Robbie Vazquez works on repairing a ring in her home studio on July 9. Vazquez, a metals major at UTEP, said she is always working on multiple projects because her ADHD makes it difficult to focus on one thing for a long period. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

When one first sees Didi Lopez walking or standing, it’s easy to assume she is not living with a disability. But after an hour, Lopez said, her walk starts to look different.

“My disability isn’t really visible if you see me,” Lopez said. “But after a while my body starts hurting.”

Lopez was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 2018. Often referred to as “wear and tear arthritis,” this common condition grinds the cartilage between the bones of knees, lower back, hips, and other areas. For those like Lopez, this often makes it difficult to be mobile.

Since her diagnosis, Lopez, a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso, said she has become more of an advocate for people with disabilities.

“Going from being able-bodied to being disabled has been a huge drastic change,” Lopez said. “I never realized how much I took simple things for granted.”

Lopez pointed to an incident last March where she was unable to wait in line for a Covid-19 vaccine during an immunization clinic on campus.

“The line was wrapped around (the building) so I went to go speak to someone and I told them, ‘Hey I’m here to get the vaccine but I’m not gonna be able to wait in that line because I’m disabled,’” she said.

Lopez said the vaccine staff told her there was nothing they could do and she left without the vaccine. She was later emailed by UTEP that accommodations were present but the staff member who spoke to her was unaware of them.

“I was just super upset, especially since I went out of my way and I asked for help,” she said.

Didi Lopez, a senior psychology major at UTEP, sits in the Chihuahuan Desert Garden on campus. Lopez, who was diagnosed with a disability two years ago, said that she has conflicted feelings about “taking up space” intended for people with disabilities because she appears able-bodied. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A coalition of students and staff are urging UTEP officials to recognize the challenges people with disabilities face. Alongside them is Aurelia Murga, a professor of sociology and anthropology at UTEP who uses a leg brace, crutch and sometimes a wheelchair as a result of a car accident.

“Structurally within institutions, within our society folks with disabilities have often been set aside, put in the shadows, made invisible many times, thought of as lesser even because of their disabilities, depending on what those are,” Murga said.

The university and ‘reasonable accommodations’

UTEP officials declined El Paso Matters’ request for an interview but in a statement a spokesperson said the university makes “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities.

“The University of Texas at El Paso is committed to providing a safe and accessible environment for all our students, employees and guests. This includes making reasonable accommodations for those members of our campus community who have a disability,” the statement reads.

“We evaluate our facilities regularly in a proactive effort to determine where we can make accessibility improvements with support from the University’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services and the Equal Opportunity Office.”

Cost of parking

As part of a larger effort to bring awareness to the specific challenges people with disabilities face, Murga has become a leading voice in a campus-wide movement aimed at lowering the price of parking permits for people with disabilities at the university.

In 2020, the Texas State Employees Union launched an online petition to pressure President Heather Wilson and other UTEP officials “to make (Americans with Disabilities Act) parking permits free for students and employees with ADA accommodations.”

“The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is a top-tier research university attracting a diverse workforce and student body, including disabled community members and disabled veterans,” the petition states. “To keep the campus accessible to its faculty, staff, and students, especially those who are disabled, we demand that the University immediately address its exclusionary ADA parking permits.”

UTEP has the highest ADA inner-campus parking fees in the UT system — $500 for faculty and $250 for students — according to the petition.

Other universities like University of Texas at Arlington had a maximum cost of $273 for employee parking. UT Rio Grande had a cost of $100.

Robbie Vazquez, a former runner who had an accident, now walks with a cane.

“I fell six inches down a hole and that was just enough pressure to burst through my spinal discs,” she said.

Vazquez said she parks a mile away from the UTEP campus and walks to the university when classes are in session.

“The parking is a little bit too expensive,” she said. “The mobility does hurt after a while but if I take my time, I’ll get there.”

While parking passes can be expensive for all students and faculty, Murga said that the high prices can be more detrimental for those who are disabeled.

“People with disabilities often have to spend a lot of extra money that able-bodied folks don’t have to; either on medicines, ambulatory devices, wheelchairs, crutches, or braces,” Murga said. “It can be really taxing on the pocketbook as well.”

A simple task like parking can be very important for those who are disabled, Murga said.

“It is something where I physically need these (parking spaces) in order to do my job and in order to be a part of the UTEP community.”

UTEP officials told El Paso Matters that all prices for parking permits are the same for everyone regardless of whether they require ADA parking.

For the upcoming school year, inner campus parking will cost $250 for students and $525 for faculty and staff. Parking garage permits can be as high as $400 for students and $575 for faculty.

Murga said no progress has been made on having UTEP officials agree to lower parking fees and the petition organizers haven’t received a response from the school.

Although Lopez doesn’t drive because of her disability, she said UTEP officials could, at minimum, allow for ADA students to be dropped off inside campus.

“I know that you have to have a parking pass to go inside (campus) but it would even benefit people who do have disabilities to go in (campus) and get dropped off,” Lopez said. “They just go in, come out, get dropped off.”

Lopez said it’s “exhausting” for her to walk to class after being dropped off outside the campus.

“I think the biggest thing is getting on campus,” Lopez said. “Because even before (becoming disabled) I still had an issue with getting on campus. The fact is that there’s not much accessibility when it comes to parking in general.”

ADA complaints filed to Office of Civil Rights

This is not the first time students have lodged complaints about accessibility at the university.

Diego Demaya, director of technical assistance at the Southwest ADA Center, said that Section 504 of the American with Disabilities Act requires that “institutions must remove existing architectural barriers in existing facilities on an on-going basis. This includes, but is not limited to, installing ramps, making bathrooms accessible, making classrooms accessible (including labs), providing accessible (handicapped) parking, swimming pools and fitness rooms, dorms, chapels, etc.”

In a 2010 complaint filed against UTEP to the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education, the complainant stated “there was no clear path to get to the front door to Kelly Hall; the front entrance was too far to walk to; and the double doors were cumbersome to get through.”

UTEP officials agreed to modify the accessibility ramp near the building and after an on campus inspection, OCR concluded that the entrances did meet required standards.

And in 2012, a complaint was filed that Worrell Hall was not accessible. UTEP came to an agreement with the OCR that it would ensure accessibility into the building, structural changes would be made, and those who are disabeled would be informed of changes to the hall.

Beyond parking and issues with ADA compliance, students are also speaking about working to make people with disabilities feel included.

“People see disabled people as like ‘oh, they can’t do certain things, because they are disabled.’ And so we’re kind of written off (because) I’m not going to provide that for them, because it doesn’t benefit them since they’re disabled,” Lopez said.

For Vazquez, she wishes that there were more labels indicating where accommodations are.

“Sometimes you get to the front door of a building and it says, ‘ramps on the other side,’ and then I’m like ‘what side, where,’ and just have to spend a little bit time searching around,” she said.

Murga said the larger issue is that people with disabilities are often left out of conversations about building structure, which often is centered on those who are not disabled.

“This has trickled into just the ways in which we treat each other with less compassion, without concern, or even going to ask ‘what are your needs?’ because these are needs,” she said.

Alan Lizarraga, a UTEP student and ally of the disabled community who has helped with the ongoing petition, said he learned about his own privilege as a nondisabled individual.

“It shouldn’t be (seen) like a privilege, it’s a need,” Lizarraga said. “It’s just a right that they should have.”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.