The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Creative Partnerships: The Path to an Inclusive Campus

At the University of Kansas, many students and university employees climb hundreds of steps up a 400-foot incline, dubbed “The Hill,” to get to class or work. For those with mobility issues, however, this incline presents a challenging navigational puzzle.

When Catherine E. Johnson joined the university as the director of the ADA Resource Center for Equality and Accessibility, she inherited the start of a project called the Hawk Route, a three-quarter-mile wheelchair-accessible path leading through five buildings from the bottom of The Hill to the top. Though some signs were in place to guide individuals through the path, it was not very user-friendly; in fact, the first time Johnson tried to navigate the route, she got lost.

Johnson decided it was time to revamp the Hawk Route. To do so, she partnered with departments across campus — careful to think about more than physical accessibility.

Campus Media Production

One of the first things Johnson did was work with campus video production to illustrate the importance of the route. They filmed a variety of individuals who use the route who could speak to the plethora of reasons the route is helpful to them. The videos served not only as a tool for previewing the route in advance, but also an easy-to-understand, shareable way to garner support from others.

Stakeholders and Testers

Johnson was surprised how difficult it was to create a map that could be used by visually impaired individuals — audio reading technology doesn’t read maps, and it is difficult to give directions without visual markers. For that reason, Johnson and her team implemented multiple rounds of testing with a variety of individuals with visual impairments, mobility challenges and learning disabilities.

“For many, this was the first time in their life where they contributed to a project where they had special expertise because of their disability,” says Johnson. Testing with individuals who would use the route helped identify the gaps in communication.

School of Architecture and Design

Johnson worked with the KU School of Architecture and Design to host a logo design competition, an eye-opening experience for both students and professors. Students were challenged to create a logo that communicated the purpose of the route without playing into stereotypes about disabilities. The competition was promoted on social media, and the winning design was celebrated at a red-carpet awards event designed to bring attention to the project.

Facilities and Campus Leadership

Revamping the route was expensive, so having the support of the provost, facilities team and others was important. To further celebrate the project, Johnson partnered with the campus wellness program to host a “walk and learn” event. The first order of business: change the name of the program to a more inclusive “move and learn.”

For Johnson, the takeaway from this project isn’t about the route specifically, as she recognizes the project is highly specific to her campus. Instead, she encourages us to think creatively about the relationships needed to create an accessible campus for all, and to consider a scope beyond physical access.

Additional Resources:
ADA Toolkit in CUPA-HR’s Knowledge Center
Removing Hiring Barriers for the Disability Community (article from The Higher Education Workplace magazine)