It’s the start of freshman year, and Robyn Clarke is hunched over a walker slowly navigating Turlington Plaza on the University of Florida campus when the walker gets caught in a crack. The walker flips, and Clarke crashes to the ground.
At that moment, Clarke knew she needed a wheelchair on campus.
Now a third-year journalism student, Clarke faces her biggest obstacle on campus yet — construction.
UF has multiple construction projects across its 2,000-acre campus. These projects have left roads closed, sidewalks blocked and portions of campus inaccessible.
The construction has affected how physically disabled students like Clarke maneuver across campus and left a vulnerable portion of the student body fending for themselves.
“My disability affects how I get around every day, and the construction just makes it that much harder,” Clarke said.
Clarke and other students with mobility-related disabilities rely on Gator Lift’s free services to shuttle them where they need to go.
However, Gator Lift has had to modify its routes because of detours. Museum Road and Newell Drive are closed in some areas through spring 2023 due to renovations.
AnaLee Rodriguez, communications manager for business affairs at UF, declined to comment directly about accessibility on campus for physically challenged students.
Rodriguez instead emailed a statement from UF Transportation and Parking Services that read, “Our transportation solution for the disabled members of the UF community remains the same, which is providing service to our Gator Lift paratransit service. Our commitment to providing this service in order to achieve maximum mobility for disabled individuals remains the same.”
Clarke said that Gator Lift has been late to reaching her and her friends’ locations because of the detours and it is an added challenge to an already difficult way of navigating campus.
The road closures and blocked sidewalks also have affected students with invisible disabilities.
Unlike Clarke’s wheelchair that immediately informs you of her physical barrier, students like Kathryn Hartikka suffer too.
Hartikka is diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is an inflammatory bowel disease, and has congenital arthritis. She cannot walk long distances or stray too far from a restroom.
Her illnesses make the most private bodily functions public when she doesn’t have the necessary access and availability to the restrooms she requires.
Hartikka said being on campus this semester was no longer an option because construction made it impossible for her to get around campus. So, she moved out of Gainesville and is finishing her schooling online.
“Campus has made no reasonable accommodations for those of us who have our paths barred,” Hartikka said. “The logistics of getting around campus with my disabilities were nearly impossible.”
Florida Football Training Center
She would park at the north end of Fraternity Row and have to walk east to get to the buildings she had class in, she said. The construction for the new Florida Football Training Center was right on her route and forced her to walk around it.
Hartikka said this was the only handicap parking available to her at the time.
Even when Clarke and Hartikka have access to restrooms on campus they’re still met with challenging obstacles. Hartikka said most stalls on campus are far too small and make it hard to move around.
“Following ADA compliance doesn’t equal accessibility,” Clarke said.
Hartikka and Clarke are both members of the Delta Alpha Pi Honor Society (DAPi) that recognizes high-achieving students with disabilities.
Members of DAPi will plan out their day-to-day routes on campus so they don’t get stuck somewhere Gator Lift can't get to them or find themselves in a situation where they don’t have access to the resources they need.
DAPi members and other physically disabled students update each other on new paths to take and easier ways of getting around the construction but find it difficult with the number of projects and how often they change.
“With roadblocks constantly changing students aren’t always able to prepare themselves for getting around it,” said DAPi President Jenna Callison.
Construction will continue on campus for the foreseeable future.
Broward Outdoor Recreational Complex
The Broward Outdoor Recreational Complex is going to be replaced by a new honors housing complex in 2022.
The complex is across from Cypress Hall and acts as the dorm's backyard. Cypress Hall houses 35 students with significant mobility impairments. These students use the paths along the Broward Outdoor Recreational Complex daily.
Once construction begins, it will become another obstacle in their way. The honors housing is expected to be completed by August 2024.
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Students with disabilities struggle to navigate UF construction