When seeing Didi Lopez for the first time walking or standing, it is easy to assume that she does not live with a disability. But after an hour, said Lopez, her gait looks different.
“My disability isn’t really visible when you see me,” said Lopez. “But after a while my body starts to hurt.”
Lopez was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 2018. This common condition, often referred to as “attrition arthritis,” grinds the cartilage between the bones of the knees, lower back, hips, and other areas. It is often difficult for people like Lopez to be mobile.
Since her diagnosis, Lopez, a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso, said she had become more of an advocate for people with disabilities.
“The transition from disabled to disabled people has been a tremendously drastic change,” said Lopez. “I never realized how much I took simple things for granted.”
Lopez pointed to an incident last March where she was unable to wait for a Covid-19 vaccine while at a vaccination clinic on campus.
“The queue was wrapped around (the building) so I went to speak to someone and said to them, ‘Hey, I’m here to get the vaccine, but I won’t be able to wait in line because I can … disabled, ‘”she said.
Lopez said the vaccine staff told her there was nothing they could do and she left without the vaccine. UTEP later emailed her to inform her that accommodations were available, but the agent who spoke to her was unaware of it.
“I was just really excited, especially because I tried my best and asked for help,” she said.
Didi Lopez, a senior psychology student at UTEP, sits in the Chihuahuan Desert Garden on campus. Lopez, who was diagnosed with disability two years ago, said she had conflicting feelings about “taking up space” that is meant for people with disabilities because it appears harmless to health. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)
A coalition of students and staff urges UTEP officials to recognize the challenges people with disabilities face. Next to them is Aurelia Murga, professor of sociology and anthropology at UTEP, who uses a leg rest, crutch and sometimes a wheelchair after a car accident.
“Structurally within institutions, within our society, people with disabilities have often been put aside, dwarfed, often made invisible and even viewed as less because of their disabilities, depending on what they are,” said Murga.
The University and “Adequate Housing”
UTEP officials turned down El Paso Matters’ request for an interview, but in a statement a spokesman said the university was making “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities.
“The University of Texas at El Paso is committed to providing a safe and accessible environment for all of our students, staff, and guests. This includes making reasonable accommodation for those members of our campus community who have a disability, ”the statement said.
“We regularly proactively evaluate our facilities to determine where we can improve accessibility with the support of the University’s Center for Housing and Care and the Equal Opportunities Office.”
As part of a larger effort to raise awareness of the unique challenges facing people with disabilities, Murga has become a leading voice in a campus-wide movement aimed at lowering the prices of parking permits for people with disabilities at the university.
In 2020, the Texas State Employees Union launched an online petition to pressure President Heather Wilson and other UTEP officials to “make parking permits (Americans with Disabilities Act) free for students and employees with ADA accommodations.”
“The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is a high-level research university that attracts a diverse workforce and student body, including disabled community members and disabled veterans,” the petition reads. “In order to keep the campus accessible to its faculty, staff and students, especially the disabled, we demand that the university deal immediately with their negative ADA parking permits.”
UTEP has the highest on-campus ADA parking fees within the UT system, according to the petition – $ 500 for faculty and $ 250 for students.
Other universities like the University of Texas at Arlington had a maximum cost of $ 273 for staff parking. The UT Rio Grande was $ 100.
Robbie Vazquez, a former runner who was in an accident, now walks with a stick.
“I fell six inches into a hole and that was just enough pressure to break through my intervertebral discs,” she said.
Vazquez said she will park a mile from the UTEP campus and walk to the university when classes are on.
“Parking is a little too expensive,” she said. “The mobility hurts after a while, but if I take my time, I’ll make it.”
While parking tickets can be expensive for all students and faculty, Murga said the high prices can be more detrimental to those with disabilities.
“People with disabilities often have to spend a lot of extra money that non-disabled people have to spend; either with medication, outpatient equipment, wheelchairs, crutches or braces, ”said Murga. “It can also be a drain on the wallet.”
A simple task like parking can be very important for the disabled, Murga said.
“It’s something where I physically need these (parking lots) to do my job and be part of the UTEP community.”
UTEP officials told El Paso Matters that all parking pass prices are the same for everyone, whether or not they require ADA parking.
For the upcoming school year, on-campus parking inside the campus is $ 250 for students and $ 525 for faculty and staff. Parking permits can be up to $ 400 for students and $ 575 for faculty.
Murga said there had been no progress in obtaining approval from UTEP officials to lower parking fees and that the organizers of the petition had received no response from the school.
Although Lopez doesn’t drive because of her disability, she said UTEP officials could at least allow ADA students to be dropped off on campus.
“I know you need a parking permit to get on campus, but even people with disabilities would benefit from walking on campus and being dropped off,” Lopez said. “You just go in, come out, get dropped.”
Lopez said it was “stressful” going to class after she was dropped off campus.
“I think the greatest thing is getting on campus,” said Lopez. “Because I had a problem getting to campus before (disability). The fact is that parking is generally not very accessible. ”
ADA complaints filed with the Bureau of Civil Rights
It’s not the first time that students have complained about accessibility at the university.
Diego Demaya, director of technical assistance at the Southwest ADA Center, said Section 504 of the American with Disabilities Act requires that “institutions must continually remove architectural barriers in existing facilities. This includes, but is not limited to, installing ramps, making bathrooms accessible, making classrooms accessible (including laboratories), providing accessible (handicapped) parking spaces, swimming pools and fitness rooms, dormitories, chapels, etc. ”
In a 2010 complaint filed against UTEP with the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office, the complainant stated, “There was no clear route to get to Kelly Hall’s front door; the main entrance was too far to walk; and the double doors were difficult to get through. ”
UTEP officials agreed to change the access ramp near the building, and after an inspection of the campus, OCR concluded that the entrances met the required standards.
And in 2012 a complaint was filed that Worrell Hall was inaccessible. UTEP agreed with the OCR that the accessibility of the building should be ensured, structural changes made and disabled people informed about changes in the hall.
In addition to parking and ADA compliance issues, students also talk about work to make people with disabilities feel included.
“People see disabled people like, ‘Oh, they can’t do certain things because they are disabled.’ And so we’re kind of written off (because) I won’t offer them that, because it doesn’t help them, because they are disabled, ”said Lopez.
For Vazquez, she wishes there were more signs showing where accommodations are.
“Sometimes you stand on the doorstep of a building and say ‘ramps on the other side’ and then I ask ‘which side where’ and just have to spend a little time looking around,” she said.
Murga said the bigger problem is that people with disabilities are often excluded from conversations about building structure, which often focused on those who are not disabled.
“This has crept into the way we treat each other with less compassion, no concern, or even asking what are your needs? because those are needs, ”she said.
Alan Lizarraga, a UTEP student and ally of the disabled community who helped with the ongoing petition, said he learned of his own privilege as a non-disabled person.
“It shouldn’t be seen as a privilege, it’s a need,” said Lizarraga. “It’s only a right they should have.”
Cover photo: Robbie Vazquez is working on a ring repair in her home studio on July 9th. Vazquez, a metalworker at UTEP, said she’s always working on multiple projects because her ADHD makes it difficult to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)