When Sophia Vicencio first moved to University of Oregon from Iowa, the last thing she expected was that her day-to-day activities would become more difficult.

For many other students, traveling up and down hills isn’t much of a consideration. But for Vicencio, that’s a different story. 


Sophia Vicencio uses her chair to get around campus. Diagnosed with brittle bones since birth, Vicencio speaks up about her experience navigating campus and how that impacts her classes.                                                                                                                                                                         (Adam Eberhardt/ Emerald)

“I use a lot of muscles just to get to class,” she said. “It changed how I managed my time.”

Originally from Chicago, Vicencio had just finished her first year at University of Iowa when her father relocated for a job in Portland. In addition to leaving her friends and life back in the Midwest, Vicencio also had to adapt to her new Oregon lifestyle.

“It wasn’t easy,” Vicencio said. “Iowa is where most of my high school friends went to – I found a community there […] [The land] was also much flatter.”

UO is working to make things easier for students like Vicencio.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made it illegal for any public space to be inaccessible to those with disabilities, UO’s climate on accessibility shifted quickly, said Hilary Gerdes, director of the Accessible Education Center for 30 years. But she also admitted that there’s still room to improve — whether it’s in the infrastructure or in the attitude on campus.

As for the attitude, Gerdes said she is seeing a societal change at UO: The perspective of disability is shifting from a medical condition into a social justice movement.  

AEC is one of the departments working to raise awareness about access on campus and is an active member when it comes to construction at UO. Within the last four years, UO has finished eight major construction projects that exceed the minimum requirement by federal law, Gerdes said.

“[Disabled students] used to have to ring a bell and wait outside of Knight Library in the dark and rain for somebody to come let them in before the ramps were installed,” Gerdes said of the library back in the 1980s. “Those days are long gone.”

Friendly Hall, McArthur Court and Volcanology Hall are several of the major hurdles for the school to overcome according to Gerdes. Built in 1893,1926 and 1936 respectively, these halls are outdated and don’t meet the standards outlined by the ADA. AEC has accommodated many students in asking academic departments to relocate classes from these buildings.

“But there are just so many 500-seat classrooms on campus,” Gerdes said. “There are definitely some limitations of what we can do for students.”

For students with physical disability like Vicencio, getting to class and participating in university activities comes with many obstacles.

When she moved to UO in Fall 2014, the Erb Memorial Union was still under construction, forcing all the student groups to vacate to McArthur Court. Although most rooms on the ground level of the building are accessible, nearly every room is set off by its own small staircase.

As a result, Vicencio did not get a chance to participate in any ASUO-recognized groups or events her first year at UO. Back in Iowa, Vicencio was proactive in organizing events for students.

“It was just a hassle for me. I’d bet that if I asked, people would agree to meet me somewhere else, but it wouldn’t be feasible all the time,” she said.

One of the people who made accessibility for students a priority at UO is Lisa Weiss, the former ASUO disability advocate. She led a group of students in putting together the first-ever brochure listing 18 services for students on campus. The brochure is available in print, online and in audio formats.

Coming from a background with several family members with disability, Weiss said it’s important to help her peers receive “the best experience in education.”

“The brochure hopefully will get the word out for those who weren’t aware of many of the services on campus,” she said.

The group also helped launch a beta version of an interactive accessibility map, showing the location for each entrance and elevator for every building on campus. During her research, Weiss said she found many neglected entrances and bathrooms that were not accessible for students with disabilities.

“I’m really glad that we got this project started,” Weiss said. “We haven’t gotten it in the official UO app yet, but I hope somebody will pick up and keep it going.”

But for students with disability, inaccessible buildings were not their sole concerns.

Back in February, a business administration international student voiced his concern about the Access Shuttle with ASUO. Prior to Winter 2016, Access Shuttle operated upon appointments, which Abdullah Alshabanah depended upon to get to his classes.

Alshabanah was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was born in Saudi Arabia. The disease prevents him from keeping balance without the help of the walkers. Moving to the U.S. for education was a big challenge for him, he said.

“It’s easy but it’s not easy, you know,” Alshabanah said. “I tell myself everyday that nothing is impossible, and challenges will make a stronger person. But there are many things to adapt with.”

Alshabanah said being a disabled person since birth, he has learned to do most things by himself, except for driving. He has been relying on others to travel long distance his whole life. At UO, it is Access Shuttle.

The Emerald reported that the free carpool service created a campus-based route last winter, which frustrated both drivers and students who usually had to wait 40 minutes to be picked up between classes. Upon Alshabanah’s comment to ASUO, the student government executive and Alshabanah met with administration who ultimately reversed the new operational system.

Access Shuttle is now once again operating upon requested calls.

Vicencio also said she’s glad to see Access Shuttle is accessible again, but she also has other concerns while traveling on campus.

“I usually never stay on campus past 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.,” Vicencio said. “As a female with my condition, I have never felt safe on campus at night.”

Access Shuttle is a 9-to-5 service, according to its website. So if Vicencio ever wants to stay late on campus, she can only rely on SafeRide and Designated Driver Shuttle.

“Whenever I request an accessible van, they would have to go out of their way to do it,” Vicencio said.

SafeRide co-director, Zoe Wong, said it is because the service only has one wheelchair accessible van, and it is only used upon request. She recommends students to schedule the accessible van before 5:30 p.m., otherwise it would take longer for a ride. Wong also added that although SafeRide shares the van with DDS, DDS drivers are not trained to operate the van.

Gerdes said if the university is doing the right thing, students with physical disability wouldn’t have to come to AEC for help.

“I know it is not ideal on campus, but there’s been a lot of improvement throughout the year,” Gerdes said.


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