touch my wheelchair, even if I needed help, because the university feared liability. While I didn’t really need their help anyway, it was frustrating to watch their nervousness when I was around them.

When the students in our my program took a weekend excursion to a nearby city, the summer program director informed me that I would have to hire a university student to follow me around for the day in case I needed help pushing my wheelchair. I did not need help, I looked like I had a stalker, and I had to pay the student out of my own pocket. All these negative experiences were difficult for me to deal with as a 15-year-old, but at the very least they taught me to advocate for myself and made me aware of what structural and institutional barriers can exist for a wheelchair user in college.

Once I understood that the label of “ADA accessible” can sometimes mean very little about ease of accessibility, I decided that any college I considered attending as a student I would visit in person to determine how accessible it truly is. I also understand that some people retain outdated ideas about what people with disabilities are capable of and try to make decisions for us, as was evident by the blatant rejection of my request to have a roommate and in forcing me to hire an aide. Now, I take action to ensure that the people at my college know what I am capable of with the right support, and that they can trust my judgment.


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Morgan Dunnigan is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. She interned with the Information Technology Industry Council.

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