Chancellors gain perspective for Disability Awareness Month

Julie Herrmann/ Sun Star Reporter
Oct. 8, 2013

Vice Chancellors Pete Pinney and Mike Sfraga, Chancellor Brian Rogers and Access Alaska Advocacy Director Doug Toelle sat on a panel on Oct. 4 to discuss Vice Chancellor Pat Pitney, Sfraga and Rogers' experiences using wheelchairs and Pinney's experience using visibility impairment goggles during Disability Awareness Month.

Vice Chancellors Pete Pinney and Mike Sfraga, Chancellor Brian Rogers and Access Alaska Advocacy Director Doug Toelle sat on a panel on Oct. 4 to discuss Vice Chancellor Pat Pitney, Sfraga and Rogers’ experiences using wheelchairs and Pinney’s experience using visibility impairment goggles during Disability Awareness Month. Julie Herrmann/Sun Star

Last week, four UAF executives spent a day using a wheelchair or visibility impairment goggles to experience what it’s like getting around on campus with a disability.

On Oct. 3, Chancellor Brian Rogers and Vice Chancellors Pete Pinney and Mike Sfraga answered questions in the Wood Center Multi-Level Lounge about their experiences.

Rogers began by giving a run-down of his day in a wheelchair.  “I had a relatively easy time,” Rogers said.  He didn’t get the wheelchair until he got to his office, which meant he didn’t have to deal with loading and un-loading the chair or getting out of his vehicle without using his lower body.

He bumped into furniture and grazed his knuckles on narrow doors throughout the day, Rogers said.

While traveling around in the wheelchair, including to and from the Wood Center for lunch, Rogers wore a bicycle helmet in case he tipped over.  He found that dirt and gravel was difficult to navigate and that using hand dryers in the bathroom was difficult, especially when there was a trashcan placed right beneath it.

Sfraga also spent a day in a wheelchair and began by telling the audience that he had back spasms that morning.  “Wheeling myself hurt like hell,” Sfraga said.  At the beginning of the day, he had to wheel himself down an incline from the Eielson parking lot to the Eielson building.  “There were several moments of panic,” Sfraga said.  If he got going too fast, he was worried he would roll out into the traffic in front of the Eielson building.  “This changed our perspective and our image of our own campus,” Sfraga said.

Pinney spent his day wearing visibility impairment goggles.  He started with the goggles set to macular degeneration, which meant one eye was completely covered and one eye had only partial vision.  When Pinney waited for the MACS bus line, he couldn’t tell if it was the blue or orange line and had to ask another passenger to help him, Pinney said.

Later in the day, the goggles were set to cataracts, which limited Pinney’s vision even more.  He went to a meeting and could barely see.  “I appreciated that I had a bright colored pen and could write notes,” Pinney said, “When I went back to the office, I had to walk through the sidewalk.  I was grateful for back-up beeping because I almost got hit.”

Pinney also wore the goggles set to simulate having detached retinas, which meant he could only see lines of light.  He didn’t know how he was going to know which bus stop to get off at and had to rely on the help of others, Pinney said.

Vice Chancellor Pat Pitney also spent a day in a wheelchair but was not able to be at the panel discussion. Her answers were read aloud. Pitney wrote that her Americano did not make the trip in the wheelchair very well, and that she headed out to catch shuttles 20 minutes early, but was still late to get places.  Carrying things was also difficult and she couldn’t reach her office phone from the wheelchair.

Doug Toelle, the advocacy director for Access Alaska, a company that helps disabled people stay independent and provided the goggles and wheelchair, sat on the panel as well.  He gave tips on how to help people with disabilities.  “People can be too helpful,” Toelle said, “People with disabilities know when to ask.  If you see someone obviously struggling, you can help, but also give people a
choice.”

At the beginning, Scott Bell, the associate vice chancellor for Facilities Services, gave a presentation on what UAF has done recently to make campus more accessible to disabled students.  When it snows, Facilities Services makes sure to clean ADA ramps first.  Currently, Facilities Services is installing 40 exterior doors around campus with push-button openers and plans to have that project done within a month.  They have plans to install an ADA restroom on the first floor of Gruening and make the hallway between the Great Hall and the Rasmuson Library handicap-accessible.

At the end, Rogers reminded students that it was Disability Awareness Month, not week.  “Help us identify barriers,” Rogers said.

Pitney, Sfraga, Rogers and Pinney all thought that the experience would be helpful going forward when determining changes to make to campus. “This will have a lasting impact,” Sfraga said.  “We will think different.  The legacy of that one day will be everlasting.”

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