When professor Nancy Fitzsimons arrived on the Minnesota State University campus in Mankato for fall semester, she noticed dozens of newly installed study booths for students.
Called MavPODs, the enclosed booths were meant to provide spaces for students to maintain social distancing as they studied between classes. The pods were paid for with money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Fitzsimons says she saw right away that the spaces were small and required a step to enter the booth, making them potentially inaccessible for people who have disabilities.
“Our new president had done his convocation and talked about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and the thing that came to mind was, ‘OK, well, how are these (pods) really upholding that and really trying to promote us as a campus that’s welcoming to all?’” she said. “I just immediately thought, that’s the exact opposite of what we’re doing by putting these 100 inaccessible MavPODs all over campus.”
Fitzsimons filed a federal complaint in September alleging that the study pods violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights says it is investigating the complaint.
The university declined to comment on the investigation, but said in a statement it looks forward to working with federal officials to ensure it is meeting accessibility requirements. The university also added four accessible pods in various locations on campus.
Fitzsimons says the university's solution was inadequate.
“I think they think that those purchases are reasonable and that they fulfill their obligation,” she said. “I guess we shall see. They’re not necessarily spaces where students tend to hang out a lot.”
She says the four accessible pods were placed in out-of-the-way locations, including the basement of an academic computer center and in an administration building. Fitzsimons, a professor of social work, thought it would be inconvenient for some students to get to those places, so she asked students in one of her classes to research the issue.
Students lean into research
The students set up an experiment where they walked from different parts of the campus and measured how long it took them to get to an accessible pod. They could only use stair-free walkways and elevators, and they had to walk at a certain pace.
In one case, her students found that it took a little over a minute to reach an accessible pod for a person who doesn't have limited mobility. But Fitzsimons said accessing that same pod took one of the student researchers 19 minutes with restrictions on which sidewalks and doors the student could use.
"It's just opening people's eyes to things that they might not see, because it's just not part of their lived experience,” she said. “But there are people once they realize it, do care, and now we can start to address these issues."
Nine student researchers were involved in the project, including Avalon Luehman, a freshman studying social work. She said her first impression of the study pods was that they were a cool addition to campus. But after participating in her class research, her perspective changed.
"It was like glass was shattering in my head. I'm seeing [accessibility problems] everywhere,” she said. “Like the glass broke, like it's there and needs to get changed."
Despite federal rules to guide accessibility decisions, access remains a persistent problem, said David Fenley, the ADA director at the Minnesota Council on Disability. He declined to comment on the specific concerns raised in the MavPODs complaint. But he said, generally speaking, the needs of people with disabilities often feel like an afterthought.
“There’s no consideration that somebody might move or think differently — no consideration at all,” Fenley said. ”It’s completely outside of their scope of understanding, which is also difficult because it’s, at that point, not intentional. It’s just pure ignorance.”
For Luehman, who hopes to be a social worker, her research on the study pods changed how she intends to advocate for her clients one day.
"If I went to work with somebody with disabilities, I couldn't just see it all from my point of view,” she said. “Just because it works for me, doesn't mean it works for everybody else."
It would be a costly decision, but Luehman thinks the university should remove the study booths from campus and seek more input from the disability community.
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