I am an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts and am recently disabled by severe leg weakness. Currently, I owe UMass $45 for having the audacity to go to class.
Twice a week, I have a class in Goessmann Laboratory. On Tuesday, it is my only morning class, so I park in the reserved accessible parking lot behind Lederle Graduate Research Tower. I then walk through half the length of Lederle and half the length of Goessmann to reach my classroom, as this is the only way in and out of Goessmann without using stairs, which I am unable to climb.
On Thursday, however, I have a class in the Integrative Learning Center that begins only 15 minutes after my class in Goessmann ends. If I empty out my backpack of all but the absolute essentials, I can walk from one building to the other…once. Only once, every few days, can I walk back to Goessmann, through Goessmann and back through Lederle after the second class gets out. The best solution I have found is to park at the end of Hasbrouck. This still calls for unnecessarily long stretches of walking. Because I’m on the campus side of Goessmann, I have to use the stairs to get in and out of the building. It is the only way to make this work. I can’t walk all the way back to Goessmann after my class in the ILC; I’m not able to. There’s no other place to park that doesn’t require even more walking. This is my only option.
There are three handicap spaces at the end of Hasbrouck Laboratory. I’ve only twice seen even one empty – both times in the late afternoon, when pretty much everyone had gone home already.
There was a sign for “15 minute loading zone, flashers required,” in front of the space where I ended up parking, but Massachusetts law states that vehicles with handicap permits are not subject to posted time limits. I was warned and ticketed for the lack of flashers, but I would argue that leaving my flashers on while I went to class for two hours would drain my battery.
Technically speaking, I did ignore a sign when I parked. Technically speaking, I did ignore a sign, get a warning, ignore the same sign again and get a ticket. Technically speaking, I did something wrong. But loosely speaking, I had to. Loosely speaking, UMass is not meeting the needs of its disabled students, and I still want to learn. So I parked and went to class. Now I owe them money, but they’ve already taken plenty more from me. In addition to walking farther and down more stairs than I ever would have liked, I also have no idea how I’m going to go to classes next Thursday. I have no idea if, after walking the inevitably further distance to my morning classes, I’ll still be able to attend my third class in the afternoon. I won’t pretend I’m hopeful.
You might be wondering why I pretend that there’s no way for me to get to classes without driving when UMass provides a van service to transport disabled students around campus. I don’t deny that it exists, that it’s made to help me get from place to place – I’m even registered with it and have the option to use it – but that service provides only one kind of accessibility.
The van service runs in 15-minute increments, meaning that I can either get my ride at 11:15 a.m. (the time my first class ends) or at 11:30 a.m. (the time my second class begins). I would love an explanation of how I’m supposed to get from one to the other without missing any part of either, and of what to do when there’s no 11:15 a.m. ride available. What is my backup?
If I arrive three minutes after the time for which my van ride is scheduled, I am “late.” If I am “late” eight times in a semester, I lose access to the service for one week. If I cancel a ride with less than two hours notice, or if I am five minutes late to the ride, I am a “no show;” the van leaves, and any other rides scheduled for the day are cancelled (meaning I lose the ride back to where I parked or back up the hill on which I live). If I am a “no-show” four times in a month, I am indefinitely banned from the service. Shockingly enough, I don’t move particularly fast (and neither does the elevator in Goessmann). There’s no way I could get to my 11:15 a.m. van ride in less than three minutes without leaving class 10 or more minutes early.
One of the major manifestations of my anxiety disorder is that if I’m not early to something, I’m panicking about being late. What am I supposed to do about my learning disability that makes catching up on missed classwork a living hell? If I knew that I was running late to the van, risking these repercussions, I would not hear a single word my professor said in class; I’d barely be able to remain in my seat, doing everything I could to hold back tears. The odds that I’d skip the classes altogether would skyrocket because I’d know that I couldn’t deal with that. Yet, if I skipped class I’d miss my van ride, I would get a “no-show” and that wouldn’t solve anything. I would be trapped in a cycle of extreme anxiety.
So the van isn’t an option. Walking further isn’t an option. The handicap space isn’t an option. What am I supposed to do?
I know that I parked somewhere that I should not have, but I also know that there are often twice as many (or more!) loading spaces as handicap ones in any given area. I know that more disabled people want to park by Hasbrouck and other places than there are spaces to accommodate; plenty of spaces could be turned into handicap spaces if someone cared to. I know UMass doesn’t care.
I was in my newly-ticketed car, driving over to Morrill II, thinking about writing a brief Facebook post about this… and then I arrived. For Morrill II and III, for the hundreds of people in those buildings at any given time, there are only three handicap spaces available. Today, none were open. I normally would have parked in one of the countless open loading zone spaces, but I now know that there is no sympathy. Instead, I ended up parking in one of the two handicap spaces at Franklin Dining Commons – no, it’s not close – because that was the only parking space available anywhere near where I needed to be. Today, I walked quite a distance to class, down some stairs (twice), another long distance, got a ticket for parking in the only place I could, drove to my next class building and had to park ridiculously far yet again. Have I also mentioned that there’s no way in or out of the next classroom without stairs?
But hey, as they say, UMatter at UMass!
Editor’s note: Two sentences from the original draft were added back into this piece post-publication for clarification purposes.
JD Miller is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]