Dear President Gogue and staff:
Feeling scared, embarrassed, helpless and angry, I sat on my parked walker, looking back as people sprinted past me toward Auburn Arena. I realized my hard-earned spot in line that I had held for the past two hours flew to the wind. So I sat there, looking behind me to make sure people saw me and wouldn't run me over.
After a long day of work and classes, I was pumped to go see the No. 2 Auburn basketball team take on the rival Georgia Bulldogs. Now, it seemed unlikely that I could even get into the arena before it reached full capacity.
Students have made a habit of sprinting toward the arena and into the student section as soon as the doors open. As a disabled person, even if I am able to get there early and get a good spot in line, other students run ahead of me, so people behind me in line still get better seats.
That is the reality I, along with the rest of the students in the disabled community, face when attending Auburn basketball games.
Luckily, this time, a guy behind me saw what was happening to me when everyone ran ahead and offered to help me get up to the line safely, so I was able to get in that game. People who stop to be aware of their surroundings are willing to do something, but in a situation where everyone is worried about getting their own spot in the arena, they aren't many.
After an exciting weekend of basketball on The Plains and arguably the biggest win in the history of the program against “Blue Blood” Kentucky, all seems to be well with Auburn students. The Jungle had an incredible turnout, and students got to celebrate the win with head coach Bruce Pearl and the team.
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People are aware of the way the Auburn students showed up for the program against No. 12 Kentucky. Many students braved frigid weather conditions and camped outside of Auburn Arena starting Friday morning before the game at noon on Saturday. Props to them for their dedication.
What happened to people who were not able to set up a tent and spend a night outside in under-30-degree weather? They were not able to get into the arena on Saturday.
Through all of the excitement, students in the disabled community were left stranded. We did not get to celebrate with the team. We did not get to show our school pride. We did not get to make those memories. We were excluded.
Auburn has accessible seating available in the arena, but that does not negate the difficult, tiring process of getting into the arena. Seating is only an option after getting into the building when doors open an hour and a half prior to the game’s start time.
Auburn also has a shuttle running from an accessible parking lot to the arena doors. So disabled people should be set to enjoy the game, right?
There is only one problem. Students have to wait in a line that extends multiple blocks around the Village hours before games. In the case of the Kentucky game, the line began forming over a day before tip-off. By the time students endured the line, getting into the game was not a guarantee for those near the back.
Understandably, the gates close once the arena reaches full capacity.
Therefore, not only do students have to walk to the end of the line, they have to make their way into the arena, trying to find a seat that might or might not be available.
So just arrive early, right?
It is not that easy for everyone.
It is currently January, and it is about as cold as it gets here in Alabama. In fact, temperatures fell below freezing Friday night and Saturday morning. Some people are affected much more heavily by the cold than an able-bodied person, and waiting outside for hours is not a viable option.
As a person living with Friedreich’s Ataxia, a rare, neuromuscular disease, my hands and feet go numb in the cold, and my coordination worsens. This makes it difficult to walk, use my phone and do many routine things. I use a walker, so I need my hands to grip the handles and keep me upright and my feet to be functional to walk without falling.
Not to mention, someone with a weakened immune system could catch a sickness such as pneumonia or a cold from sitting out in the cold, windy weather. In this COVID-19 era, this is especially troubling because anytime you catch a sickness, the possibility that it is the virus is scary.
These things make attending an Auburn basketball game an unenjoyable experience for disabled people in what otherwise could be such an exciting and memorable season for students.
Having a wheelchair-accessible seating row is simply not enough to accommodate disabled students and make going to games an enjoyable experience.
The accessible seating is also separated from the student section, so students with disabilities are excluded from the jungle and don’t get the fan experience. This also keeps disabled people from sitting with their able-bodied friends. The message this sends is that disabled students are secondary in importance to able-bodied students and that the University does not care if students with disabilities get to attend and enjoy games.
Disabled students can easily enjoy the game from the front row of the student section, but they are not able to get there because other students get there quicker and take those spots. For me, going up stairs is very difficult, but I can stand (as long as I have a seat to rest on periodically) or sit on ground level with my walker on the front row.
For events in the arena, on the front row I can hold onto my walker. For football games, I can cling onto the rail that goes across the first row of each section. My friends help me go up one stair and then I am set. I usually have to squeeze in between people’s feet to sit on the row behind me when I get tired, but people usually don’t mind.
I have emailed the Athletics Ticket Office and Office of Accessibility about my issues getting into basketball games, and this is the only response I received:
“We know standing in line might be tough, but there is no way we can hold [seats] as other students might need accessible seats as well,” the tickets office said.
When I emailed back and persisted respectfully that we try to work something out, I was ignored.
The success of Auburn basketball is the talk around campus this year, and it is arguably the most exciting thing going on in Auburn. In the poll on Monday morning, Auburn claimed its first No. 1 ranking in school history. This is historic, and disabled students are not able to be there to witness it.
Auburn claims to be diverse and inclusive, but they have failed in this category. Things need to change.
Dear Auburn, I have loved my time on The Plains, and that is why I am here to stay. I have learned a lot here. The Auburn family is real, and there are lots of people who do care, such as the guy who stopped in the middle of a stampede of students to help me. If I didn’t think people cared then I wouldn’t have written this.
However, I am hurt and saddened by Auburn’s unwillingness to help me and other students with disabilities enjoy athletics and make those unforgettable, happy memories with our friends and the rest of the student body.
Dear Auburn, please take action.
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