Winter weather causes difficulty for IUP’s disabled community

On a winter afternoon in February, Johnathon Martin (sophomore, political science) ventured out of Stephenson Hall into the cold to get food from Folger Hall.

Not yet 50 feet from Stephenson’s exit, Martin said he tried to make a turn in his wheelchair toward the sidewalk and began to slide toward a snow pile left from previous days of plowing by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Grounds Department.

“When I stopped, my tires dug into the snow,” Martin said.

Usually he could use the heel of his shoe to dig his tires out of the snow in an effort to reach a clear sidewalk, Martin said. But not this time.

Martin attempted to dig himself out of the snow for 15 minutes before a young man pushed Martin’s wheelchair to a clear area of sidewalk.

Throughout this start to the spring semester, the Indiana Borough has seen snowfall and below-zero temperatures. To the dismay of some of IUP’s physically disabled community, the result of the inclement weather has been only one day of delayed classes and many snow-covered sidewalks and walkways.

Martin said he has had to contact his professors on many occasions when the sidewalks and crosswalks were covered in snow and ice, informing them that he would not be attending class because he feared for his safety. Martin said the lack of snow maintenance done by the IUP Grounds Department causes a safety risk not only for the disabled community but other able-bodied students.

“When I have to choose between going hungry or risking my life to go get food,” Martin said, “that shows the level of confidence I have in the grounds department to keep the sidewalks cleared enough for me to get from point A to point B and back safely.”

IUP media relations director Michelle Fryling said the safety of IUP’s physically disabled community is “always in the forefront of our minds” during winter storms.

“It’s really just about keeping the sidewalks clear and the pathways clear and making sure our handicapped parking spaces are clear,” Fryling said, “and that is part of our general campus maintenance because [IUP’s physically disabled community’s] safety is also related to students without disabilities. So it’s really part of the whole procedure and the whole bigger campus plan.”

Fryling said that IUP’s grounds crew works around-the-clock to plow campus streets and salt campus sidewalks whenever it is necessary.

“Every custodian in the buildings, not just the grounds crew, are out salting the sidewalks,” Fryling said.

But Martin said he believes plow drivers need to prioritize the areas on campus that need to be plowed.

“If residents cannot get out of their halls safely, what’s the use of having the other areas cleared?” Martin asked.

IUP students are encouraged to use their best judgment when deciding whether it is safe for them to venture outdoors, Fryling said.

But sometimes, staying inside is not an option. In addition to the difficulty of making it to classes and to the dining halls for meals during snowy weather, disabled students have also had trouble getting to IUP’s Disability Support Services in Pratt Hall.

DSS serves students with learning, physical, hearing, vision and psychological disabilities, according to the Disability Support Services page of the IUP website. DSS also offers note-taking services in which disabled students can obtain lecture notes for their classes. At the center, the notes are photocopied and distributed to students in need.

DSS office worker Tyrone Lackey (senior, music theater) said sometimes when the weather is bad, many students cannot make it to Pratt Hall to get their notes. DSS policy forbids the workers to email or send the notes by mail.

Lackey said disabled students often complain about the difficulties they have during the inclement weather.

“We had a big complaint from a student in a wheelchair,” Lackey said. “He physically wasn’t able to make it to a few of his classes. There was nothing we could do.”

Lacey Popkin (senior, hospitality management) is a client of DSS. To get from Sutton Hall to Folger during last week’s round of snow, she got creative.

“I had to go out of Sutton and into Ackerman and down the elevator just to avoid falling down that hill,” Popkin said. “I didn’t feel safe going down that hill by myself.”

Jennifer Zhang (sophomore, psychology), a service-dog user, agreed that hills on campus are dangerous for disabled students.

“Normally it is not a problem, but if the roads aren’t plowed, I do get stuck since there is no actual pavement,” Zhang said. “Ramps and hills are generally a nightmare when it snows along with the passageways in and out of buildings like Ruddock and Maple. The giant hill between Fosters and Putt, aka Suicide Hill, becomes just that in attempts to go up/down that hill to class.”

Zhang said she thinks there have been days when class really should have been canceled.

IUP’s Inclement Weather Procedures states that IUP’s associate vice president for Facilities Management – a position currently held by Doug Miller – is in charge of recognizing weather that has “the potential of disrupting the normal course of business at the university.” In that case, IUP’s Inclement Weather Advisory Team would assemble to discuss safety.

After that, a recommendation would be made to Cornelius Wooten, vice president for Administration and Finance, and Wooten would take the recommendation to IUP President Michael Driscoll.

Driscoll makes the final decision to cancel classes, delay classes or close the university.

Fryling said that the academic calendar – set by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education – does not allow make-up days due to canceled classes and that Driscoll is reluctant to cancel classes.

“This is why we are here, to offer you these classes,” Fryling said.

Students like Popkin understand that sentiment.

“I’m paying to be here,” Popkin said. “It’s my education. I don’t skip school.”

Popkin said she also has a learning disability and can’t afford to miss classes on days that they have not been canceled, but weather makes it difficult.

“I know that I chose to live off campus as a disabled student,” Popkin said, “but I shouldn’t feel guilty for living off campus and trying to get from point A to point B safely. That shouldn’t be a concern of mine, and honestly, it is. It’s a major concern.”

Many factors go into the decision of whether or not to delay or cancel classes, according to Fryling.

“We look at a myriad of things,” Fryling said. “We look at ‘can we keep the campus safe?’ We also think about our commuters coming in, so the National Weather Service recommendations and advisers are very crucial to us. If they say road conditions are treacherous or hazardous, then we can make those decisions.”

Fryling said that IUP’s physically disabled community is always taken into consideration.

“We do know where they live,” Fryling said. “We take a registry because we need to know where folks that need extra assistance are located.”

But Martin said he isn’t so sure.

“Whenever they take into account everything that they say they have to think about to close the campus, I’m not sure people with disabilities are high on their priority list, and we are the most affected from the elements,” Martin said.

“I think IUP can do more half days to allow the grounds department to get ahead of the storm, and if they can’t get ahead then this university needs to be closed for that day.”

Popkin said that she is meeting with Wooten and Driscoll next week to discuss the accessibility situation, especially handicap ramps and entrances to buildings.

“My point with meeting with Dr. Wooten and Dr. Driscoll is that I’m getting ideas from all different people around this campus, because when I show up there next Thursday, I don’t want them to think that I’m just a student complaining about it. I’m actually someone that cares.

“I’ve had the best time at [IUP], so I want people to appreciate going here as much as I do,” Popkin said. “But it’s hard to do that when winter rolls around.”

Kayle Scott also contributed to writing this article.