From the outside, Penn State is a progressive oasis that preaches for the inclusivity of students of all kinds. When students walk downtown, there are a multitude of flags celebrating our diverse student body. The flags acknowledge minority groups by name, including students with disabilities, ending with “Every student belongs here.”
Carlee Weber is a third-year public relations major involved with Happy Valley Communications, THON and Delta Phi Epsilon. As a wheelchair user, Weber advocates for accessibility reform in buildings across campus, after experiencing a lack of education and housing accommodations first-hand.
Weber spent her first year at home taking Zoom classes, as did every other student in 2020.
Coming to campus, I had no idea what to expect. I thought everything would be pretty easy to navigate because it seemed like Penn State had all the resources that I could ever need, but it turns out that they didn’t.
Weber wished to live on her sorority floor in South Halls this year, but was told by university officials that wouldn’t be a possibility. Having lived in a dorm prior, Weber was determined to make it work, but was told that there was only one area on campus that was made accessible for wheelchair users.
Determined to live on her sorority floor, Weber asked for more people to contact the university. Needless to say, Weber’s tenacity landed her a spot on the sorority floor this year.
Fighting for an equal opportunity to live with friends on campus wasn’t her only battle. Weber, currently struggling to find nursing care, says that she must rely on an outside agency to help her get to and from her classes on a daily basis. Penn State wouldn’t allow Weber to advertise that she’s looking for someone to walk her to her classes, as it would be a “liability issue,” leaving Weber with essentially little to no help.
Penn State provides educational equity services such as Student Disability Resources (SDR) that advocates for students who face medical barriers to their education to receive special accomodations from professors. After attempting to enlist help from SDR, Weber clarifies that SDR only helps with accomodations inside the classroom. She says that, unfortunately enough, SDR isn’t actually a hub for every resource that a disabled student actually needs.
Upon going to the Sparks Building one morning for class, Weber found that there was construction going on and that taking the stairs was the only way to enter the building.
Weber laments that the barriers she faces are deeply affecting her college experience.
I’m missing classes at this point because I can’t go to class on my own.
As the colder months approach, Weber says that going to class isn’t easy in the winter. “My muscles would crunch up and I wouldn’t even be able to drive my chair some days because it was so cold outside.”
Despite the tragic nature of the pandemic, Weber says that some good things have come from it for the disabled community, namely Zoom.
Weber even describes that Zoom is what has made college the most accessible for her. She worries that as professors begin to do away with zoom, the disabled community could be losing a valuable resource.
Zoom saves disabled individuals who are short on help the trouble of figuring out how to be physically present while coordinating all the moving parts of how they’re going to arrive. If Weber is worried about how to get to her THON meeting, her fellow THON committee members do not hesitate to set up a Zoom option for her so she won’t feel like she’s missing out.
Weber gives a big shoutout to her THON PR captain, Kerry Whittle, who always reminds her that she belongs and never treats her like she’s a “burden.”
She extends her thanks to her sisters at Delta Phi Epsilon, who are willing to do anything necessary to help her out and advocate for her right to an amazing college experience. “It’s super comforting to know that I’m not alone in these fights,” Weber says.
Other than Zoom’s obvious benefits for providing virtual meeting options, Weber felt more at ease during virtual sorority recruitment as opposed to it being in person. It was obvious to Weber that people talked to her differently in person than they would over Zoom, something she truly valued.
People were being honest with her without having to filter out their thoughts, which allowed her to find a sorority that made her feel most comfortable.
It’s kind of eye-opening to see that people talk to me differently when they can’t see my disability.
Weber points out that people have a tendency to talk to wheelchair users like they’re children, and she reminds readers that her place in this school isn’t any different than other students. “I’m here for the same reason they are,” she says.
At the end of the day, we are more similar than we are different.
Weber strongly encourages able-bodied students to check up on the accessibility features the school provides and make sure they’re working, such as buttons to open doors in buildings. If these features do not work, it hurts disabled students the most. “That’s just another thing that disabled people have to do,” says Weber. “It’s always us. It always falls onto our shoulders.”
Weber remains optimistic that with enough force and tenacity, Penn State can sincerely follow through with its mission to make all students feel as though they belong. Taped to her wheelchair is a quote from her Panda Express fortune cookie that reads: “A great pleasure in life is doing what others say you can’t.”