On the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ASU looks toward the future of inclusivity

Thursday, September 3, 2020

When Peter Fischer came to Arizona State University as a student in the architecture program in 1995, finding his way around campus using an electric wheelchair wasn’t too much of a challenge. Fischer believes that even when the Americans with Disabilities Act — which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations and communications — passed in 1990, the university had already been working toward making campuses accessible for all students.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, accessibility leaders at ASU are hosting an entire year of celebrations starting on Sept. 3, 2020. Upcoming virtual events include a panel about disability services, a discussion of the history of the ADA and an event focusing on adaptive recreation.

The celebrations are led by the staff and students who work with ASU Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services (SAILS, formerly known as the Disability Resource Center), who are dedicated to making ASU accessible inside and outside the classroom.

“ASU was ahead of the game before it started,” Fischer said. “I don’t remember there being a lot of barriers, and I think that’s because ASU wanted to accommodate students. It didn't matter what their abilities were, they just wanted to do something.” 

Now working as the ADA compliance coordinator at ASU, Fischer is tasked with reviewing construction projects and renovations to assure that the buildings are ADA compliant. However, Fischer’s role encompasses more than just meeting ADA standards. He documents a list of mobility barriers — 18,000 in 2020 alone — that could be obstacles for students and faculty with disabilities. All are important to address, Fischer said, even if they’re small changes. 

“They might be as simple as the toilet paper roll is a little higher than it’s supposed to be or the bathroom’s missing a certain type of grab bar,” Fischer said. “I have an idea of what really is important to do.”

While ASU continues to make existing buildings and future projects more accessible, Fischer has his eye on the future. He believes that embracing universal design and creating spaces with people with cognitive disabilities in mind is the next step to creating a more accessible campus.

Fischer works with SAILS, which has offices on all ASU campuses to offer accommodations for students with disabilities to provide equal access to academic and university services. Accommodations include test taking, alternate formats of class materials, communication access, notetaking and more. Students who register with SAILS work with accessibility consultants who support their needs inside and outside the classroom.

SAILS also provides training to increase institutional awareness and help faculty and staff understand how to serve students with disabilities. These include lunch-and-learns as well as AccessZone, an in-depth, interactive training offered to the Sun Devil community covering the history of disability and laws that impact those in higher education. 

Fischer said the layout of colors and buildings can have a strong impact on people with cognitive disabilities. 

“I try to instill this idea in all of our project managers,” Fischer said. “It’s not about me in a wheelchair or about someone who is deaf or blind. It’s about all of us being able to experience that space the same or in a way that’s useful for them. I think we’re all pretty familiar with the concept of physical disabilities, as well as deaf and blind concepts, but we’re not really sure about cognitive disabilities yet.”

Looking to the future of access and inclusion, ASU also has its hands on the crossroads between technology and accessibility. Terri Hedgpeth, currently the director of accessibility for ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services and former director of Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services, works to increase participation of students with disabilities concerning access to online platforms. 

Hedgpeth, who is blind, found how much of an impact technology can have in terms of accessibility during her time at SAILS. 

Before Hedgpeth and SAILS implemented AIM (now DRC Connect), students had to come into the office, make an appointment with a consultant and bring all the necessary paperwork. Although she faced pushback, she believed an online scheduling and consulting platform would help SAILS reach students who didn’t want to come into the office but wanted resources.

Hedgpeth said after the online platform was implemented in the spring of 2010, SAILS went from serving 1,900 students to 3,500 in one semester. Currently, it serves around 6,800 students. 

“Just because you have a disability, hidden, obvious or observable, you shouldn’t have to go through so many extra steps just to get access to the course content and facilities that everyone has automatically,” Hedgpeth said. “Especially people with hidden disabilities, they might have felt inhibited to come into that office.”

Recently, Hedgpeth has worked on more projects to make technology-driven experiences more accessible. She worked on accessibility for several years with Handshake, the college career development platform. When the Sun Devil Fitness and Wellness complex was renewing their equipment contract, Hedgpeth was involved to make sure a good percentage of the equipment was accessible to blind or vision-impaired students. 

Hedgpeth also reaches out to oft-used apps and platforms to help guide them in becoming more accessible. Most vendors don’t have an ADA compliance employee, and some aren’t always willing to listen or change. Yet, Hedgpeth helps them work toward solutions that truly have all users in mind. 

“That needs to be the experience you offer everybody, not just the ones you’ve recognized,” Hedgpeth said.

Keep up with the year of celebration events on the ASU ADA celebration website and join in the kickoff event, a panel discussion on ASU’s disability services and the impact of the ADA on higher education, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4, via Zoom.

Written by Julian Klein, Sun Devil Storyteller