Cory Paradis: Student Spotlight

How to Make a 200-Year-Old Campus Wheelchair-Accessible

Cory Paradis transferred to the University of Virginia with a mission: he wanted to make homes, buildings and cities more accessible to people like him. 

Featured in UVA Today and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cory Paradis, a 4th year urban and environmental planning student at UVA School of Architecture, talks about his experiences navigating Grounds and helping to instigate changes to improve campus accessibility. Cory was born with cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair since the first grade. He transferred to UVA from Germanna Community College and he discusses the challenges of getting around a historic 200-year-old campus and the steps UVA is taking to create barrier-free access - like the proposed project of making the Lawn fully accessible to be started this summer.

The Chronicle interviewed Paradis on some of the obstacles he has encountered as a student. 

You transferred from a modern community-college campus with three entirely accessible buildings. What was the transition like?

When I first came here, thankfully I had somebody to help me out and tell me where I needed to go. The routes you have to take are very circuitous — if you’re just somebody who’s visiting for the first time, you have no clue where the accessible routes are to this place or that place. I cannot get to the architecture school from my dorm without driving my car, just because the topography makes it prohibitive. Going back to my dorm is a bit easier, because the big hill is facing the other direction. I could get back to my room if I absolutely had to.

Just getting to my car from my dorm was a challenge. I parked behind Brown College, which is the dorm I stay in. There’s no elevator in the building itself. To get to my car, I had to go out of my room, turn right, and go around the back of the building and down the sidewalk, which took me about six or seven minutes. It was such a pain in the butt. To get from my car back to my dorm room, because it’s up a hill, I would have to use an elevator in another building, which is locked at midnight. So I couldn’t stay over here at the architecture school past 11:15 or 11:30.

But I’ve found a different parking lot that has an outdoor elevator that works 24/7. The lot is actually for Monroe Hill House, which is right across from where my dorm is. Now I’ve made friends with the people who live in the house, and they said I could park there, no problem.

The Student Disability Access Center has been great in accommodating me. There was a class this semester that they relocated from the politics-department building, which is located in the South Lawn area. To get there, I had to go through a building called New Cabell, take an elevator, go out and take a ramp down, and cross a bridge that goes over Jefferson Park Avenue. It took me 10 or 15 minutes to get there from my dorm. And it took longer to get back because everything’s uphill. They relocated that class to New Cabell, so I didn’t have to go twice as far.

Throughout his time at UVA and in the urban and environmental planning program, Paradis focused on countering those issues of accessibility. During a design thinking class with architecture professor Anselmo Canfora, he served as a research assistant and a student and encouraged his classmates to consider accessibility early in their design processes. He even shared his wheelchair for a few hours so students could witness and experience the obstacles first hand.

“I think it helped to give them an actual person they were designing for, instead of an abstract concept,” he said. “It was really cool for me to be able to share my experiences with them and give them a glimpse into some of the issues I deal with. I tried to help them see that is really a design problem, and that you can build a design around it.”

Canfora noted how his impact on the class was "absolutely transformative."

“Students were already committed to developing inclusive, accessible designs, but Cory was critical in giving them a much more realistic, clearer understanding of the challenges that people with disabilities face on a daily basis,” he said. “He really dedicated an amazing amount of time and effort to giving feedback, in addition to completing the course as a student.”

Paradis has also served on the University's Barrier-Free Access Committee, which is a group of administrators, faculty and students who make recommendations and oversee the University's compliance to the American With Disabilities Act. 

“One of the things I really stressed when I first started working with other students in the Architecture School was that this was not just for me,” he said. “This is for anybody that might come after me.” 



To accompany the interview, Cory also took The Chronicle on a tour of his perspective of the famous Academical Village and notes the accessibility challenges. He also gives praise to the university for making an effort to update its historic grounds. "It gives me hope that if one of the oldest universities in the country can push for and advocate for accessibility, that other campuses can follow suit."