The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress in 1990 and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It was recognized at the time as the biggest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
While it was thought that becoming “ADA-compliant” would take years and billions of dollars, probably few would have expected that it would take public universities as long as it has to get their recreational facilities in full compliance.
Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences conducted a study, published Sept. 29 in the Journal of Kinesiology and Wellness, that analyzed official statements from university recreation programs, the language found on their websites, and photos used tin online promotions. The study found that a student with disabilities was unlikely to feel welcomed or included by recreational programs, and that accommodations weren’t or would not be made to allow them access.
OSU Kinesiology Professor Brad Cardinal, a co-author of the study, said, “If you have representation, or if there’s a perception of representation, then that in and of itself can capture interest and serve as an invitation. But if you don’t see yourself in something, you just don’t look at it.”
Cardinal continued, saying students with disabilities are liable to be put off by websites that have no pictures of athletes with disabilities, or that use archaic language such as “handicapped.”
The study examined the web sites of 24 universities in western states, including OSU, the University of Oregon, and Portland State University, looking at each site to see if it made an explicit statement about being inclusive or as was the case at 18 of the 24, merely linked to the school’s position statement on students with disabilities. They also looked at each site’s photographs and searched for keywords such as access, accommodation, adapt, inclusive, and wheelchair. Those keywords were found 618 times, but out of the 24 universities, two sites contained 40 percent of those 618 instances.
There were 49 relevant photographs, but often they were simply of accessible equipment, and didn’t feature students with disabilities using them. Ten universities had no disability-related photos at all.
Cardinal observed that it doesn’t cost much to choose suitable photos and write an inclusivity statement, and speculated that this was because often no people who had disabilities themselves had any input.
“It’s kind of disheartening to me, the idea that equipment and things like a parking space or a ramp get a photo, but then there’s an absence of people with disabilities. That is very uninviting,” Cardinal said. “It’s an after-thought, sometimes. I think somebody from the disability community could really help inform on this. Their contribution to a committee would be invaluable.”
The study’s authors suggested that universities add an inclusive recreation or accessibility web page as a way of bringing the facilities to the notice of students with disabilities, as well as training staff on how better to serve clients with disabilities and offering students individual instruction on how to use available equipment.
“[Students with disabilities] say, ‘We just want to go and work out. We don’t want to have to go and advocate for ourselves in yet another setting,’” Cardinal said. “It wears them out.”