According to Lisa Miles, the best way to work with inclusivity issues — like how to make campus more accessible to disabled persons — is to involve students and create a valuable learning experience. Miles is assistant director of the Office of Common Ground, which works to make the University more diverse and inclusive.

Because of the historic campus and hilly terrain, some of the University’s buildings and pathways are difficult for disabled persons to use. For many years, the only guide was a photocopy of a campus map on which a student had marked accessible routes. It was clear that with modern technology, a better map was possible.

Last summer, Common Ground approached Kim Klinker, assistant professor of geography, to spearhead the creation of a new accessibility map. Klinker, who received her master’s in geography from George Mason University, embraced the challenge.

Rather than hiring a group of professionals for this huge task, Klinker enlisted the students in her introduction to geographic information systems (GIS) course, turning the project into a learning experience. "[GIS] is very abstract ... it's really hard to help the students understand what they're doing if it's not meaningful or tangible," says Klinker. "Project-based learning is the best way to learn GIS."

After a five-week crash course on key GIS concepts and tools, the students set out to digitally map the campus using aerial photos, fieldwork and computer software. They noted potential obstacles for people with disabilities, such as stairs, steep slopes and closed curbs.

The class collaborated with the University's facilities and communications staff. Representatives from facilities came in at least once a week to verify the data students had collected. Communications helped with publishing the map and making it user-friendly.

Together, they produced an online interactive map on which anyone can enter their location and destination to find the quickest and easiest routes. An additional layer shows accessible paths and buildings, and a third layer of the map shows parking locations. Users can download each layer in a printable version.

Common Ground arranged for Klinker's students to present their research and final project to campus administrators. They also hosted the accessibility challenge, in which they challenged all students, staff and faculty to navigate campus for one day using only the handicap-accessible routes shown on the new map.

The new map makes living on campus, as well as visiting, much easier for people with disabilities. "What they've accomplished so far is unbelievable and really useful for people like me," says Emily Bartle, '12, who uses a scooter and served as a consultant on the project.

In addition, the impact on the students involved in producing the map was clear throughout the process.

"The class was more than making a map. It forced us to look at everyday UR activities from another student's perspective," says Eliza Roberts, '11, an environmental business major.
Miles added that, "[Common Ground] loved watching how the students owned this project because it was going to make a difference to the campus."

Though the first version is already in use, Klinker, her students and staff members will continue to add new layers of data to the map, as well as make physical changes around campus that will make the school more accessible.

"There's this really interesting element about maps, in that, they can draw your attention to what issues exist," says Klinker. Though all newly-constructed buildings on campus are entirely accessible — complete with ramps, automatic doors and elevators — facilities has been given a budget to install automatic doors on some of the older buildings and create curb cuts where sidewalks are inaccessible.