The greater need for disability access in urban development 

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The University of Connecticut’s Institute of Human Rights hosted an academic seminar on Wednesday, during which it acknowledged the need to better address the rights of the disabled community through urban development. 

The highlight of the event was guest speaker Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, an associate professor in the departments of political science, public administration and anthropology. Reuter also specializes in human rights and international politics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Others in attendance included members from UConn’s civil and environmental engineering program.  

Reuter began by offering some background information on the urban development research she has been conducting. She emphasized current trends in urbanized areas, such as population growth, the increase of digitalization and the advancement of political and economic power in urban settings. This highlighted the fact that urban city environments are now evolving into a hub for human rights. 

A historically marginalized group often overlooked in urban development is the disabled community. Some principles that are significantly absent today and need to be implemented in further development include equity, sustainability, inclusion, access and participation for the disabled community. 

Too frequently is this community treated as an afterthought. Historically speaking, up until 1973 with the passing of Section 504 ensuring the civil rights of disabled persons, the disabled community was dehumanized and riddled with discrimination and prejudice. Our cities reflect these attitudes, as there were no accommodations made for handicapped people until that bill was passed. 

“as said in the discussion, storrs center is really good and uconn’s campus mostly seems good. but, at least in the places that aren’t regularly traversed throughout town it seems really lacking.”

Olin Green

Reuter is studying the lack of adapted accessibility seen in these metropolitan environments, particularly for those who have a disability that affects their mobility, and some of her findings were startling. There were examples of handicap buttons for automatic doors requiring a step to reach them, ramps as steep as mountains and crumbling sidewalk infrastructure. This was all documented through Photovoice by a team of architecture students and people with disabilities through a study held in Lima, Peru. 

Photovoice was a creative assignment in which Reuter’s team gave participants cameras and asked them to capture photos and captions of inaccessibility around their home city. I found this extremely intriguing, as it offered the perspective of the individual – someone who may see something that other able-bodied individuals may not. 

I spoke with UConn alumnus and attendee Olin Green about his opinion on the disabled accessibility around UConn’s campus, as well as in the greater Mansfield area. Green commented on areas that could be improved: 

“As said in the discussion, Storrs Center is really good and UConn’s campus mostly seems good,” Green said. “But, at least in the places that aren’t regularly traversed throughout town it seems really lacking.”  

Green was born and raised in the Storrs area and has definitely seen his own fair share of change in the town’s development. 

As someone who is currently taking a course in the depictions of disabilities in art and literature, it was quite thought-provoking to see the tribulations that challenge the disabled community in the modern day. Ultimately, the takeaway message is our need, as a society, to not only create new cities with the ideas of disability access in mind, but also to look backward and renovate urban areas to be a more inclusive environment for the disabled community. 

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