I graduated from UNC in 2017. I have now returned as a graduate student, but this is not the campus – or the city – that I remember.
For me, Chapel Hill’s experience has transformed, and not because of COVID-19. It’s not the landscaping or the new Franklin Street restaurants, but because I got a new perspective.
This time, I am attending my classes in a wheelchair.
When I was finishing my first cycle, I walked in the pit every day. I worked at the student association, swam at Woolen Gym and trained at SRC. On weekends I would study in the arboretum or walk from Hinton James to the North Carolina Botanical Garden.
I took pictures with my friends in the gardens and saw plays at the Forest Theater. For a night out, I went to Linda’s Downbar and Goodfellows.
Now, it’s hard to imagine going into any of these spaces. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entirely possible for me to go anywhere I want.
When I became disabled I learned to be 10 times more resourceful – I had to.
But there are still logistical challenges: finding routes without stairs on campus, cleaning the wheels after using dirt roads, and being allowed to park only in the one accessible parking space I have a permit for.
These challenges are surmountable, but they make the ordeal of moving around never worth it.
I never had the illusion that UNC was built with me in mind. During my time in undergrad, we always protested against Silent Sam and Saunders Hall. Coming back, I had a feeling of clarity on the limits of this institution. I knew UNC couldn’t give me the education I really wanted, but at least I knew how I was going to make the most of it.
But I still wasn’t prepared for that constant, visceral reminder that this campus literally wasn’t designed for me. It’s exhausting.
During my orientation, I was stuck in classrooms where my wheelchair would not fit between desks. When we hosted an event with free LocoPops, all of the ice cream coolers were conveniently down a series of steps.
When we visited the building where my program is taking place, my tour guides didn’t even know where the elevator was. I am constantly worried about attending student organization events because I never know what obstacles I will face just to get there.
Le Vieux Puits may now have a wheelchair ramp, but a place that has lived in me for four years may never be accessible to me again. Instead of using Woollen, I pay a membership to swim at the UNC wellness center in Meadowmont – at least they have accessible parking.
But the truth is, I’m not as angry as I have the right to be. The most difficult – and most surprising – part of this experience is that it was a little embarrassing. I am ashamed how ignorant I was of the experiences of students with disabilities, especially those of us who use wheelchairs, on this campus.
I always knew objectively that the campus was inaccessible to many, but this year I realized how insidious this inaccessibility is.
I will not be the last student in this position, so the only choice I have is to exorcise my shame with honesty and humility. I invite you to join me.
Perhaps you hosted a meeting in a conference room with tiered seating. Or you don’t know where the accessible parking spots are on Franklin Street. Perhaps, like the Daily Tar Heel, you’ve moved your office to the second floor of a building with a broken elevator. Maybe you never really thought about it. You might be using a wheelchair yourself, but you’ve never noticed your video lectures are not captioned. When we are honest, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow and learn.
Inaccessibility thrives because it’s invisible to people who don’t face it, no matter what level of education you receive. As with shame and embarrassment, the only way to fix it is to talk about it and create a course of action for you to take.
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