Equal access for all inspires Rock Creek’s Learning Garden improvements
Photos and Story by Alfredo V. Moreno
The 3.5-acre Learning Garden at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus is a beloved educational, emotional and food security resource for students, staff and the surrounding community. Recently though, the staff at this essential campus space were made aware of hidden accessibility barriers that had kept some visitors from maximizing their experience or even being able to enter the garden in the first place.
With the help of PCC’s Disability Services team, however, the Rock Creek Learning Garden is now on its way to becoming a universally welcoming and accessible venue for all.
This re-examination of the space began a few years ago when a former student accessibility advocate with Disability Services, who was working on a community garden bed with garden coordinator Miriam Latzer, expressed the need for adaptive tools that would help people of all abilities better maintain their spaces. Latzer said that interaction sparked her curiosity about what other unidentified barriers might be present and soon resulted in a connection with accessibility specialist Patricia Kepler.
PCC’s Disability Services recognizes disability as a valued aspect of diversity and embraces access as a matter of social justice, and to promote universal design and inclusive environments.
“I had worked with students and colleagues to create a welcome map in four different languages, but the physical space was something I hadn’t really considered,” Latzer said. “I invited Patricia to visit the garden, along with her service dog, Gus, and I learned so much navigating the space with her.”
During the tour, Kepler was able to point out areas such as narrow paths and steep grades at the primary entrance that limited or entirely prevented access to people using mobility devices. She examined the raised garden beds, which were not wheelchair friendly and too wide for those in a seated position to fully reach, and also noted undersized picnic pavilion furniture that weren’t suitable for many people.
“That was a wonderful meeting,” said Kepler. “Miriam wanted to make sure the garden worked for everyone and that is the goal of our work in Disability Services.”
Together, they began developing creative solutions to the learning garden’s accessibility issues, while taking care to incorporate the voice of students and staff with disabilities as part of an inclusive planning process. Alternate Media Formats Technician Jennifer Lucas created 3D models of newly designed garden beds and picnic tables that would easily accommodate mobility devices and the entire project was reviewed with students at a virtual town hall.
“From computer imagery and tangible modeling using 3D printing to our presentation at a virtual, campus-wide town hall, every step of our process presents methods for site planning that will be useful to anyone striving to create a space more universally accessible,” Latzer said.
These types of consultations and cross-departmental projects are at the core of what Disability Services does to emphasize the shared responsibility of equal access at PCC. With the guidance of specialists like Kepler, faculty and staff throughout the college can ensure students feel truly welcomed by proactively removing barriers and embracing access as a matter of social justice.
“PCC spaces, like the learning garden, belong to everyone,” said Kepler. “We want to hear from the community, get feedback from folks on barriers they experience, and learn more about what they might need to actively enjoy our college resources.”