ACCESSIBILITY: PHYSICAL AND OTHERWISE
Jesse Bennett, ’19,
College of Arts and Science
I thought I would have an easier time adjusting to Vanderbilt than most students. I grew up in Green Hills, after all, and attended USN, minutes away from The Commons. Still, I found a campus that was more challenging, exciting, and rewarding than anything I could have imagined. I have cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for me to walk, so I use an electric wheelchair to get around campus.
It’s hard to describe what I can and can’t do and what accommodations I need. It’s complicated and messy. Because of my wheelchair, many people, including my hallmates, first assume I cannot walk at all. One night, when I was hanging out in a friend’s room and I decided to stand up it caused a lot of amazement and concern. Other social scenarios can also be difficult. I’m technically able to get into most of the fraternity houses on campus, but most of the areas where social events are held, are off-limits because of my physical abilities. I can also, in theory, travel from The Commons to Highland when it’s dark outside. That said, I prefer not to because some areas of campus are not well lit, making it harder to follow accessible routes. These challenges made me feel somewhat isolated in my first semester.
Luckily, by the middle of second semester, I had a better idea of how to get around campus and the type of people I wanted to hang out with. I became involved with Vanderbilt Quiz Bowl as well as Disabilities Awareness Partnership (DAP), a student organization working to make campus more accessible. When it came time to choose housing for sophomore year, I applied to live in McGill Hall, a Living-Learning Community that promotes free thinking and creativity. I also continue to look for people who are open-minded, laid-back, and willing to accommodate my needs when planning social events.
My cerebral palsy is not like anyone else’s cerebral palsy, just like one person’s blindness is not like another person’s blindness. Disability is a spectrum, which makes it difficult to bring up in the conversation of diversity. I think this is why it took me a bit longer to find my place at Vanderbilt: I’m one of relatively few students with a physical disability on this campus. It takes people time to recognize the unique social challenges that students with disabilities face. Ability is different from race and gender – it is something the majority of people, even those with other types of disabilities, take for granted. Through my work with DAP I hope to make the campus more accessible, physically or otherwise, to all students. To all the first-year students reading this, know that while your first year might be tough and challenging, there is a place for you at Vanderbilt. You’ll find it soon enough, just as I found mine.