Nortonville native continues advocacy in college

Autumn Bertels is continueing her advocacy for those with disabilities at KU. Bertels founded the student group Ability KU to give students with disabilities a voice on campus. | Photo by Wesley Cudney

Nortonville native and Jefferson County North graduate Autumn Bertels has continued her advocacy for people with disabilities well into her junior year at The University of Kansas. Bertels sat down with The Oskaloosa Independent for an interview talk about her experiences.

Bertels, who was paralyzed in a car accident at eight years-old, has been advocating for increasing accessibility for people with disabilities since she was a student at Jefferson County North.

While at KU, Bertels has had many accomplishments. One of which was starting a student group, Ability KU, to give students with disabilities a voice.

“The main reason why I created that organization is because I’ve noticed a lack of disability representation at KU,” Bertels said.

Ability KU continues the work of a defunct student group, ABLE Hawks, that expanded access at KU for disabled students from 2004 to 2018.

ABLE Hawks disbanding left a hole in disability advocacy at KU. So much so that within one day of an email to students under the Student Accessibility of announcing Ability KU, Bertels said that she had over 20 emails from students who wanted to be involved.

One of Ability KU’s accomplishments is getting KU to repair the ramp outside of Snow Hall. Though the university only moved to repair it after Bertels had an interview with one of the student newspapers at KU, The University Daily Kansan.

Talking to KU administrators about the ramp before the interview lead to nothing, Bertels said. “You have to make it publicized and then they’ll finally do something.”

Bertels’ experience at KU has been radically different from her time at Jefferson County North. “At high school they’ll listen to me, and they’ll work with me,” Bertels said. “At KU, its very, very minimal with what they’ll work with.”
Members of Ability KU have also been working with the KU Panhellenic Association to make sorority houses and Greek life at KU more accessible to those who want to join.

Bertels also participated in the Kansas Miss Amazing pageant. A social and communications skills pageant that is dedicated to combat myths about disabilities and promote leadership. Where she was the 2022 Kansas Miss Amazing Jr. Bertels said a friend she made at KU, Nora Stoy, introduced her to the Miss Amazing pageant.

While Bertels did not place in the national competition, she did win an impact award for her work in Ability KU. Work that, in connection with the friends she made in Miss Amazing, led her to testify before the House Committee on Higher Education Budget in the Kansas state legislature.

During her testimony, Bertels addressed issues not just relating to physical disabilities, but also intellectual and invisible disabilities. After testifying and talking to other students who were a part of the testimony, Bertels concluded that, “It’s pretty widespread on how inaccessible college campuses are.”

The experience was good, Bertels said. Though it made her nervous. “For the most part, I think it went well. It really just showed how ignorant they were about disabilities in the higher education. Like one of the people didn’t know that if you weren’t full time status, that there’s not very many state scholarships you can actually do.”

Bertels believes the legislators listened and absorbed the information well but does not know if they will follow up with any action yet.

Currently, students with disabilities at KU have to face constant paperwork, inconsistent rules across different departments at the university, and a campus full of steep staircases that wasn’t built with accessibility in mind.
Every semester, Bertels said, it is on students to create an accommodation plan online. Even if the student’s accommodation needs do not change from year to year.

For a four-year degree, a student would need to get their accommodation plan approved eight times.
Professors can also deny a student’s accommodation plan if the professor believes it will give the student an unfair advantage in the class.

One blind student Bertels knows has to wait two weeks to get accessible resources for his class. Consistently leaving him two weeks behind his peers in his graduate studies.

Bertels faced the exception for professors herself when she was hospitalized last spring for five weeks while she was being treated for an infection. She requested to continue her classes online from the hospital, but had to drop two classes.

“Two professors outright denied to let me do them online for five weeks, even though they were required to accommodate to COVID students,” Bertels said, in her mind effectively making getting diagnosed with COVID-19 the only illness KU students cannot be discriminated against for falling ill with.

The two professors affected Bertels’ ability to graduate in four years. Because of her professors’ refusal to give her the same accommodations in the hospital as a student with COVID-19, she has to take an extra year of classes to accomplish her goal of working in bioengineering.

Even getting to classes can be difficult because of the way KU has been built into the side of Mt. Oread in Lawrence.
The Hawk Route, a path through KU’s campus specifically to allow students with disabilities get around campus, is not advertised to new students. “I never found out about Hawk route until I had a class in Budig and saw sign. No one told me.”

Not every building on the Hawk Route has the same hours. The elevator on the Hawk Route to allow students to get to Malott Hall is located in Haworth Hall, which is only open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. While Mallott Hall is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The bus system is not much help, Bertels said. Because they are usually running late.
Bertel’s advisor also have her three back to back classes where she had to find her own route to get between them on time.

While KU itself is not very accessible, Bertels’ experience with the St. Lawrence Catholic Center in Lawrence has been accessible in a similar way to her home parish in Nortonville.

The St. Lawrence Center has indents in the rows of pews to allow people in wheelchairs more comfortably attend mass. Bertels said she was even able to do readings during mass because of the ramps the center has.

While the St. Lawrence Center is accessibility, the church is still working on improvements, Bertels said. The church is currently looking into building an elevator so that students in wheelchairs do not have to use the parking garage to move between the floors for events. “They are working on plans within the next five years to make it accessible, which I thought was really cool.”

Father Mitchel Zimmerman, the Director and Chaplain of the St. Lawrence Catholic Center, even reach out to Bertels to see what the church can do to be more accessible in the short term while they work on long term improvements, Bertels said.

The St. Joseph Catholic Church in Nortonville made similar accommodations when Bertels was paralyzed in a car accident in high school.

“When I first became paralyzed, we had father, John Reynolds there and they removed a Pew for me, so I can sit with my family at church,” Bertels said.

St. Joseph also put a ramp down so Bertels could access the church’s religious education classes. “They got that done in a very short amount of time,” Bertels said.

When asked to compare her experience in college with her time at Jefferson County North, Bertels said Jefferson County North was 100 times better.

The administration at JCN stepped in and made sure that Bertels could participate in a band trip to Minnesota after the band teacher at the time had concerns with bringing a physically disabled student. “The school actually paid for a para to go with me if I needed any assistance.”

The shop class at JCN also created a platform for Bertels so she could sit by the trombones because she played the clarinet in the school band. “The shop teacher got measurements and everything for my wheelchair,” Bertels said.
Bertels said that while JCN did not make many physical accommodations, the school did provide paraprofessionals. JCN also required that Bertels get out of her wheelchair once a day to prevent pressure sores due to the school’s concern for liability.

“College has been awful. A lot of it, I would say is a social aspect,” Bertels said. “But also, people don’t listen to you at college. Especially if it’s this big and it feels like you’re like so insignificant, because there’s so many people here in such a large university that if you say anything, you’re lucky if it gets heard.”

Bertels wishes she chose a college with a flatter campus, but said it she chose KU because it has been her dream to attend the university. “it’s just been frustrating. I have to worry about my accommodations on top of all my academic stuff, and my health.”

Bertels’ next plan to improve the lives of students with disabilities at KU is to get more accessible crosswalks on the campus’ main road, Jayhawk Boulevard.

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