Open Letter to the President: Students Demand Disability Access and Inclusion

Dear President Marc B. Parlange and the administration of the University of Rhode Island:

We, the students, are writing to you on behalf of fellow students and staff at the University of Rhode Island out of ongoing concern regarding disability access and inclusion. As a community, we stand together in solidarity and believe it is our responsibility to advocate for fellow students and staff that may be experiencing unfair disadvantages around campus. From our observations, it is apparent that the university possesses the necessary resources and funding to improve its disability access and inclusion and we argue that these renovations are readily achievable (42 U.S.C. § 12181(9)).

Through interviews with staff, survey research, and our own experience as URI students, we

have identified several major barriers to accessibility on campus that students face daily. We

demand that the University of Rhode Island take action to allocate funds and support

toward resolving these major issues:

  • Majority of academic buildings and dormitories lack accessible elevators and entrances
  • Inadequate advertisement of the ADA Access Reporting form
  • Inadequate funding towards the Office of Disability Access and Inclusion
  • Locked accessible entrances despite numerous notices to keep them open (28 CFR § 35.133)
  •  Inadequate snow removal (28 CFR § 35.133)
  • Poor ramp and path access up and down hills (§402.1)
  • Buildings being rendered inaccessible due to an absence of elevators (§407.1)
  • Malfunctioning accessible door buttons (28 CFR § 35.133)
  • Insufficient disability sensitivity training for professors and students
  • Insufficient accommodations in the Academic Testing Center
  • Unreliable transportation options, such as shuttle services and parking

Although the ADA permits reasonable accommodation, which refers to “modifications or

adjustments made to school policies, as well as the provision of specific supports or services for

students with disabilities that enable them to participate in school programs” (Disabilities in

Higher Education, n.d.), it is at most substandard and an overall inadequate solution for the real

changes that should be made. It is unreasonable to expect that the reasonable accommodations

provided do anything to aid students further than the bare necessities. The University’s actions

may conform to legal procedures, but it is apparent they fail to uphold justice and representation.

Moreover, the current renovations and procedures fail to address the actual challenges faced by

students with disabilities.

The existing circumstances demonstrate to current and prospective students that URI is satisfied

with meeting only the minimum requirements for disability access and inclusion. The University

of Rhode Island must abide by its professed commitment to “embrace the multiple dimensions of

diversity, equity, and inclusion in the pursuit of excellence in academic, professional, and career

advancement” and its mission to “develop educational opportunities for individuals to create

knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes that encourage lifelong learning, innovative leadership,

and community service.” The current state of affairs also does not align with Strategic Priority 2,

as outlined in the 2023 budget allocation/2024 budget request. Failure to improve disability

access and inclusion impedes URI’s efforts to achieve its goals of “continuously revitalizing the

learning environment to incorporate active learning, student agency, and contemporary,

high-impact learning pedagogies” (Goal 1) and “creating a diverse learning community and

making a URI education accessible to all students” (Goal 3). Furthermore, URI’s lack of

disability access will discourage potential graduate students from enrolling and disadvantage

those who are already enrolled (Goal 2).

Based on the survey we conducted, which garnered over 100 responses from students and staff,

100% of the respondents expressed their support for our demands that URI take concrete steps to

improve disability access. Out of the respondents, 74% did not perceive URI as an accessible

campus, and only 16.5% of respondents believed that the campus was somewhat accessible. Our

survey also revealed that URI is deficient in informing students about the accommodations

already in place, as 56.3% of students were not aware of the ADA Access Reporting Form, and

another 28.2% did not know what the form is.

In addition, we collected over 50 brief statements that reflect the demands and concerns that

were previously mentioned. Many students expressed worry about unreliable transportation

options, such as the Rhody Blue Line, which often compelled them to use narrow and steep

paths. Some students specifically mentioned Washburn Hall’s lack of elevators and CBLS’s

consistently faulty automatic doors. Students also conveyed their frustration with the absence of

clear information regarding accommodations and rights for students with disabilities. It is also

worth mentioning that while this letter’s focus is on the lack of physical access on campus,

numerous students reported a lack of mental health and special needs support on campus.

Many responses included personal and emotional accounts of the challenges faced by students

accessing disability services at URI, such as exclusion from campus experiences due to

disabilities of themselves or their friends, safety concerns, and frustration with the lack of

accessibility. Specifically, able-bodied students expressed frustration and heartbreak due to their

disabled loved ones being unable to visit due to a lack of accessibility. Many shared their fears

about their own safety and ability to navigate campus in the event of an injury.

The root of these grievances reflects a consistent failure on behalf of the University’s upper

administration to allocate enough budget and resources towards a disability-friendly campus. It is

clear from the responses that the current procedures perpetuate an environment of fear and

isolation that disadvantages disabled students. URI students and staff have shown overwhelming

support for our initiative, and it is the responsibility of this school’s administration to not only

listen to students but take action on the demands we bring them.

Therefore, we urge the University of Rhode Island to take this opportunity to lead in effecting the

deeply needed change and challenge the ableist institutional norms embedded in educational

institutions across the nation. The actions we demand are necessary to achieve the President’s

ambitions to create a campus where all students can thrive. By embracing this progressive

attitude, both current and prospective students will not only benefit from this inclusive

architecture but also flourish in an environment that acknowledges their existence, experience

and struggle in a world where such recognition is often lacking.

We would like to thank President Marc B. Parlange and the administrators of the University of

Rhode Island for taking the time to read this letter and consider its contents.

Kind regards,

Mya MacNeil, Zahra Khan, Grace Summerson, Grace Kiernan, Anja Bjorson, Max Ludwig, Jane Wright, Millie Brown, and the students and staff of The University of Rhode Island