Gophers are at home underground, but that doesn’t ring true on campus.
The Gopher Way is a refuge from the rain and cold familiar to University students. In harsh conditions, the tunnels and skyways are extremely valuable – but equally frustrating to physically disabled students.
Rachel Garaghty, a political science and French senior, is president of the Disabled Student Cultural Center. She said she uses the tunnels as often as possible to avoid getting her electric wheelchair wet.
About one-third of her classes are in Folwell Hall, she said, but the only way to enter the building from the tunnel is up a staircase, which is a dead end for her.
Other buildings also have this problem. Garaghty said she has trouble using the tunnels around the Northrop Parking Garage and Nolte Center because of accessibility issues.
Once, while returning from lunch, she said she found the entrance to the tunnel had been closed. She was left stranded in the dining area of Nolte Center for an hour, waiting for someone to help her because there was no elevator available.
“All of that could have been avoided if there had been an elevator,” Garaghty said.
Elevators can pose problems even when they are available.
Psychology senior Liz Barrie, who uses a wheelchair, said some of the elevators in the Gopher Way require a key and when button panels are too high sometimes they can be out of reach for people in wheelchairs.
Barrie said finding her way out of the Gopher tunnels is difficult when she has to look for an elevator. Sometimes she has to change levels or go outside to cross from building to building. That is problematic when the signs only point toward staircases, she said.
“Sometimes it feels like there are steps in every direction,” Barrie said.
Heavy doors also hinder handicap accessibility in the Gopher Way. Doors that don’t open automatically require Barrie and Garaghty to wait for someone to assist them.
Mary Sienko, marketing manager for Parking and Transportation, said the department has taken a look at some of the accessibility issues in the Gopher Way.
She said the University has worked to improve conditions.
The University would like to make more improvements, specifically with the doors, but they are expensive, Sienko said.
An upgrade frequently made is improving signage around the Gopher Way, which is evaluated every two years, she said.
Garaghty and Barrie both said they would like to see improvements in the Gopher Way, but are satisfied with its current state and thought it was unrealistic to expect dramatic changes.
Barrie said she doesn’t expect the entire University to be handicap accessible.
“It’s excellent on the West Bank. On the East Bank it works; it isn’t perfect, but at least it’s there,” Garaghty said.
More accessible tunnels see busier traffic than others, Sienko said. She said she sees more people using the Gopher Way around Coffman Union than other areas and expects their use to rise this winter.
The Gopher Way system was established in 2000, but many of the tunnels were created as each building was constructed, Sienko said. It now includes six miles of walkways.
The connections might have originally been made for maintenance, personal or other uses, which is why the paths between buildings can be complicated or take a roundabout path.
Sienko said existing buildings might not be easy to navigate but new buildings will accommodate the system and Parking and Transportation is trying to improve it.