UPDATED: WVU opens gender neutral bathrooms, ignores handicap accessibility
West Virginia University (WVU) celebrated the grand opening of two state-of-the-art gender neutral bathrooms Thursday, in an effort to preserve its commitment to diversity and “remain a national leader in progression and inclusion.” However, the school has failed to remain inclusive for its students who are handicapped.
The school’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion told WBOY-TV the new bathrooms will help transgendered students feel more comfortable on campus.
“When you look at it from a structural standpoint, we haven’t always, as a society, made a place for everyone,” said Vice President David Fryson. “This is part of that expansion of individual liberties and individual rights.”
Some students at WVU, however, think the new gender neutral bathrooms are a snub to handicapped students whose demands for handicap-accessible bathrooms have been placed on the diversity backburner. Amanda Hutchison, one of two students in a manual wheelchair on campus, told Campus Reform she has been advocating for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rights since she started at WVU, but the administration has mostly ignored her requests.
“The university’s response is very slow compared to the gender neutral bathroom advocates, she said. “They rallied and got enough people to where the university did not really have a choice.”
Hutchison did note that the university established an ADA committee in 2013 after she initially brought her concerns to the attention of administration. Since then, the university hired an ADA director as well but his position was placed under the supervision of the school’s diversity office, which focuses most of its energy on issues of race and gender.
The university has a scarce number of handicap “accessible” bathrooms and the ones it does have, according to Hutchison, do not meet ADA standards. The few accessible bathrooms were “not correctly built to where you can get a wheelchair to turn in them,” Hutchison said. “Basically they thought throwing a grab bar on the wall meant it was accessible.”
ADA standards dictate that any government, commercial, or public facility built after 2012 must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, making handicap accessible bathrooms legally mandated. Gender neutral bathrooms, on the other hand, are optional, but WVU remains committed to adding transgendered bathrooms to all campus buildings despite their optional nature.
“The part that really got to me is gender neutral bathrooms are not a law but handicap bathrooms are and I think that is something the university should worry about first. Someone with gender identification needs can at least get into a bathroom,” Hutchison said.
The signage posted outside the bathroom doors advertise the new facilities as “all gender” restrooms, and include the traditional male and female restroom caricatures, as well as a new transgender logo. The new restroom signs, however, exclude handicap logos. “Now on these bathrooms there’s no handicap sign anymore. The more I research the more it irks me,” Hutchison said.
Jill Hess, ADA coordinator at WVU, explained that there are several working parts to ADA standards and ADA regulations vary from year to year.
“When it comes to ADA standards for restrooms, there are several working parts to that law. Our buildings range from being built in the 1860s to 2016,” Hess told Campus Reform. “Even if a building was built in the 90s it may still be keeping with ADA standards. It may not be the responsibility of the university to update those standards.”
Hess also noted there is a difference between ambulatory accessible bathrooms and wheelchair accessible bathroom, which could be the cause of some of Hutchison’s difficulties.
Gender neutral bathrooms, Hess explained, are not legally required to be handicap accessible saying, “Not every restroom has to be accessible."
According to Hess, an ADA coordinator has been on staff at the university since 1991. “There has never been a lapse in ADA coordination since the position’s inception,” she said.
Hutchison concluded by saying that she thinks many of her efforts have been overshadowed by LGBT activists and accessibility issues are mostly ignored in the diversity office asking, “If accessibility is part of diversity and inclusion, why aren’t they fighting for those students?”
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Jill Hess, ADA coordinator at WVU.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski