They See Her Rollin’, They Helpin’

One woman’s determination to succeed in school,
despite being bound to a wheelchair

By Jonathan Gradin

Most people take for granted the ability to walk anywhere, pass through any doorways, travel up and down stairs—even use the restroom without the need of railings or handholds. This ambulatory mindset, prevalent when the University of Idaho campus was built, creates problems for wheelchair-bound people on campus such as 24-year-old English student Ashley Centers.

Cerebral palsy has limited her to a wheelchair since childhood, but this does not stop her determination to succeed, even through academic obstacles independent of her disability.

“In seventh grade I went to stay with my friend Lacieann, and her mom was in a wheelchair,” Centers said. “You could just look at her face and see that she was miserable. She could do nothing for herself, and she didn’t do anything, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be like that. Whether I succeed or not, I want to be happy.’”

Centers has an emphasis in creative writing. She used to be a journalism and mass media major, but her grades dropped below the requirement despite her efforts, due to personal and family problems totally unrelated with her disability. After academic probation last spring, Centers needs all As and one B to graduate, which she said stresses her out constantly, despite her outward appearance of happiness and lighthearted approach to life.

“I’m scared to go into the big-kid world,” Centers said.

After transferring to UI in 2009, she quickly developed a strong support network, while her built-in stubbornness provided methods of negating challenges presented by the campus, especially the hills and older buildings. She lives halfway between campus and downtown, off Sixth, so she can take the sidewalk to campus. In the winter she rides the campus access shuttle from the SUB to the Admin Building or Commons. If she misses the van, she follows a convoluted route under the College of Natural Resources Building, up to Brink, taking an elevator and cutting through the faculty lounge, exiting by Polya. Finally she arrives at the TLC through the north ground-floor entrance, inside which she often takes another two or three slow hydraulic-lift elevators.

But there are challenges.

“Some of the big things are elevators, and doors, and hills,” Centers said. “A lot of these buildings on campus are old, and because they were built differently, and they don’t have the accessibility that buildings that are newer have.”

One example is the Admin building, where the lone elevator—on the south wing—is to the right inside a small doorway. While some wheelchair users can make the turn without restriction, it presents a challenge to Centers’ wheelchair. Brink Hall, a former-dormitory-turned-office-building, has such narrow interior doors—contrasted with wide exterior doors—that Centers cannot enter any offices. Many doors across campus have automatic mechanisms, which help, but some do not. The size and mobility issues involved with Center’s chair—which is nearly as wide as most doors—make these nearly impossible to open on her own.

Other buildings are not so bad. Centers said the Commons is good, as is the SUB for the most part, although the former’s arrangement of subfloors—a product of the combination of two different buildings—is annoying. Restroom accessibility is good, with bars and wide stall doors.

The challenges to mobility have forced Centers to choose her class schedule with care each semester, paying attention to where classes are and when they are. She avoids back-to-back classes, unless they happen to be next door, as is the case this semester in the TLC. On Tuesday/Thursday, all her classes are in the TLC, and on Monday/Wednesday/Friday her sole class is in the Admin Building.

Centers credits members of her support network with helping her continue to want to succeed. This network of friends, faculty and staff includes the Women’s Center staff—who have been “absolutely wonderful”—and student media adviser Shawn O’Neal, who “understands and respects” her stubborn independence. His attitude is different from Disability Support Services (DSS) and others who have strongly suggested she needs to be dependent on help. One of Centers’ most inspirational friends is fellow wheelchair user Brenda Kotewa.

“She rocks that thing like a pro,” Centers said. “I am so like, ‘Whoa, I wish I could be that fast!’ but I’m not. She understands the limitations. She gets it.”

Centers is blind in her right eye, which ruled out her learning to drive. When she was in her late teens this upset her, but now she said it doesn’t bother her now because she doesn’t need to drive in a small town like Moscow. Often friends or strangers will offer to help push her around town or campus, especially if they see her struggling. As a consequence, she admits her arms are not as strong as they should be.

Centers doesn’t like to ask for help, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. A couple weeks ago, I received a phone call after texting her about meeting for an interview. She asked what I was doing and if I could help her, as she was stuck on the Sixth St. sidewalk near Greek Row.

“Sure, I’ll be right there,” I replied as I hung up and dashed from my Wallace dorm room.

Turned out her rear wheels had stuck in a small pothole. I pushed her out, then offered to help her the rest of the way to the TLC, where she was running 15 minutes late for a class project meeting.

This was the tip of my involvement with Centers. At her suggestion I shadowed her one Tuesday morning from her apartment to her first class in the TLC.

***

By 7:15 a.m. April 16, the sun has barely risen above the roofline of Centers’ apartment, illuminating a nervous squirrel in budding tree across the road. A large wheelchair sits in front of the complex, sandwiched between the stairs to the second-floor units and the concrete step in front of a burgundy door. Surprisingly, her apartment is not accessible, yet that does not stop her.

