Chancellor Donna P. Henry paused as she readied to leave the Lila Vicars Smith House on her way to the office on the first day of work after the long winter break. She was eager to get behind her desk in Bowers-Sturgill Hall, but she had to ponder the best route to get to her office.
The Chancellor had a skiing accident in Colorado and was recovering from knee surgery. She was under strict medical orders to put no weight on her leg, which meant she was fitted with a long brace and was using an electric scooter when needed. Crutches were also a must. She has also used the Cavalier Connection, the campus bus route on and off campus, to get to physical therapy sessions.
But the primary thing swirling in her mind on the first day back was how to simply get where she needed to go when she had to be there.
“I have to leave a little extra time now,” she said. “I also have to stop and think what is the best way to get to a certain building. Once I had to remember where the elevator was in Smiddy Hall because I’d always taken the stairs.”
The Chancellor said she always understood the variety of access issues that could arise on a campus that is sloped. Recent weeks have caused her to truly understand the situation. She has been thinking back on construction project briefings and now sees first hand the importance of straight sidewalks and other necessities.
“Even though our campus buildings are on several levels, we can still get around everywhere,” she said. “We can use elevators to travel from the bottom to the top of campus, but we might have to go around usual walkways.”
She has physical therapy for at least three months. The Cavalier Connection, the campus bus system that also has access to the mobility challenged, has been helpful on occasion when she needs a ride to physical therapy sessions or just around campus.
“It’s been great,” she said. “The Cavalier Connections picks me up on time and the drivers are very helpful,” she added. “It is very convenient.”
While UVa-Wise has made progress in making the campus accessible, Henry had some minor issues in some buildings with the double automatic doors. Some of the outside doors would open from the outside while the inside doors would have open buttons on the inside.
“I was stuck in between the doors one day, but I think it could have been because I was moving too slowly,” she said. “The doors do close a bit quick in some buildings, but I think it could be because of the air and wind.”
Henry is also thankful that her home, the Lila Vicars Smith House, was built with accessibility in mind. She said getting around at home has been much easier because of the work that was already done to make the building handicapped accessible.
Whitney Wells, director of disabilities support services, said having a campus in the mountains can be a challenge, but progress continues to be made.
“The campus has come a long way from three sets of stairs connecting upper and lower campus,” Wells said. “The Slemp Student Center was the first elevator connection. The new library offered an alternative, as well. Navigating the world, much less a campus that straddles a hill takes thought. Physical accessibility is just one area that is always under review.”
Wells said many routes are available on campus, and some of the campus community must use them daily. However, those choices are often taken for granted. An elevator in the library can become disabled or be under repair, which means a person who depends on that route has to come up with another plan.
“They pick an alternative route or coordinate with library staff, who are awesome, to navigate the building,” Wells said. “Simple things like moving furniture or blocking a curb cut are unnecessary obstacles. Mark Ramsey and Ken Hale, who bring the doors to life, and Maintenance and Campus Police do a great job responding to and helping identify these concerns.”
Wells said when people suddenly find themselves handling accessibility issues, it can lead to a great campus discussion about big or small ideas that can improve accessibility at the College.