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March 13-17 was Pepperdine’s 4th annual Disability Awareness Week, however, I am sure this is the first time many of you are hearing about this. I founded Disability Awareness Week (DAW) in 2020 after my experiences and frustrations with the ableism on Pepperdine’s campus, as a disabled student.
In its inaugural year, DAW was quickly axed bright and early on a Wednesday morning, when the Pepperdine community was notified that we would be transitioning to online learning. I accepted it. It was ironic that a week meant to highlight the challenges of being disabled was overcome by a global pandemic that posed severe challenges for those who are disabled.
In 2021, I hosted the week virtually on the Volunteer Center’s Instagram account. If you weren’t following us, you wouldn’t have noticed, but I knew I wanted to keep the momentum going. Last year, my friend Emily [McNutt] worked tirelessly, along with a group of other amazing activists, to bring DAW back on campus.
This year, my friend Maddie [Beadle] led the charge. As the founder, I have been involved with DAW since its inception. Last year I consulted on the planning, and this year I spoke on a panel after a screening of the movie “Crip Camp.”
But this year, something was different. When I walked into the “Crip Camp” screening, Elkins was empty. I could count the number of people on my hands. The lack of participation could be for many reasons — students didn’t know about it, they were preoccupied with schoolwork, they were busy taking advantage of a chill Wednesday, the list goes on. But, in my opinion, the lack of participation and support for Disability Awareness Week is a consequence of the University’s attitude toward disability.
In the spring of my freshman year, my disability manifested in my need for a knee scooter. After the pure exhaustion of balancing getting myself from my first-year dorm to everywhere I needed to be on campus, I strapped a GoPro to my scooter and recorded my experience. I sent that video to several staff, faculty and members of administration. I received words of encouragement from staff and faculty, and words about how insightful this video was from administration.
After that, silence.
Then, a year later, during my sophomore spring semester abroad, I was told that members of the construction and planning department wanted to meet with me to address my list of concerns about the lack of accessibility on campus. I hopped on Skype at a time that worked for both of our time zones and was thrilled by how kind everyone was.
I was then promptly told that they could not address any of my concerns, but the new dorm, Seaside, was being built with accessibility in mind. At the time, I was thrilled and hopeful. Looking back, I was 19 and naive. Afraid that if I spoke up too much something might happen to my scholarships and I would have to leave Pepperdine.
My junior year, I slowly documented the microaggressions and blatant ableism I was witnessing and experiencing, the biggest being the misuse of disabled parking spaces. Whether it was maintenance workers putting trash bags in the spaces, University vehicles parking in them, or people without placards treating them as front-row parking spots, I was angry but still afraid.
The summer after my junior year provided a bit of comedic irony after I found out that that dorm built with “accessibility in mind” was not very accessible. While one shower might be bigger and include a bench, the point of that shower is defeated when the drainage slope is off and the whole shower area floods, creating a slippery, inaccessible floor.
My senior year, I figured it was now or never. I had spent the summer trying to get in contact with the right people to resolve the misuse of disabled parking spots on campus, to no avail. I was reporting the misuse of these spots to DPS on the regular, with rarely any repercussions.
My favorite moment was when I found a car that was parked in the crosshatch section of one of the Seaside disabled parking spots. I saw a ticket on it, and being nosey I looked since the posted minimum is $250 and I wanted to know how DPS handled that.
The ticket was for $40, the standard fee for any student parking where they weren’t supposed to. I called DPS and asked why it was $40, I was given the answer of DPS doesn’t like to give students that big of a fine and that the crosshatch section ‘isn’t technically the disabled spot’. I hung up and called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. I asked the deputy, “if you saw a car at Ralph’s parked in the crosshatch section what type of ticket would you give them.”
The deputy answered what I already knew, the crosshatch section is an extension of the disabled parking spot, so anyone who parks there is subject to the posted minimum fine of $250.
In September, I decided, out of pure rage, to go to CVS, print pictures of everything I had documented, and put them on the Freedom Wall. If I was going to be ignored in private, I would make it public. And it worked.
Within 24 hours of the Freedom Wall post being up, I got an email from the the head of DPS asking if I had time to discuss the issues I presented, “tomorrow or Thursday.” Since August, I had been trying to get a meeting with DPS and was scheduled for a meeting in mid-September — the soonest I could get.
But now, this could be discussed within 48 hours. We met at the originally scheduled time and I was assured that this issue would be fixed. It was not. I brought up the DPS officer who told me the crosshatch section didn’t count. “I don’t know why they told you that.”
Neither do I, but isn’t the Department of Public Safety and its officers supposed to know the law? In the coming weeks, I received many emails, including one from the head of the University’s Department of Planning, Operations and Construction, whose members had misused the spots, apologizing and ensuring me that there would be training and conversations around this. Months later, the spots were still being misused.
That December, I got a ligament in my knee replaced during finals week (disability is never convenient) and I was in a wheelchair. Even with my mom there to help me, I was dreading the thought of getting from the CAC to the Caf after one of my finals.
I finished early and didn’t have my phone. I aggressively wheeled myself to the library and used my ID card to access the exclusive, card-only library elevator. The library elevator is behind a large door without an activation plate, which, lucky for me, wasn’t open at the time.
