This is the first installment in a two-part series on disabilities on campus. Check Wednesday's paper for the second installment on physical access renovations and plans for Virginia Tech's campus.
When T.C. Jones doesn’t immediately go to shake your hand, don’t be offended. He doesn’t shake hands often.
In fact, his hands have only recently re-learned to write legibly — or rather, legibly enough for him to read, the senior computer science major says.
And his hands’ most important task is to guide his wheelchair — the manual one for short trips and the electric model for longer days on campus.
Jones is one of about five registered students on campus in a wheelchair, but one of hundreds with a disability. Although he became disabled after enrolling at Virginia Tech, many students need to consider disability access and accommodations when deciding on a school.
Tech is tasked with reasonably accommodating students with disabilities, and while those who use the campus disability services have called them helpful, only a handful of students in a wheelchair are currently at Tech.
FEW AND FAR BETWEEN
According to the Disability Statistics Center at the University of California in San Francisco, about .06 percent of the population uses a wheelchair — but the number of Tech students in a wheelchair who work with Tech’s Services for Students with Disabilities office fits on one hand.
Rick Ferraro, assistant vice president for student affairs, attributed the small number to self-selection of prospective students — a student with a disability might find Tech’s size and weather conditions intimidating, and immediately disregard it.
“We tell them the truth,” he said of prospective students. “They do have to understand what they’re dealing with.”
Ferraro said that newer universities have an advantage with modern buildings that are more accessible. Any university built after 1990 would be fully compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which created architecture accessibility standards. Students with disabilities might also be drawn to a small campus that is easier to navigate.
“What we do isn’t necessarily what another college will do,” said Susan Angle, director of SSD.
Most Tech students with a disability aren’t as obvious as a wheelchair user. A documented disability can range from a psychological condition to Attention Deficit Disorder to the quadriplegia that put Jones in his wheelchair three years ago.
Like most freshmen, Jones came to Tech in 2006 and found his own routes on campus.
Then the Powhatan native broke his neck on a snowboarding trip to Snowshoe, W.Va. in February 2007. Jones is now a C7 complete quadriplegic, which means he has no feeling in his legs and very little use of his hands.
Jones took the rest of the semester off, but he came back to Tech in fall 2007 — and had to completely retrain his brain when it came to the campus.
“I got used to the ways I walked,” Jones said. “It was hard to figure out where the ramps were. Initially I had to kind of keep a mental map of the place.”
An access map is available on campus, but it hasn’t been updated since 2006. David Bingham, architect for ADA Services, said the map should be updated within the next month.
Through trial and error, Jones would sometimes be late to class while learning the best routes. Now, his schedule is like clockwork.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:30 a.m., the Blacksburg Transit Access bus is scheduled to pick Jones up from his Terrace View apartment. Any later, and he might not get to his 11:15 a.m. class on time in Hahn Hall North — the bus can show up in a 20-minute frame before or after 10:30, and it leaves within five minutes without him if he doesn’t show up.
Like a trivia game, Jones can rattle off the best ways to get around campus. McBryde and Torgersen halls are easiest to navigate. Davidson Hall may have a few power doors, but they are never in the hallways where he has classes — some doors are extremely heavy to push in his electric chair and nearly impossible in the manual one.
McBryde only recently got a power door for the first-floor ramp way. Torgersen’s bathroom doors could use power doors.