Ainsley McCarthy

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — One Winthrop University professor is challenging students to analyze the school’s infrastructure and look for spaces that may not be accessible for people with special needs.

Kathryn Nicholson, an assistant professor of interior design, has students in her “Codes and Standards” class looking for spaces that don’t meet the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA is a federal civil rights law that “guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services, and participate in state and local government programs,” according to the ADA website.

Buildings on campus are subject to these provisions, except when removing inaccessible barriers that require “much difficulty or expense,” compared to the institution’s size and financial resources.

Nicholson, who also works at an architectural firm, said the course addresses codes and standards that are integral to building construction.

The assignment, Nicholson said, is intended to make students aware of barriers they might not have noticed before, but are significant to someone with mobility difficulties when navigating the space.

“It’s what I am kind of the biggest advocate for, because I work in a profession where you hear statements like ‘oh, we don’t need ADA design, why do I have to do this?’ This is annoying. The rooms are bigger, the spaces are bigger,” said Nicholson. “It’s annoying and frustrating to hear architects and interior designers who know better than to say that.”

Students in the course are required to choose two mobility aids, they then use in at least two different buildings – one for mobility and another for sensory issues – in a facility that was built before 1990, when the ADA was passed, and the DiGiorgio Student Union, which opened in 2010.

The mobility aids included walkers, wheelchairs, canes, headphones and vision impairment glasses.

Nicholson said she is always looking for ways to improve the experience for students.

“This year we got (vision impairment glasses) for the class and what they are – they create different types of vision impairments, whether it’s cataracts, glaucoma, detached retinas, molecular degeneration – and they can experience what that vision contrast does to what they see,” she said.

Students are also required to write a reflection essay, contribute to a class discussion and make a PowerPoint presentation about what they saw during their exploration.

Nicholson said worn Braille, unkempt landscaping and a lack of ramps are just a few obstacles that student participants want to see remedied.

She said she has learned about new barriers since adding the assignment to her curriculum, including the danger that excess leaves and sticks can present to cane users.

Cindy LaRoche, a senior Digital Information Design (DIFD) major, said the assignment was an eye-opening experience that has resonated with them years later.

“I look and find things on campus now that I never would have noticed before and when I design – in my designs – I go to great, painstaking lengths to make sure that it’s an inclusive space,” LaRoche said.

A number of the obstacles that campus-goers face are currently scheduled to be addressed via the campus master plan, led by James Grigg, the vice president of facilities management.

“It’s a mature campus, with buildings built at different times, and not every one of them is accessible, and not every one – over time – has been renovated to be an accessible space,” Grigg said.

Nicholson is working with Grigg and the Office of Accessibility to make sure the Winthrop campus is as up-to-date as possible, without having to demolish the historic buildings.

A third-party architect conducted the ADA assessment that was used as the basis of the accessibility initiative in the campus master plan, which is standard practice. Grigg said the findings of the analysis included misplaced signage, tripping hazards, unreadable Braille and other problems.

He said he has repeatedly visited Nicholson’s codes and standards class to speak about his knowledge of facilities and safety.

Grigg said he encourages any student who encounters an accessibility concern to contact him, so that it’s fixed as soon as possible and the campus can be made safe and accessible to everyone.