Student Adith Thummalapalli Leads the QUEST to Improve Campus Accessibility
My name is Adith Thummalapalli, and I’m a Mechanical Engineering major in Q30! Recently, I helped publish a report outlining accessibility issues and barriers for students with disabilities on campus, called the Campus Accessibility Report. You may have seen it circulating on social media or seen the article that the Diamondback wrote about it. I want to share how this report came about, why I decided to write it, and talk about what everyone working on this “quest” hopes to see moving forward! So here goes.
It all started a little less than a year ago (last September to be precise). One of my best friends was having a birthday party at her apartment in Kent Hall and had started planning it since the end of July. I was planning to go, so to make sure the building was wheelchair accessible, I called ResLife and was told that the entire basement and first floor of Kent was accessible but that the higher floors may not be due to lack of an elevator. To double check, I went on the ResLife website and Kent was indeed designated as having some rooms that were intended for occupation by a student with disabilities. This was at the end of July. However, when move-in day came around at the end of August, my friend told me that she didn’t see a ramp up to the first floor, only 6 steps. So I called ResLife again and spoke to another representative, who told me that Kent was not accessible at all, and when I told her that the ResLife website said it was, she replied, “Oh, then I guess it is then.”
This was my first indication of the lack of communication occurring within ResLife regarding accessibility. After this, I went around taking photographs of the entrances of all the residence halls that claimed to be accessible but were not and researching the ADA Standards and building codes regarding what buildings could claim to be accessible, during which time I remembered another issue I had encountered many times before: inaccessible crosswalks with no curb cuts. So I began researching the ADA Standards related to that and taking photographs of all the crosswalks that did not have curb cuts at one or both ends. I started putting all of this information into a google doc and adding to it whenever I came across other barriers to accessibility around campus, until I eventually put it aside once last semester started getting work-heavy.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this semester that I returned to the document. The first two weeks of the semester, I was unable to get to two of my classes on the 3rd floor of J.M. Patterson due to an elevator upgrade, which was a planned project, but a project that nobody outside of Facilities Management was notified of. The ADS Office on campus, which handles academic accommodations for students with disabilities, was not informed about the project at all. If they had been, they would’ve been able to move my classes for the first two weeks until the project was completed. Luckily, I only missed syllabus week and the first week of content and had friends in the classes whom I got notes from, so it was manageable. I complained to Facilities Management and others about the issue for about a week, and their eventual response was to give me a number to call whenever I needed to use the elevator. The first (and only time) I tried calling the number, a person from Facilities Management took 30 minutes to arrive, at which point class had already begun and was 15 minutes in.
This was the second time I had run into the issue of abysmal communication between campus entities regarding physical barriers to access, and I thought something had to be done about it. So I went to the Diamondback and they published an article about my inability to get to class for two weeks due to scheduled elevator maintenance. After sharing the article on social media, I received an unexpected amount of support from people hearing about the situation and urging me to do something to ensure accountability and better communication between campus entireties. And that’s when Doron Tadmor in Q29 reached out to me. I had taken a non-QUEST class with Doron two semesters ago and knew he was active with SGA. He wanted to sit down and talk about how SGA could help me.
During our conversation, I mentioned my “evidence document,” and he suggested that we turn it into a formal report, submit it to SGA and get their endorsement, and then send it to the campus entities and offices that needed to see it (the Office of the President, Facilities Management, the Office of Administration and Finance, and the Presidents Commission on Disability Issues). For the next month, we worked on turning my mess of evidence into a professional report with the help of an SGA graphics team and additional stories added by other students with disabilities and eventually were ready to present it to SGA and get their endorsement. Thanks to the hard work of the wonderful Jenn Miller, the motion passed unanimously and we had official SGA backing for the Campus Accessibility Report. After that, we shared the report on social media, the Diamondback wrote an article about it, and a local news station (CTV News Prince George’s County) did a story about accessibility barriers at UMD.
Needless to say, this caught the attention of many UMD offices, all of whom contacted myself and SGA with a willingness to discuss the issues that I had never seen before whenever I tried to file complaints on my own. Additionally, the President’s Commission on Disability Issues (PCDI) met with Doron, me, and the other students who contributed to the report and asked if we would be willing to begin a Student Advisory Board for the PCDI to help inform them of accessibility issues that they could then advocate about on the behalf of the students. The first meeting of the PCDI Advisory Board will be at the beginning of next semester.
The amount of support we have received from the student body through social media has been unexpected but wonderful, and I love to see how many people have gotten behind this initiative. The goal was to raise awareness about accessibility barriers and make the issues visible to the student body, because once Terps set their mind to something, they follow it through. The point was not to place blame on anyone, simply to bring attention to the issues and get UMD officials to take action and ACTUALLY DO something about the issues, instead of just sitting and talking about doing something. And that is exactly what has happened.
Moving forward, there are many other issues that were not included in the Accessibility Report, because they would’ve made the report much longer than 23 pages, and we feared people wouldn’t read it if it were too long and complex. That being said, minor reports like this one are in the pipeline for next semester, as are a few events to continue raising awareness about accessibility barriers that are invisible to those without disabilities. I truly appreciate and love the support I’ve gotten from my fellow Terps and others, and I just hope we can keep the momentum up and nudge UMD officials into addressing the issues through instead of just talking.
Adith Thummalapalli is a guest writer for QUESTPress this month. He encourages anyone who wants to learn more or to talk about other accessibility barriers to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.