Disabilities can range from attention- deficit/ hyperactivity disorder to blindness to mobility issues. In numerous situations and locations, accessibility for people living with a disability isn’t optimum.
One student graduating from Berea College is taking action as an advocate for accessibility.
Sarah Watts said she’s been disabled all her life.
Watts said," In the community, some people use first person language and second person language. So first person would be like, ‘I’m a person with a disability but I go by disabled person,’ cause I am, it just fits better. "
If you are unsure how to address a disabled person, she said, "just ask somebody what they want."
A senior at Berea College, Watts is majoring in computer science and graduating this year. The 21-year-old is living with a rare bone disorder known as hereditary multiple exostoses. She said the disorder can cause chronic pain.
“So usually I need a wheelchair when my legs are just hurting too much that walking long distances would exhaust me too much in order for me to go about my day," she said.
Watts said not everyone understands what living with a disability is like. As she lowers the electronic lift on her car that holds her motorized scooter she explains she doesn’t need the scooter every single day. But she does need to park in a handicapped parking spot which creates anxiety every time she walks away from her car when she doesn't need her scooter.
“If you have a handicapped parking thing. people have left angry notes saying, ‘you’re taking this up for someone who needs it.’ Even though you may need it, they don’t know your medical situation. Every single time I go anyway and park in a handicapped spot I’m afraid of that happening .”
And she said at the other end of the spectrum are well-meaning people who refer to her as an “inspiration” which can feel demeaning.
Watts remarked “So people who don’t know you come up to you and say, ‘oh you’re an inspiration’ when you’re really not doing anything inspirational at the moment. To people with disabilities, it’s saying, oh your life is so horrible that it inspires me because my life isn’t that bad.”
Berea College felt like a good fit for her based on the size of the campus with a little more than 1600 students. Before she moved from her home in Breathitt County to attend school at Berea she and her mom set up a meeting with the disability office to discuss the accommodations process.
Watts said, “Once you get in, it’s very helpful towards students with disabilities. They’ll do whatever they can. They help testing. They help with a lot of things. I feel like some of the professors that are here really care about the students and because of that they will fight to get accommodations that students need.”
The Director for Disability and Accessibility Services at Berea, Lisa Ladanyi, has been a Godsend according to Watts. Ladanyi’s the first full-time person at the school dedicated to assisting students who are living with a disability. She has worked there six years.
Ladanyi said, “I actually prefer to meet students before they have made their final choice. Berea is a fantastic college but not necessarily the best match for everybody. And I try to paint a very realistic picture for them.”
Demonstrating how the motorized scooter she uses to get around works, Watts drives down the sidewalk next to Berea’s Historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant. At the intersection of two streets entering the campus, she points out the stop lights which were put in when two blind students attended the school.
Watts said, “It’s more accommodating to people who are blind because they can hear the light so it’s easier for them to get across the street. So they don’t have to listen to cars. It’s also safer.”
Watts appreciates that Berea College is a place where staff is working to update and keep the campus accessible for everyone. She acknowledges that some of the retrofitted historic buildings can be difficult to maneuver. She said she loves Berea College and has taken an active role in educating people about accessibility and other aspects of living with a disability. Among other things, she’s served as a student representative on the school’s accessibility committee.
Watts said, “I think people with disabilities need to be considered as whole people. Not as just one-dimensional characters.”
Dr. Scott Heggen leads a team of students at Berea, including Watts, who works in the labor program writing software at the school.
The 37-year-old professor said in terms of technology he’s been doing software engineering for nearly 15 years. Heggen says Watts has taken the lead on formulating a checklist regarding accessibility and software.
Heggen said, “This is probably the first time I’ve made it the first thing we think about not the last thing we think about and that’s really changed how my software development team looks at accessibility and software.”
Sarah Watts is making a difference at Berea College. She says accessibility is an issue everywhere and her intention after graduation is to continue educating people as an activist for accessibility.