There are exactly 48 steps leading to the Education Department on the third floor of George Davis Hall. For most Education majors, scaling those 48 steps is just another part of the routine.
Corinna Dooha-Chambers ‘07 traveled those 48 steps once, and only once.
Just weeks before she would receive her degree in Elementary Education, Dooha-Chambers was carried up those four flights of stairs in a sitting chair by a group of fellow students. In her four years at Knox, this was the first and last time she would ever set eyes on the cream-colored department walls.
Although Knox works under the constraints of a 178 year-old campus to provide students with both permanent and temporary disabilities the accommodations they need, students and faculty have expressed concern over the current discrepancies in physical accessibility on campus. The lack of elevators stands at the forefront of many conversations, as prominent academic buildings such as Old Main and GDH are only first floor accessible, including the majority of residence halls.
A 19th century campus, most of Knox’s facilities were built and renovated before the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which serves to protect disabled individuals from discrimination in the public sphere. Under this protocol, college campuses are required to have accessible facilities for the purpose of inclusion and equality.
Although many buildings lack full accessibility, all future structures and renovations must be brought up to ADA guidelines.
“We want to create as much opportunity as we can,” said President Teresa Amott. “It’s absolutely a civil rights issue.”
While there’s common acknowledgement among members of the administration that issues of accessibility need to be confronted, according to Director of Facilities Scott Maust, improving accessibility on certain buildings falls on a long list of projects.
“There’s a desire and a plan, but until we get the dollars we can’t actually make it happen,” Amott explained. “It’s a long horizon on a historic campus to get accessibility.”
Because Knox is not a state institution, the college is not guaranteed annual funds from the Illinois State Legislature for the purpose of making renovations. Instead, the finances must come from individual donors – an often long and unpredictable process.
For Dooha-Chambers, the absence of elevators left more than just her fleeting introduction with the Education Department to remain an unseen mystery.
During a doctor’s visit at the age of one, a simple test revealed a sign that would further direct the course of Dooha-Chambers’ life. As the doctor held her in the air, they noticed her legs did not curl up in the way they typically do for children of that age. The absence of this behavior indicated a neurological problem between her brain and leg muscles, which lead to confirm her diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy.
While each individual with cerebral palsy experiences their symptoms differently, Dooha-Chambers’ walking ability was one of the major functions impacted by the neurological disorder. Wheelchair-bound since the age of three, she is more than accustomed to the separation that exists between the bottom of a flight of stairs and what lies on the other side.
“There’s a whole visual aspect of Knox that I only have five minutes of memory of,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me so much, but in that moment I realized just how different my experience had been in some ways, because there were places I could go and places I couldn’t.”
Dooha-Chambers spent her first three years at Knox as the only student on campus in a wheelchair – an experience filled with simultaneous hardship and gratification.
Although no data tracking the number of applicants with physical disabilities has been recorded, according to Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission Paul Steenis, the number of admitted students who visit campus each year with physical limitations is very small.
“There’s no way I would come to Knox if I used a wheelchair,” said Karen Kampwirth ‘86, Robert W. Murphy Chair in Political Science. “Because students who know that they’re wheelchair users could choose from many other good institutions that are more accessible, that aren’t on 19th century campuses.”
Beginning her time at Knox as a student in 1982, and now a professor of 20 years, Kampwirth has personally experienced the ins and outs of physical accessibility on campus.
Shortly after graduating in 1986, Kampwirth suffered two strokes that led to bad arthritis and walking difficulties. Like Dooha-Chambers, Kampwirth has had to find her own solutions and accommodations for navigating campus, as she acknowledged the differences in every individual’s physical limitations.
While a lack of elevators is a notable concern, Kampwirth does not rely on them to get around on a day-to-day basis.
“When I came back to teach I discovered, which of course wasn’t new, I just hadn’t noticed it, that there were no railings anywhere [outside] on this campus,” she said. Kampwirth relies on the presence of railings to assist her in traveling up and down stairs.
Railings have since been added to the entrances of Old Main, Post Hall and the Old Jail, after Kampwirth rode around in a golf cart to point out these discrepancies to members of the administration. It’s often small structural barriers, like the absence of a railing or the presence of a ledge, that prevent a space from being entirely accessible to individuals with physical limitations.
Throughout the duration of Kampwirth’s teaching career, she has only known of two students in wheelchairs – Dooha-Chambers was one of them.