I had to grab the door handle and use my good leg to push my wheelchair back as I opened the door, all while my freshly operated-on knee was stuck straight out in an immobilizer. I then went down and around through the Sandbar — now the Lighthouse — to take the service elevator down to the Caf.
This service elevator is extra exciting because you have to go through the back of the kitchen, and there’s always something going on in that hallway, mainly food pallets blocking the path to get out. I survived this trip. I made it back home for winter break, and I started the next semester at Graziadio.
During my first few weeks at Graziadio, I was still in a wheelchair. The most unbearable moment for me was when I had to go to the bathroom, but the door didn’t have an activation plate and the threshold that connected the carpeted floor to the tiled bathroom was too steep.
I couldn’t physically push myself into the bathroom. Three girls saw me struggling, one opened the door and the other two physically shoved me through the threshold. I never saw those girls again but I was grateful that, at this point, they did more to accommodate my disability than the University ever had.
During the 2021-22 school year, I had frequent meetings with administration. Meetings where I, along with a group of then-current students, brought up tangible changes that could be made to the University to make it more accessible.
Things like activation plates on doors, ensuring the existing activation plates work, lowering door thresholds, and adding more accessible housing — all things that we thought were pretty bare minimum.
After months of conversations, where we thought this was finally it, change was finally going to happen, all of our hope was crushed. In a meeting with several members of administration and staff members, our grass-roots group of current and former students presented a list of changes we would like to see made to make the campus more accessible.
The University went through the list. None of them were going to happen. All of these changes are cost-prohibitive. In the same breath, it was explained to us that the University is making strides toward accessibility — in fact, they’re spending six figures on making the baseball field accessible. Six figures. On making the baseball field accessible.
You may not be able to get to the Caf, but by God, you can watch baseball.
The exclusive elevator access I was granted in the library? Apparently, you need to request special access through the Office of Student Accessibility because if everyone has access to that elevator, people may steal books.
I’m not sure of the average monetary loss for books stolen from Pepperdine Libraries, but it is good to know that, whatever it is, it is more valuable than me. Every single point we presented was met with either not being cost-effective, something they would “contemplate in the future”, something that was a different department’s problem, or “we follow the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Just for the record, the Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law. You have to follow it. You do not deserve props for doing something you have a legal obligation to do. In a last-ditch effort to our attempts in getting the University to actually do something, I informed the team we were talking with of a potential violation of the ADA – the ramp that connects the front of the TCC to lower Mullin Town Square (in front of the Freedom Wall) that was labeled as an accessible map via external signage, doesn’t have a rail or a properly sized landing pad.
Weeks later I visited campus and the signs labeling that ramp as the accessible route were taken down. Shortly thereafter I received an email letting me know that after an extensive audit, the University measured the slope of that ramp and determined it wasn’t actually a ramp based on its slope, so it didn’t need to follow the ADA. I still don’t understand what exactly that sloped piece of sidewalk is, but I now know it’s not a ramp and it is not the accessible pathway from the TCC to the amphitheater — which begs the question of what is?
The precipice of this year of conversations was the 2022 Seaver Commencement. At the ceremony, my jaw dropped. When I watched the speaker wheel up to the stage, I looked at my phone and had several texts from my friends at the ceremony asking if this was real. We couldn’t believe it. Imagine months, let alone years, of conversations about how the school isn’t accessible, and then at graduation, they honor a quadriplegic man.
Let me be clear right now, this man deserved to be honored. This has nothing to do with him as a person, he didn’t know what we had just gone through. And I’m sure this was pre-planned, and not an attack on my friends and me. But, for the University to honor a man who could not physically navigate the campus is embarrassing. You can accommodate a wheelchair user at Alumni Park for four hours on the weekend.
If that man wanted to go to the Caf right now, could he get there? Could he make it to a first-year dorm? Could he make it inside the bathroom without injury? Would he thrive on campus for more than four hours?
People always ask me if I enjoyed my time at Pepperdine, and in the sake of honesty I never say “yes.” My response usually starts with a look and, “well…” How can I enjoy an institution that I am still fighting to this day for basic equity? How can I love an institution plagued by banners that say “you are loved here,” “you are valued here,” and more, when disabled students constantly do not feel those things?
How can I appreciate an institution that can spend $250 million on The Mountain but cannot spend a few thousand dollars adding activation plates on doors? I grapple with these feelings every time I think about my experience at Pepperdine.
I am exhausted. I have been exhausted for years. The University has always placed the burden of accessibility on the disabled. When I was advocating as a student, I was not only a full-time student, with a job, but I was also dealing with the fact that I am disabled — constant doctors’ appointments, physical therapy three times a week, chronic pain and fatigue. I accepted my exhaustion because I thought that if I put myself through this, I would improve it for the next disabled student at Pepperdine.
I am still contacted, to this day, by current and prospective students asking me if it has gotten better or letting me know they need help getting basic equality as able-bodied members of the campus community.
It pains me every time to tell them that it has not gotten better and that the resources I have to help them are limited. The University has not changed. They have had more conversations, but none have led to tangible, systemic change. I want there to be more disabled students at Pepperdine, but, as it currently stands, I would never recommend attending or visiting Pepperdine to anyone with a disability.
To end where I started, for those of you who missed Crip Camp, author Denise Sherer Jacobson said, “The ADA was a wonderful achievement. But it was only the tip of the iceberg. You can pass a law but until you can change society’s attitudes, that law won’t mean much.”
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