The University of Rhode Island is made up of 1,245 acres, a striking amount for students to maneuver around during the winter months, but for students with disabilities, this distance is even greater.
The Office of Disability Services for Students at URI will attend to nearly 1,600 students this academic year who are suffering from learning, physical, and mental health disabilities. This is about 200 more than last year, according to Assistant Director of Disability Services Paige Ramsdell.
Ramsdell said the number of students with mental health disabilities continues to grow rapidly and is the fastest growing population of students they encounter. These disabilities can include anxiety disorders, mood disorders and depression. “Last year for the first time, [students with mental health issues] outnumbered students with learning issues,” Ramsdell said. “For students who have a barrier because of disability, our goal, if we can’t eliminate the barrier, is to minimize the barrier so students can access all the things on campus that every other student can access.”
Associate Professor Kendall Moore said that years ago, she had a student who was blind, but with on-campus transportation, he was able to make it to his classes “on time and without incident.”
Before the semester begins, some courses are moved into handicapped accessible buildings if there are any accessibility issues for students. This allows students of all statures to attend class.
Disability Services offers on-campus transportation for students with permanent physical disabilities. The “Ram Van” picks students up from their residence halls and brings them to their classrooms on a daily basis. Ramsdell said that during this time of year, more and more students use the Ram Van because of the cold and snowfall.
“We have some students with some pretty severe disabilities and I give these students so much credit,” Ram Van Driver Joe Kosiarek said. “Having the Ram Van makes it just a little bit easier for them to get around to class. It’s one less worry they have to take care of.”
Rachel Beusee-Kauffman, a sophomore and resident academic mentor (RAM) for Weldin Hall, said she’s witnessed the Ram Van allow students to attend class and school events with ease during the winter months.
“I believe that it can be incredibly beneficial, especially considering the recent weather that comes with bad road conditions and unsafe walkways,” Kauffman said. “Not only can this recourse make student’s lives more convenient but also safer by avoiding these opportunities for accidents.”
By prioritizing snow removal in certain areas on-campus, Ramsdell said they have provided students with accessibility to residence halls and academic buildings. If they know a student lives in a certain hall or has to go to class in a specific building, they will prioritize snow removal in that area first.
Ramsdell, who is also a psychologist, explained how certain disabilities tend to worsen during winter months, due to the cold weather. Chronic health disabilities like Lupus or Sickle Cell Anemia may intensify during this time and she encourages students to keep their professors informed about their needs.
“We can help students understand that college is a stressful time and if you’re prone to mental health issues, this is probably when they’re going to [creep] up,” Ramsdell said.
She hopes the student body can eliminate the stigma behind health disabilities and encourages students to seek treatment and resources if they are finding it difficult to function daily.