Disabled in College: Getting Around Campus

When I asked on Instagram what parts of my college life you were most interested in, how I got around on campus was the most popular answer! I think it’s one of the most interesting topics because it’s something that most people pretty much take for granted – it’s not something they really put any thought into at all. But how I’d get around campus is something that I actually thought a lot about throughout the whole college application process, so I’m looking forward to sharing today.

When I was applying to colleges, the maneuverability of the campus was one of the most important things to me. I knew that I wanted to stay in the Pittsburgh area, so while I applied to other colleges, I was really choosing between Carnegie Mellon and Pitt. I toured each of them, and while their campuses are only a few blocks apart in Oakland, the campuses are completely different. Pitt’s is much more spread out, spanning blocks (and hills), while Carnegie Mellon’s feels much more like a traditional campus does.

For example – the Carnegie Mellon tour was all a walking tour, while the tour of Pitt’s campus used buses to get us between upper and lower campus. For me, this made the decision of which school to go to pretty easy. I didn’t want to have to worry about relying on a bus to get me around campus – or deal with the steep hills that Pitt’s campus is built on. I really liked that I could get from one end of Carnegie Mellon’s campus to the other in less than 10 minutes. The traditional closed-in campus was definitely the better choice for me.

So while I didn’t choose my college only on the logistics of the campus, it was honestly a huge part of my decision. I knew that I wanted to live on campus, and I knew that I wanted to be able to get around campus too – basically, I wanted the full campus experience. And I was really concerned that at Pitt, it would be a lot more challenging. And since I did get my master’s degree from Pitt and work there, and think I can say now that I was right – it would’ve been a very different experience, and I think I would’ve had more issues. I got “lucky” in that Carnegie Mellon is an excellent school, so it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice to go there – but I did have a full ride scholarship to Pitt, so it wasn’t exactly as easy of a decision as it may seem. But in the end, I had to prioritize the accessibility of the campus for me in my decision making.

Now, of course – that doesn’t mean that everything was simple and smooth at all times. One of the cool things about Carnegie Mellon’s campus is that some of the buildings are actually connected – you can get in between buildings without ever having to go outside. While the doors to these buildings from the outside had the accessible push-buttons, the doors in between buildings often did not – so I’d have to just hope that someone would be walking by and I’d ask them to open the door for me. And the same thing held for the classrooms and the computer labs, too – if the doors weren’t open, I needed someone to open them for me. There were some very, very late nights spent working in computer labs, and if I left to get a coffee or snack, it could be while before I could get anyone’s attention when I got back. While most of the elevators were decently new, there was one very old elevator with buttons up so high above my head I could juuuust barely reach them – I was half afraid I was going to get trapped in it one day (I’m happy to report it has since been replaced).

And then there’s also the fact that Pittsburgh is not a city with spring or summer weather all year round! The weather was one of the most challenging parts of getting around campus, because there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to mitigate it. On rainy days, I basically just had to be ok with getting wet! I can’t hold an umbrella and drive my wheelchair at the same time – it’s just not possible (nor can I open and close an umbrella by myself, actually). I’d try to wait for a break in the rain if I could, and try to stay under overhangs and take the routes that kept me indoors as long as possible… but sometimes, there was no option but a path through a wide open space. Occasionally, a nice person would see me driving my wheelchair at max speed and offer to share their umbrella with me – and it was a little strange sometimes, but I’d usually take them up on it, because the momentary awkwardness was preferable to being soaking wet. It wasn’t fun, but I didn’t really have many options!

But my annoyance with rainy weather pales in comparison with my hatred of winter weather. There’s really no pretty way to put it – getting around campus in the winter was tough. First, there is the cold. It gets COLD in Pittsburgh! And I can’t put a jacket on or off by myself – I don’t have the mobility. Luckily, hoodies are a perfectly acceptable fashion choice on college campuses, so I basically wore one 24/7. It’s tricky, though, to be the right temperature both inside and outside – because a hoodie might be good for walking to class outside, it couldn’t be so heavy that I was too hot while sitting in class. Sometimes I’d choose which time I wanted to suffer and dress based on that – wearing something that wasn’t realllllly warm enough to be outside in, but would be comfortable once I got to class, or the library, or wherever I was going. Again – not exactly fun, but it was what I had to do.

I also had to deal with snow. Cold is bad enough on it’s own, but when you add snow, things get a lot more challenging. I really didn’t leave campus in the winter much, because I couldn’t be sure of any of the sidewalk conditions in Oakland outside of the campus bubble. On campus, luckily, things were actually kept pretty well shoveled and salted – I think theoretically, they even knew my schedule and were supposed to clear the areas near my classrooms first. Sometimes the slushy wet buildup got a little tricky, but they usually kept the sidewalks and paths on campus clear. Off campus – even just a block or two – is where I’d run into issues. When sidewalks and streets get shoveled, the snow piles often end up right in front of the ramped curb cuts, so I can’t actually cross the street where I want to – or they just don’t get shoveled at all and I can’t make it through. This is a problem that’s not college specific, though – it’s one that remains true to this day.

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