While larger institutions are often acknowledged for being better equipped when it comes to issues of physical accessibility, Dooha-Chambers found Knox to be far more accommodating during her college search. She explained that many schools took evaluating her disability into their own hands, especially regarding the modifications they believed she would need. For example, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign all students with disabilities lived in a separate dorm from the able-bodied students, which stood as a major concern.
Because Knox had never had an applicant who was a full-time wheelchair user, they had no other option but to offer the same housing options available to able-bodied students.
“I don’t have any reason to believe that students who have physical limitations … would be choosing to go elsewhere because of that,” Steenis said. “In fact, over the years we’ve had a number of students who have had specific physical mobility needs that we’ve been able to address.”
While the college aims to work with students to accommodate permanent mobility demands, being prepared to readjust for temporary handicaps is equally important.
“They [large universities] don’t have the community that comes around and says ‘let’s make this work,’” Dooha-Chambers said. “I can’t tell you how appreciative I am for that. I will never forget it.”
After deciding to make the jump from San Francisco, California to the Midwest, a double-single in Townhouse C would soon become Dooha-Chambers’ home for the next four years.
“I loved parts of it, and parts of it made me want to curl up into a ball and not come out of my room,” she said. Dooha-Chambers described her experience at Knox as a “mixed bag” of trial, error and figuring out how to make the most of an imperfect situation.
She became quickly acquainted with the day-to-day routine of navigating campus and the process of requesting accommodations. Traveling through snow during winter months, knowing which doors to use, adjusting classrooms, finding note takers, working with professors who wrote down essays as she recited them, seeking out wheelchair-accessible places to meet them, finding attendants who cut her food and got her up and ready for school each morning – the list is long and does not end there.
“I went out the wrong door of GDH; I think I wandered out one of the doors that had stairs and I didn’t realize it was the door without the ramp,” Dooha-Chambers recalled. “Someone had to come get me because I was literally tilted on two stairs. They caught me so I didn’t fall.”
It was moments like these in which Dooha-Chambers was reminded of the limited wheelchair accessible routes, as most buildings only have one accessible point of entry. Although these ramps make a huge difference between accessibility and exclusion, she explained that many were very steep and likely not up to code.
Kampwirth has also experienced limitations in accessibility, in that her handicap parking space on Cherry St. floods with water every time it rains, making the trip to and from her car more challenging. This problem also remains unsolved.
While both handicap parking and the presence of ramps aim to improve accessibility, not all issues that arise can easily be solved with these solutions, as the spectrum of limitations and accommodations varies greatly from person to person. The need for modifications is constantly changing.
“The lesson I took from Knox is sometimes the accessibility is not having it presented to you perfectly, but having it presented to you in a way that works for you,” Dooha-Chambers said. “We think that accessibility is perfection, and we hope there is perfection, but sometimes the way you make as many things accessible to you is by figuring it out yourself with help.”
Although Dooha-Chambers was reminded of her limitations the day she was carried to the third floor of GDH, she claimed she felt just as much a part of the department as the able-bodied students lifting her.
“If I hadn’t gotten to see it I still would have felt a part of the department, because that’s how the other students made me feel,” she said.
Despite obstacles on campus and in the outside community, she acknowledged that the Education Department and general Knox community tried their best to provide her with equal opportunity in every way possible. From a group of students arranging the accommodations for her to travel to Washington D.C. as a freshman, to being told the classified Flunk Day date so her attendants could wake her up at the crack of dawn for the festivities, Dooha-Chambers knew she always had someone in her corner.
While the college can hope to make certain renovations, such as the implementation of elevators in Old Main and GDH, it’s ultimately a matter of whether or not donors give to the buildings that need them. According to Amott, creating 100 percent accessibility on Knox’s campus is a million dollar project that would likely take 20 years to achieve.
“Sometimes you have to make some tough calls when you don’t have a lot of money,” Amott said. “You might have to privilege buildings where there are a lot of students over buildings where there are fewer students … It’s a complicated matrix of what comes next.”
According to Maust, if and when the funding were to become available, a rough layout exists for the construction of elevators in Old Main and GDH.
In the meantime, Dooha-Chambers expressed the importance of requesting accommodations when they’re needed, because in the end, Knox was able to make it work.
“That kind of community, I will never forget it,” she said. “It wasn’t perfect, but in an imperfect situation you need the best people around you, and I think that’s what I had.”