By Emily Gibson
Jadyn Marstella, a freshman English major, uses a wheelchair and cannot think of a time when her closest friends were not there to help with whatever challenges came her way on campus.
Marstella was diagnosed with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine, at birth, but she has been using a wheelchair for eight of those years.
When the time came for Marstella to choose a college, accessibility and campus population were two important factors she considered.
During her first visit to Trevecca, Marstella said she saw a college that seemed to fit everything she was looking for except a few accessibility concerns. But when she met Michelle Gaertner, coordinator of disability services, she felt confident those concerns could easily be addressed for her.
“When I first met her, she told me to reach out to her at any time and inform her of things not working or ideas that I might have,” said Marstella.
Marstella has taken her up on that offer and believes that by speaking up now and using the resources available to her for advocating change, she will be able to help many people in the process.
“I definitely want to be able to forge this path so that people who come behind me don’t have to go through the same things I’ve gone through,” said Marstella.
A majority of the buildings on Trevecca’s campus were built before 1977, which is when a federal law was passed to require buildings be handicap accessible. Over the years, as those buildings have been renovated, campus administrators have worked to make accessibility improvements, said Dan Boone, university president.
But, students and faculty on campus who require accessibility say they face obstacles getting around campus. Gaertner said she wants to be made aware when a student is struggling to access buildings on campus.
“Creating access for people should be a missional approach,” said Gaertner. “I work hard at building a relationship with students so that they’re comfortable approaching me if there are concerns.”
One of the ways Gaertner addresses accessibility on campus is by meeting with Sodexo who oversees campus facilities management. Their last meeting was right before the fall semester of 2022. Gaertner walked around the whole campus with the facilities management team and together they determined and documented what needed to be looked at.
Any student who needs accommodation or has concerns or questions about accessibility on campus can come to Gaertner, and she will help them think through their options.
“I can walk campus all day long, but my lens is not going to be [their] lens of seeing how to do things,” said Gaertner.
Jeff Wells, department chair for the communication studies department, has spent the past year navigating campus with a rollator—a type of walker that has four wheels and a break.
Due to a disease of the central nervous system called multiple sclerosis, Wells experiences fatigue and spasticity in his legs which can make walking unassisted a challenge.
Tidwell, which serves as a faculty office for the communications department, is one of the grandfathered buildings on campus which is not required to comply with the current ADA requirements.
“If I were to have very much more negative progression then I wouldn’t be able to get into the Tidwell building,” said Wells.
While Tidwell is the primary building Wells’ accessibility concerns lie, there are other concerns such as available handicap parking spaces close to buildings. The Waggoner library, for example, is an accessible building, but it has very limited handicapped parking spaces.
Five of the handicap spaces which used to be accessible in the parking lot between Mackey and Waggoner were repurposed to allow the UPS and FedEx trucks continual access to the mail room whose location was moved into the library.
The handicap spots were moved to the spaces directly across from Tidwell, which is quite a distance of hills and inclines to the entrance of the library, said Wells.
In addition to the handicap spaces, Wells noticed another issue.
Some buildings only have one elevator, such as the Greathouse science building, where one must walk the full length of the building just to reach. This can be difficult for a person with fatigued legs, he said.
Despite the accessibility challenges Wells has faced, he did not see a need for accommodation until this year.
Wells taught online for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic during which he was not on the Trevecca campus, but when he returned to campus fall of 2022, followed by the addition of the rollator, accessibility became more of a concern than it had ever been, said Wells.
Many of Wells’ colleagues within his department recognized these new challenges and sought accessibility improvements in Tidwell on his behalf. The department reached out to Steve Sexton, director of human resources, who was quick to assess the problem and look for a solution, Wells said.
“Sexton has been working with the administration to see what needs to be done,” said Wells.
While the official plan is not currently public information, Wells said it is safe enough to say there is a plan in the works.
Boone confirmed the approved plan and said it entails moving the department of communication studies to a more accessible facility on campus. The provost is working to move everything now, said Boone.
“As far as my situation is concerned, the administration has been receptive and responsive to what my needs are beyond just the ADA,” said Wells.
Boone said making sure students and faculty with physical disabilities can navigate campus is a high priority.
“I think the thing I’d want students to know, especially students with disabilities, is we have hired someone who has training in that area to be a source for problem solving and helping them,” Boone said. “The more they build their relationship with that office, the better that officer can serve them.”
Both Wells and Marstella said having a disability has given them a new perspective on life, shaping not only who they are as a person, but also how they can advocate and thus help others who have faced similar challenges.
Very few people without a disability live on a day-to-day basis with the awareness of what a person with a disability must handle to be able to go somewhere or do something, said Boone.
“Hospitality is a Biblical practice, and so hospitality is basically creating spaces where other people can belong, where they feel like they’re heard, and they’re seen for who they are, which includes their disabilities,” said Boone. “It’s our desire to continue within the framework of resources that we have available to do the very best we can do with that.”