Access Club seeks to improve accessibility, create more inclusive environment

Rebecca Marcinko
January 13, 2021

Penn State student Julie Berda, junior in English, came to a realization one winter day when walking into the main entrance of Boucke Building: The main entrance of the building where Student Disability Resources is located on the University Park campus is not handicap accessible.

Kizis_Cassie

Based on her own experiences, Cassie Kizis (senior, political science and geography) was determined to start a student group focused on improving accessibility and connecting students with disabilities. That determination led to the creation of Access Club in spring 2020.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Cassie Kizis

“If you had a disability that required you to use a ramp, you would have to go around the side entrance,” Berda said. “Those entrances may not be as well maintained as a front entrance.” 

Situations such as this are what prompted a group of students to start the Access Club at Penn State, an organization that seeks to connect students—particularly those with disabilities—and advocate for a more accessible campus. 

“Really, we’re open to everyone,” said Access Club President Cassie Kizis, senior in political science and geography. “But we’re especially hopeful that we can connect students who have disabilities with one another so they have a space to share their experiences, whether their experiences have been positive or negative.”

Kizis said her interest in creating Access Club in spring 2020 stemmed from her own experience as a reporter for The Daily Collegian. Kizis, who has hearing loss and wears hearing aids, was interested in writing a story about the experiences of other students with disabilities at Penn State.

“I had never thought that much about it before (until then),” she said. “I had never really known that many other people with disabilities — especially people my age.”

Kizis wrote an in-depth profile about a student who is a quadriplegic amputee who alternates between wearing prosthetics and using a wheelchair. During the interview, he showed Kizis spots on campus he thought could become more accessible.

“I had never had such a long conversation with someone with a different disability than me about what life is like,” Kizis said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of accessibility issues that still exist today, especially for students.”

From that point forward, Kizis was determined to create a student group focused on improving accessibility and connecting students with disabilities to each other. She sprung into action in spring 2020, putting up flyers and reaching out to various clubs to gauge interest.

That is how Kizis met Berda, who became the Access Club’s administrative vice president, and Leah Joslyn (senior, psychology), now the group’s vice president.

“It was really awesome to meet a few people early on who were very dedicated to making this happen,” Kizis said. “I’m very thankful that I met them.”

The group registered to become an official student organization to gain the visibility it needed to advocate for students with disabilities more effectively, and these students were committed to accomplishing those goals. 

By operating in a more “informal,” discussion-based manner, Kizis said the club hopes to investigate trends in accessibility issues on campus and identify where Penn State should focus its improvements.

Penn State, through its Student Disability Resources office, welcomes input from the club, according to Leah Zimmerman, executive director, as the University continues to identify and respond to accessibility concerns. The office also has listed the Access Club as a student resource on its website. The Access Club is not the only source of information related to possible accessibility issues on campus. Through the University Access Committee any barrier removal projects brought to the committee’s attention are prioritized and funded in accordance with the latest ADA standards and code requirements for accessible design. 

“Last semester was about trying to create consistency for Access Club,” Kizis said. “We wanted to make sure our members knew that we were going to be a consistent presence and a place to join if people wanted to talk about their experiences or learn about accessibility and disability rights.”

Kizis was especially pleased that Access Club was able to attract members despite being launched in a remote environment last spring as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “I could sense people still appreciated having that space to talk about accessibility issues and to talk about the ongoing [accessibility] issues that come with online schooling,” she said.

Joslyn said the club also alternates between promoting advocacy and finding times for “lighter” subjects. “One week we talked about voting and the barriers there,” she said. “The following week, we got together and had a fun game night.”

Berda said the club is working on smaller, lower-budget projects rather than immediately tackling issues such as Boucke Building’s accessibility.

One area where the club hopes to have an impact is in helping professors provide proper, consistent accommodations for students with disabilities in their classes. “[Professors] may not realize that they’re not being as consistent as they need to be for their classes to be fully accessible to students,” Kizis said.

Student Disability Resources provides a best practices guide for faculty on certain accessibility issues and also offers a web page for students dedicated to sharing critical information on needed academic accommodations. Those working in Student Disability Resources engage with each student who seeks assistance to review requests for accommodations on an individualized, case-by-case basis. 

As an added reminder for faculty, Access Club would recommend an option on the SRTEs (Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness) — or another feedback option — where students can indicate if the instructor is providing accommodations consistently.

“Making these small changes to force people to recognize students with disabilities and the way they’re accommodating them would really help improve the experiences for these students,” Berda said.

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Last Updated January 14, 2021