Students Investigate Accessibility on Campus

Author: Evan Vandermeer

During the School of Architecture’s twelfth annual Accessibility Awareness Day on Friday, August 30th, fourth year and some graduate students navigated campus and classroom life in an unfamiliar way: blindfolded, in wheelchairs, or on crutches. For these students, ordinary tasks such as attending class, using the restroom, or grabbing food at the dining hall became more challenging.

Sponsored annually at the beginning of the fall semester by the School of Architecture—and in conjunction with the Facilities Design and Operation and Sara Bea Disability Services—the event is designed to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities and to sensitize architecture students to the immediate relevance of accessible design in both ordinary student life at Notre Dame and beyond.

“We want our students to be aware and empathetic,” said John Mellor, associate professor of the practice in architecture and the faculty member responsible for coordinating Accessibility Awareness Day. “We want them to know that as architects they’ll be responsible for all occupants, not just some.”

Participating students convened at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning for a debrief led by Mellor, who explained the purpose of the event. Students were then organized into groups and issued blindfolds, wheelchairs, and crutches to help simulate life with a disability, and they were tasked with taking notes and photos throughout the morning to document their experiences.

While all the buildings on Notre Dame’s campus comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations, some buildings are easier to navigate than others. This day of awareness is intended to allow students to recognize their responsibility as future architects to go beyond the minimum requirements and ensure that the buildings they design are truly accessible for all.

“You face so many issues that you wouldn’t in your daily routine,” said Ryan Cove, a fourth year student in the School of Architecture who took part in the event. “You see how so many things affect people in ways you wouldn’t normally think about. It was overwhelming not to see, and even using the crutches, over time, became a workout.”

Students reconvened in the afternoon for a series of presentations that helped contextualize the event. Assistant professor of architecture Kim Rollings provided a broad overview of universal design, and Chris Hartz—an architect from Alliance Architects of South Bend—discussed universal design’s professional applications.

When asked what he took away from the event, Cove gave an answer that attests to its success: “I developed way more empathy for people who face those challenges.”