This story was produced during the Elliott School of Communication’s Capstone Class. Students reported on housing issues faced by students. They were paired with mentors from the Wichita Journalism Collaborative. Madyson was mentored by Celia Hack of KMUW. The Elliott School is one of the WJC’s 11 partners.

By Madyson Espinosa, Elliott School of Communication – Wichita State University

For sophomore communication student Zaylee Bell, everyday life is not always the easiest.

Bell has Spina Bifida, which she describes as her spine being tethered to her “L3 area.” It can cause difficulties with mobility, bladder and bowel issues. Last year as a freshman, Bell was partially paralyzed from the hips down, but semi-mobile to get around campus. After her latest surgery, Bell is unable to be mobile in her lower half, leaving her in her wheelchair.

That made it tough to move around campus and live in the dorms. Bell said even with a go-getter attitude, she struggled to comfortably live and move around campus – things as simple as fitting her wheelchair in and out of her dorm bathroom, or climbing onto her bed was a hassle.

“I am very hard headed and will do whatever it takes to get what I need done, so there are probably issues that do not even come to my attention,” Bell said.

After spending last year at Wichita State, she moved home to Topeka in summer 2023 because she needed a living situation that would be more accessible to her medical condition.

Bell is not the only person with a disability to experience accessibility problems or felt more comfortable living off campus. On Wichita State University’s campus, several organizations help students navigate campus life: the Office of Student Accommodations & Testing (OSAT), Housing and Residence Life and Trio Disability Services. Student-run organizations also work for advocacy, such as D.R.E.A.M. (Disability Rights, Equality, Advocacy, and Mentorship) as well. But students with disabilities say they feel overlooked and that their needs aren’t addressed.

The Director of Housing and Residence Life Katie Austin made it apparent that Wichita State’s staff wants to aid people with disabilities as much as they can. Her office works directly with the Office of Student Accommodations and Testing to assure that anyone asking for housing accommodations has their needs met. The office provides and sets these up. But the Residence Life office said it doesn’t ask personal questions about the students’ limitations due to HIPPA, so they do not know what type of disabilities a student has, just what they need in order to feel comfortable.

The Residence Life office provides lots of room types for students with disabilities, Austin said. Some of the housing accommodations include mobility suites with roll-in showers. Rooms can be set up with flashers so that people with hearing loss know when a fire alarm is going off. Someone who has a visual or hearing disability can have a bed that shakes to wake them up when the alarms are going off.

These two offices try to provide the best experience possible, but according to some students,  the Office of Student Accommodations & Testing is overwhelmed with the number of students needing aid. The significant increase in quantity for the last few years has brought challenges and they are trying to be as efficient as best they can. However, with the offices being overwhelmed some students are overlooked or not given enough information.

“One of the hardest parts about this is how much housing we have. We don’t have as many facilities on campus for housing and we can’t make rooms appear,” Jennifer Nicholson, the Assistant Director of OSAT said.

The Office of Student Accommodations & Testing is trying to manage students with disabilities in the most adequate way possible, but space and documentation have been at the center of the office’s struggles.

“For housing we have to have specific documentation that directly states the need for those accommodations. Whereas in academic accommodations someone could have a letter from their doctor saying we have ADHD and we can help that student come up with what is going to be the best for them, but for housing we need someone to say exactly what they need,” Nicholson said.

“We do all the orientations and before that me personally I go with admissions to all of their road shows to be able to talk to people in advance so we can get all of the stuff nailed down before classes start and housing opens,” Nicholson said.

Despite efforts, the Office of Student Accommodations & Testing has left some students feeling neglected.

When Bell was a freshman, she lived in the Suites located by the Steve Clark YMCA. She said she didn’t have the best experience.

When she and her roommate chose rooms, they did not even know that the Residential Life office offered accessible housing to people with disabilities.

“Oh,” Bell said. “Nice to know they had that option.”

Megan Bailey found it easier to live at home instead of on campus.

The doors in the suites are heavy, so Bell said her lack of mobility made simply coming in with groceries challenging. Getting into the high dorm beds was problematic, too. And dorm rules dictated that she wasn’t allowed to use command hooks on her bathroom door to hold up a couple pounds of water in a drip bag that she needed for her medical condition.

She initially wanted to use a command hook, but dorm rules forbid that because it can rip off the wall.

“So I had to hang it on the shower curtain rod with a hanger,” Bell said.

What may seem like a minor inconvenience is actually more dangerous than it presents. She has had the bag fall before, and she has a port that the water goes through and if it falls the port can be ripped out causing major issues. With most of her medical supplies coming from Kansas City, a three-hour trip and an incident like this was not ideal.

“Housing is an issue,” Bell said. “But also, if housing causes a medical issue, I have nothing.”

Bell felt better about being home rather than on campus. Home is now in Topeka because her disability has made her wheelchair bound for the time being and it was more suitable to go back home and deal with the accommodations necessary. This also stood true for senior communication student Megan Bailey, who has Cerebral Palsy.

“Living at home is comforting because I know where everything is and it’s my comfort zone. Living on campus I find nerve racking and very stressful,” Bailey said.

Some students with disabilities do not feel encouraged to live on campus. However, when they do stay on campus for housing, their needs are not met to the capacity they wish. Freshman Mallory Miller who did not disclose her disability ran into a few problems while living in the Suites on campus this year.

“When I first started this project, getting accommodations, I had to fight tooth and nail with both OSAT and SOS and it’s only affordable for me because I work my butt off for scholarships,” Miller said. I know a couple people who had disabilities, they’ve actually left the university because of it.”

The WJC is embarking on 18 months of dedicated coverage to shed light on the pressing issue of affordable housing in Wichita.