"It can happen in a second," senior psychology major Erin Fowler tells me on the
morning of our UCSB wheelchair tour. "The free para-gliding lesson was a present
from a friend for my 20th birthday. Conditions were really bad. The instructor
never should have taken off."
A para-gliding accident in 1997 left Erin paralyzed from the waist down. She
came to UCSB in 1999 after realizing she was unable to return to her previous
college and today she is my guide and mentor as I learn more about the daily life
of a disabled student.
After borrowing a wheelchair from a commissioner for C.O.D.A., the Commission
on Disability Access, we departed from the Educational Opportunities office. I
soon encountered my first obstacle – the elevator in Storke Plaza.
Having only used the wheelchair for a short time, I crashed into the sides
of the elevator door a few times before I got myself in. Figuring out how Erin
and I would fit both our chairs into the elevator was also difficult, but finally
Next, we headed toward the UCen. We approached the top of the hill and down
below us lunchtime crowds filled the sidewalk as vendors sold posters and jewelry.
"OK, let’s go," Erin said as she tore off down the hill and into the crowd.
I hesitated. There seemed to be innumerable obstacles on the way down. I was sure
I would take out a few pedestrians before capsizing in a bush somewhere. I swallowed
my fear, and rolled the wheels forward. The rims were spinning through my hands
as I attempted to go as slowly as possible down the hill.
As I sped down the hill behind Erin, the L.A. Times vendor yelled to me, "Just a
close second!" and smiled, perhaps thinking he was being charming. I caught up
with Erin. "Shit like that happens all the time," she said, remarking on the vendor’s
On our way to the UCen, we ran into another commissioner for C.O.D.A., Justine
Blevins. Justine has cerebral palsy and has always been in a wheelchair. She has
her own story to tell:
"One day, a few years ago, I was down by the UCen post office boxes. The alarm
went off and my first thought was to get out as fast as possible, which was out
the back way. After I had exited I realized I could only get about a foot away
from the building. I had to decide whether or not I was going to go up the stairs,
but I didn’t want to do it if it was a false alarm because it would be exhausting
"Then the alarms stopped and I knew it was a false alarm. I was pretty shaken
up because if it had been a real fire, I would have been dead. When I went to
Physical Facilities Management, they said that the procedure was to wait under
the stairwell and that someone would come to get me. But, in my case, no one came.
It was an affront to me as a student. No one else would have had to wait in the
stairwell. The appropriate administrators ignored me."
My next challenge came from the UCen doors. I grabbed the UCen door handle and
tried to wheel myself backward to open the door. I could barely do it! The doors
are so heavy that one has to use nearly all their strength to get the door open.
I was holding the door open with my left arm, trying to figure out how I was going
to roll forward and go into the building without letting the door close before
I could get in. After an exhausting struggle, I made it inside.
Erin and I had talked about the UCen doors before, as they are one of the main
projects on which C.O.D.A. is working. Of course, it is hard to understand the
difficulty in simply opening a door when one is on foot.
We decided to go to Isla Vista, which meant we going back up the hill I had
barreled down only a few minutes before. If I thought going down hill was difficult,
going uphill was near impossible. Erin waited for me at the top of the hill as
my feeble shoulder muscles screamed and I gasped for breath. "How long have you
been in the chair?" the photographer from the Nexus asked. "Oh, I don’t know,
I’d say about half an hour," I said.
The photographer looked at his watch. "It’s been 15 minutes."
Navigating through campus is a cakewalk compared to I.V. The ground is incredibly
bumpy compared to the smooth pathways of campus. Even the slightest bumps in the
road make it more difficult for you to move forward. Nothing in your path goes
Erin took me to a section of sidewalk torn up by the roots of a tree. The sidewalk
was totally destroyed, and completely inaccessible for wheelchairs.
I’ve walked over that piece of sidewalk before, and not really even noticed
it. Now that I couldn’t move forward and my independence was limited by my surroundings,
I was frustrated and annoyed that I.V. isn’t better equipped for wheelchairs.
We paused for a moment. "Down there a few blocks," Erin said, "there is no sidewalk
at all. It is not safe to be in the bike lane because the cars can’t see you.
It isn’t wheelchair accessible at all."
The co-founder of C.O.D.A., Mel Fabi, is also a member of the Isla Vista Community
Relations Committee (IVCRC) and says the group is working on handicap access issues
"Right now, there are no sidewalks where there should be," Fabi said. "We are
going to encourage sidewalk development on Los Carneros"
"It’s really hard to get around I.V.," Erin said. Last year, when Erin wanted
to move off-campus into Isla Vista, she contacted a company that handles a number
of apartments in I.V. "Not a single apartment was accessible. It’s pretty difficult
to find a place in I.V. I have to live in university housing."
Even though C.O.D.A. is only five months old, the group has already made huge
strides in increasing accessibility on campus for disabled students. In their
Mission Statement, they write, "C.O.D.A. shall outreach, network, and explore
ways to increase retention and graduation rates, and promote social, educational,
and academic programs regarding the disabled student community." C.O.D.A. is approaching
their goals by making plans for automatic doors in the UCen, and holding weekly
meetings to discuss access on campus. As Mel said, "This is an opportunity to
promote change. Education is a right. This campus is for everyone."
When we reached our final destination I thanked Erin for her tour of campus
and I.V. Not only is Erin both physically and emotionally strong on a daily basis,
she’s also the most positive person I have ever met. I told her the experience
had been eye-opening and she said the ultimate goal is to increase awareness so
every person is viewed equally by society. In a society full of inequalities,
Erin is both a noble and important teacher for all our school’s students.