BY: CASSANDRA GILBERT
The Fairleigh Dickinson University campus feels like it’s designed to help you get your steps in. With the campus spanning two towns, only four buildings containing elevators, and stairs everywhere you go, the school does not strike the naked eye as being friendly to the mobility-challenged.
Kevin Gnehm, age 30, is a junior at FDU studying mechanical engineering technology. He has a spinal cord injury causing complete paralysis from just below the chest down and uses a wheelchair to get around following a motorcycle accident in 2013.
Gnehm made the decision to come to FDU in 2017 after only having seen Becton Hall.
“When I first started coming here it was a bit surprising to see how un-accessible the campus was, but I deal with that type of thing every day so I developed my routine around the accessibility issues,” Gnehm said.
Upon realizing the difficult layout of campus, however, he didn’t waver in his decision to come to the school.
“Being that FDU has the best engineering program within reasonable JUMP commuting distance to my home, I really didn’t have a choice but to stay,” Gnehm said.
Prior to the construction, Gnehm said it would often be difficult to find parking and to get onto the sidewalks. It would take as long as 10 minutes to get to class, whereas now, with the added handicap parking spots, he can get to class in as little as five.
“Not a huge difference in time, but it is much easier with a full book bag,” Gnehm said.
Gnehm explained that when he first came here, his academic advisor Susan Seed, and Interim Campus Executive Craig mouton made sure he had everything he needed. They ensured all classes were accessible and that he even had the right desk. They are still his go-to if he has a problem.
Last year, Seed noticed that people kept blocking the wheelchair lift in the foyer of Becton Hall. This had been a continual problem Gnehm faced since attending FDU. Upon seeing this, she knew something had to be done.
“[Seed] took it upon herself to make signs and place tape on the floor so that people would not block the wheelchair lift. Ever since it has been great.” Gnehm said.
Mourton had held the title of deputy campus executive for the past eight years. His core responsibilities in this role were to “facilitate and advocate for students” with disabilities of any type, which he continues to supervise today.
Mourton explains that they will coordinate rides to take students across campus if necessary. For wheelchair-bound students or even temporary injuries like a broken leg, he said they will make sure each of the student’s classes is moved to an accessible room. He also said that class schedules are arranged so that students who need it have more than fifteen minutes to get to class.
“I’ve taken a stance that I need student interest to come forward first,” Mourton said.
This stance is probably why junior criminal justice major Leticia Espino wasn’t approached by anyone from administration when she found herself on crutches. After contracting a virus in her foot, she needed a cast and crutches to get around. Five of the six classes she takes requires her to walk upstairs.
“The farthest distance I had to walk was when my dad would drop me off in the student parking lot and walk to Dickinson Hall, then walk all that back to Robison Hall. It took me about almost 10-15 minutes depending on how I was feeling.” Espino found it very difficult to get to her classes on time since they were all back to back.
“One of the challenges of our roles is how do we make folks in mass aware of opportunities without running the risk of breaching confidentiality.” Mourton said.
Mourton’s hope is that more students will come forward to learn about what the school can offer for support. He feels that he doesn’t want students to miss out on properly experiencing college just for the sake of their challenges, and doesn’t want students to get stuck in the same building and classrooms every semester.
Gnehm, however, has all of his classes in Becton. “I wish that The Muscarelle building was accessible because that is the main engineering building,” Gnehm said.
Despite this building being inaccessible, Gnehm said, “I do not feel like I’m missing out at all. Becton hall is a good building and that is where all the best labs are so I’m right at home.”
Mourton says that the school has made sure to adhere to the American Disabilities Act of 1990, but to also try to go a little bit further whenever they can.
Gnehm says that the two changes he would like to see would be automatic doors, and another ramp at Riverside Café (the one ramp it does have leads students to a locked door).
Overall, Gnehm is really pleased with the campus changes and really appreciates what Seed and Mourton have done for him in his time here, such as curb cuts around campus.
Photos BY: Cassandra Gilbert