“Jonathan? Come on in,” Centers called out a few minutes later. She is running late and missed calling the bus for pickup. I was glad to go inside, as the temperature had barely risen above 30 degrees.

I stepped inside the apartment and found Centers sitting on the floor packing her backpack, looking like a jolly gumdrop with her small, underdeveloped legs, caused by cerebral palsy’s effect on her nervous system. Two stacks of books, each nearly two feet high, sat between two armchairs. A friend of Centers, Paisley Lukenbill, who had stayed the night after a late-night study session, helped get one of the books from the bottom of the stack, complaining good-naturedly about the number of books.

“I know, I have too many books,” Centers said, then slowly put socks on her feet, reaching behind her in a delicate move.

Centers spends all her time at or near ground level when in her apartment. Her mattress sits on the floor so she can crawl in and out easily. She prefers it this way because it’s easier, and being stuck in a wheelchair would in her words “drive me crazy.”

With the backpack loaded, Lukenbill went outside to get the wheelchair. She maneuvered it into position facing the step and looped the backpack over the seat and push handles. Centers, wearing a purple coat and no shoes—because “shoes are difficult and overrated”—crawled out and into the wheelchair. She needs help with this step because her brakes need replacement. If Lukenbill or another friend is not with her, her broth Josh—who they all call “Bro-Han,” a combination of “bro” and “Han Solo” from Star Wars—will help her. He has been living with her the last seven months while he works nights at Walmart.

We started toward class around 7:45 for her 8 class in the TLC, Lukenbill pushing Centers. We headed down Sixth to the crosswalk by the SUB, then continued down Sixth on the left-hand sidewalk. Centers and Lukenbill—her “half a roommate”—joked with each other, Centers’ morning personality and carefree attitude shining through.

We passed underneath the CNR building, then up the slight incline to the large door on the northwest side of Brink Hall. Centers joked that Lukenbill “pushing her with her boobs” while straining up the hill is a normal occurrence.

“This has to be the largest door on campus,” Centers said. “I love this door!”

Inside, we took an elevator up a floor and a half, then came to a door that Centers had to grasp the handle of while Lukenbill wheeled her back to open it. Afterward, we passed through the faculty lounge, where Lukenbill attempted to to use the wheelchair to push chairs out of her way, with limited success.

Having navigated the labyrinth that is Brink Hall, we traversed the short span between Brink and the TLC ground floor. We arrived at her classroom—second door on the left—with one minute to spare. Such is a day in the life of Ashley Centers.

***

Providing accessibility for students such as Centers is a group effort that includes UI Facilities, DSS and ADA Coordinator Carmen Suarez, who works in the Office of Human Rights, Access and Inclusion. She oversees all aspects of accessibility around campus, seeing “what’s happening.”

“There are so many different kinds of abilities or disabilities, whatever term we want to use, so there are some challenges that are different based on the accommodation need,” Suarez said. “Fundamentally, I think the greatest challenge is we’re not there yet at what I would call universal access.”

Suarez, who hails from “flat as a pancake” Illinois, said the “damn steep” hills provide the main challenge on campus, as well as the approaches to many of the older buildings, which were designed without ramps or other access easements. Some small steps being taken to ease access include fixing door widths where possible—Brink Hall, because of its manner of construction, is an exception, and Suarez said that meeting in an accessible location with an instructor whose office is in Brink is the preferred solution—changing doorknobs to door levers and retrofitting bathrooms with wider stalls that have hand bars and doors instead of curtains. Because of the wide range of mobility disabilities, no one-size-fits-all solution exists, but these basic improvements lay a foundation of access upon which individualized accommodations can be made.

“My role is to make sure we’re trying,” Suarez said. “Just like you make decisions on what tile you’re going to use, how we’re going to get rid of the asbestos and what’re we going to do with electricity—accessibility is a decision-making expectation as well.”

This summer, for instance, UI Facilities will be renovating the SUB second floor and restrooms, making it fully accessible.

The harsh Palouse winters present another challenge, especially in keeping walkways free of snow and ice. After recent budget cuts, DSS took a proactive approach, asking students for their class schedules so they could plan which sidewalks should receive top priority.

For Suarez, the physical challenges to accommodation, while formidable, are incidental to a bigger picture challenge.

“Do we have societal commitment toward the concepts of universal access and universal design,” rhetorically asked Suarez, who said she sees a “sea change in attitude” regarding accessibility, especially as the Baby Boomer workforce is aging in place, rather than retiring young.

Able-bodied people should not be afraid to ask about disabilities, but they should ask if disabled people if they need help, rather than patronizingly subscribing to a deficit model that puts disabled people at a disadvantage. Asking first respects their independence, which is important for students like Centers.

Students with disability needs, be it learning disabilities, mobility issues or anything else, should visit DSS, located on the third floor of the Commons. From there, director Gloria Jensen and staff can interface with instructors to make the necessary accommodations.

This was the final article for Feature Article Writing at the University of Idaho, with a theme of “Overcoming Odds.”

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