The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago by President George H.W. Bush to ensure that Americans who have either a physical or mental impairment do not face discrimination in their daily lives and that they are able to receive accommodations.
The Office of Disability Support Services at Lehigh coordinated several events last week, including an informative art exhibit and a wheelchair basketball game, to commemorate the anniversary of the act.
Cheryl Ashcroft, the assistant dean of academic support services, was instrumental in coordinating these events, as well as setting up the Office of Disability Support Services 23 years ago.
Before coming to Lehigh, Ashcroft was a psychologist at Northampton Community College for 15 years. This experience allowed her to gain knowledge of disability support services there and at other local community colleges.
“The community colleges were the place that many individuals with disabilities would come to because it’s open admission, and it’s much more physically accessible,” Ashcroft said. “They were newer, they weren’t 200 years old. That’s where I got my training.”
The office now mainly facilitates the transition between high school and college.
“We review psycho-educational documentation and any medical documentation,” Ashcroft said. “We determine the most appropriate accommodation based on that documentation. We have a review committee. We look at what the functional limitation is and the requested accommodation to make sure that lines up.”
Ashcroft and the office work closely with many departments around campus to ensure that students who are differently abled have the same opportunities for success.
Through a partnership with Cedar Crest College, the Ability Exhibit on the third floor of the University Center detailed the creation and impact of the act.
Aside from celebrating the act and its impact, the exhibit also aimed to educate people not familiar with the act. The exhibit featured interactive displays to educate visitors on everything from the history of the act, to the concept of Universal Design (creating products and environments that are accessible to all), to the proper terminology for certain disabilities.
“By using the correct terminology, it really puts a different perspective on people with disabilities,” Ashcroft said.
A common mistake, Ashcroft said, is referring to wheel chair users as “confined” to a wheelchair.
“They may transfer from here to a boat, they may transfer from here to a car. So they’re not confined,” Ashcroft said. “They don’t go to bed with their wheelchair. Confined implies that there’s a lack of freedom. They are people first.”
The Freewheelers basketball team from the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living is one such organization that demonstrates the freedom and ability of wheelchair users. Lehigh’s men’s and women’s varsity basketball, also using wheelchairs, teamed up to play the Freewheelers for a game in Grace Hall.
Everett Deibler, the leadership development coordinator for the Center for Independent Living and member of the Freewheelers, said that he’s never known a world outside of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It has helped people with disabilities gain access to public life, and the ability to live free, independent lives,” Deibler said. “We appreciate Lehigh celebrating this.”
Anjela Yates, ’17, attended the basketball game and said it made her proud to be at Lehigh. Yates also highlighted the importance of awareness and taking consideration to be inclusive.
“Disability also has an ability,” Alexandra Yantzi, ’14, ’15G, said. “This game sends a message that Lehigh is making a better effort to be more accessible.”
Ashcroft said that most of the differently abled students that the office assists are those with learning disabilities. She acknowledged that Lehigh, due to its physical characteristics, is not the most accessible campus.
“These are all things we’re working on,” Ashcroft said. “Any time there’s a renovation on a building, they must go in and make sure it’s in compliance with ADA. Any new building must be in compliance. The newer buildings like STEPS, Maginnes and Zoellner are all in compliance.”
However, Ashcroft’s plans for improvement go beyond just making the buildings accessible. Getting up and down the mountain to get to these accessible buildings still poses a great challenge. Ashcroft wants more buses that run more frequently on a more accessible loop.
“So if a person has to go from Maginnes to Rauch, or from Rauch to Maginnes, they don’t have to go all the way up the hill and then all the way back around,” Ashcroft said. “Something that’s quicker, more like an express bus. That would help students tremendously. Everyone would benefit from that. That’s universal design.”
Ashcroft also has plans for improvements within the classroom, as well.
“We need to remind faculty to be mindful of universal design and inclusive learning, so that it’s not just lecture; so there are many different modalities engaged within the learning process,” Ashcroft said. She said she would like to see a more multilayered approach, as well as improved and updated usage of technology within the classroom.