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Campus accessibility: Rachel Browning

It’s not everyday someone dies and lives to tell about it.

It’s even more rare for someone to die not once, but four times and live to tell.

Rachel Browning’s story is anything but typical.

When paramedics responded to an early-morning shooting on Feb. 7, 2004, they weren’t able to save the victim, Browning, who died at the scene.

In route to the hospital, she was revived, only to die another three times there.

But Browning refused to die.

That morning in February, four men followed Browning home after she closed the nightclub and restaurant she owned.

She was shot in the neck and suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of the attack, which led to her being paralyzed from the chest down.

She was in a coma for a month and bedridden for three years.

Once she woke up from the coma, Browning quickly realized just how serious her injuries were.

“I saw my mama reading a Bible over my bed, and I was like, ‘Oh, this can’t be good.’”

Initially given only a 5 percent chance of survival, Browning’s recovery hasn’t been easy.

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Browning gets around in a wheelchair and mobility is often an issue with Nashville’s hilly terrain.

And that terrain is something she has to negotiate regularly as an adult degree student at Belmont, working toward a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. She’s also writing a memoir about what happened to her.

Browning, who was a student at Belmont more than a decade ago and recently returned, said she has never seen the campus so inaccessible, especially with all the new buildings.

The design of the newest parts of campus doesn’t take wheelchairs into consideration, she said.

“I think they took aesthetics before accessibility and now they’re having to retrofit things, which is a lot harder to do,” she said. It would have been easier “had they done it correct in the first place.”

Browning first came to Belmont in the late 90s, when she was walking, to study information systems management but returned in 2012 with a different major and in a wheelchair.

“When I was coming back to Belmont, I didn’t even think about accessibility. I just thought, I know there’s a lot of new buildings – my daughter was a freshman here when that happened to me – and I just didn’t think there’d be an issue,” she said. “Then I got to campus, and so many issues.”

Those include the lack of signage marking handicap routes, parking and entrances. Many doors on campus, like the Beaman Student Life Center’s main entrance, aren’t marked as handicap accessible, Browning said.

“I think all the doors, every door to every building, should be handicap accessible and they’re not, especially the older buildings,” she said. “I have to go in through certain doors in certain buildings, where everybody else can go in either door, the north or the south.”

Besides doors being unmarked, Browning also talked about their heaviness. She has to ask someone to hold the door for her if she’s having to enter through a door that isn’t handicap accessible.

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“I don’t mind asking people for help, but a lot of disabled people take exception to having to ask for help because we want to be independent as disabled people,” she said.

Push pads, like the ones that used to flank the doors outside Massey Business Center, have been removed and replaced with a type of keyless entry system. Browning has to constantly keep her keys in hand because a remote control key fob is what now opens those doors.

“Which is all well and good for somebody that’s staff, faculty or student and they go through disability services,” Browning said. “They can get one, but what about the visitors and the people that are taking tours of campus?”

The north side entrances to Hitch Science Building and Wheeler Humanities Building also pose problems. People in wheelchairs can’t push themselves up the wooden ramps because the material gives under the weight of the chair, making the terrain uneven and difficult to push past, Browning said.

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And some of the sidewalks on campus don’t have cutout curbs where wheelchairs can go down, so instead of being able to exit directly, Browning said she sometimes has to go 20 yards in an opposite direction to get off the path.

The limited handicap parking on campus is another issue. Browning pointed out the lack of handicap van spots at the library, and she said the only parking spaces for vans are in the Curb Event Center garage and in the Inman/McWhorter garage.

One thing that isn’t an issue for Browning is getting people to help her around campus.

“Everybody helps me. I’ve not had any instance of anybody not helping me,” she said. “I feel so comfortable, and I don’t usually even have to ask for help at a door because the Belmont students are really caring students.”

But even so, Browning said people don’t look at her the same way they used to.

“It’s almost like ‘Aw, I wish I could help,’ and I hate that but I’m used to it after nine years,” she said. “But, you know, it’s hard when you’re not making eye contact with people because I am at a lower level, so I try to make up for it with a smile.”

When it comes to identifying and resolving accessibility issues on campus, Browning has worked closely with Melissa Smith, director of student support and disability services at Belmont.

“Melissa Smith and I have a really good relationship now, and she’s really trying to correct all the problems. I think she needs more staff. She’s got like 300 disabled students – now this is physical, emotional,” Browning said. “She’s responsible for all of these students. I just think it’s too much for one person.”

She has also worked directly with Henry Lacher, director of facilities management services, to address problems like uneven pavement in Massey’s courtyard, which once caught on her wheels and caused her to fall.

“They know that I’m going to speak up for everybody because a lot of disabled people don’t want to speak up and 20 year olds don’t want to speak up,” she said.

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Browning has fallen one other time – her first day on campus in a wheelchair.

“The actual first day I was on campus, that day, had to get somebody to push me up the hill. Well, he quit pushing before we got to the top. So, of course when you’re in a chair with wheels on it, it’s going to start rolling backwards. So I cut it to the right, and I nosedive into the mulch the very first day on campus,” she said. “I was so humiliated, so embarrassed.”

Browning has been committed to speaking up for students with disabilities and working with campus personnel to make Belmont more accessible.

“They’re working on it,” she said. “They’ve come a long way in two years, and I don’t know if that’s because I brought all these things to their attention because they’re not in my situation, and that’s what I’ve asked them to do.”

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