Expanding accessibility on campus for all

Although accessibility challenges may seem most acute with existing structures, there are many creative ways to prioritize accessibility during a renovation.
Robert Parise
Robert Parisehttps://www.glaveandholmes.com/
Robert Parise is a principal and director of the higher education studio at Glavé & Holmes Architecture in Richmond, Va.

As universities strive to create inclusive and welcoming campuses that foster intellectual and personal growth, conversations around accessibility have moved past a focus only on elevators and wheelchair ramps. Physical accessibility is still crucial and a top concern, but many university leaders now pursue broader accessibility goals that emphasize options for everyone on campus.

What does this approach to accessibility look like? It depends in some measure on the campus itself, including the topography, age of facilities, and layout. Regardless of campus variations, all universities should start with a plan.

Campus accessibility plans

Campus accessibility plans can supplement and support other planning efforts and focus on areas where the campus is inaccessible to some. Starting from scratch can seem like a daunting task. Universities should consider using outside accessibility experts to help them identify what specific areas of campus should be prioritized first.

The University of Mary Washington (UMW) in Fredericksburg, Va., recently undertook the development of a campus accessibility plan that outlined priority projects and areas of greatest need. Based on its research, including conversations with students, faculty, and staff, UMW prioritized accessibility improvements with student housing because that would be most impactful for their students and have maximum impact. UMW also used a professional cost estimator to determine what the school could accomplish with the funding earmarked to improve campus accessibility.

When considering a campus accessibility plan, follow three critical lessons. First, conduct a campus accessibility study to understand current needs. Second, deeply focus on project parameters and how a project aligns with the university’s values. Third, develop this plan early before you begin any projects. A bonus tip: Don’t forget to look at the ADA and see how the law prioritizes accessibility. For example, providing access to a building should be the top priority and then focus on movement within the building.

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Accessibility in existing buildings

Ideally, a comprehensive campus accessibility plan should be in place before undertaking new projects. Even if that plan doesn’t exist, universities can incorporate accessibility goals into any project. Let’s consider existing buildings on campus. Although accessibility challenges may seem most acute with existing structures, there are many creative ways to prioritize accessibility during a renovation. For example, Virginia State University (VSU) in Ettrick, Va., is currently renovating three buildings on campus. As part of these projects, the school adds elevator towers on each building’s exterior to ensure greater accessibility while maximizing existing square footage.

Accessibility improvements don’t have to be expensive projects. As part of a campus review at VSU and talking with current students, the school identified an existing ramp in an academic building that was serviceable but led people down a dark and uninviting hallway at the back of the building. The university will upgrade that entrance with improved lighting and finishes that make the space more welcoming, easier to navigate, and feel like an intentional entry. Small changes can have a significant impact.

Accessibility in new buildings

New facilities on campus offer almost limitless options to incorporate accessibility. Utilize an accessibility lens that considers the most comprehensive array of stakeholders.

How to best design and position bathrooms in facilities is an increasingly common consideration. Students—a key stakeholder group—often advocate for gender-inclusive bathrooms, while other groups may be more comfortable with a mix of both gendered and non-gendered options. One solution to balance competing needs is placing gender-inclusive bathrooms on floors where students will be most present and traditional, gender-based bathrooms on more public-facing floors, such as near large performing spaces in an arts center.

Individual, non-gendered restrooms offer a relatively straightforward solution to provide gender-inclusive options. However, the size of these restrooms could be prohibitive for some facilities. Many schools are now exploring how to create gender-inclusive bathrooms that include multiple stalls to maximize the distribution and number of toilets. When considering this approach, studying local building codes carefully is critical. For example, in some states, only a small gap of less than one inch is permitted between partitions in gender-inclusive bathrooms. This requirement adds significant costs related to individual drains, exhaust, lighting, and other materials, and those costs could make the goal of a gender-inclusive bathroom unrealistic in the near term. Schools that explore gender-inclusive bathrooms should be aware of logistical and cost challenges. This shouldn’t dissuade the pursuit of these bathrooms. Instead, it’s a factor to address early, so it’s unsurprising.

Ultimately, accessibility should be about creating a broad set of options so that as many people as possible can use, enjoy, and engage with university campuses. Accessibility for all is an essential goal on campus that reinforces a welcoming and inclusive environment in a truly tangible way.


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