Campus of obstacles

When my suitemates and I participated in the Spencer Neighborhood room draw last spring, we couldn’t believe our bad luck when we settled for a suite on the fourth floor of Mark Hopkins. Amidst our frustration, we lightheartedly discussed the disadvantages of the stairs and the long walks to several academic buildings, the gym and several better dining halls. We also joked about the foot injury I had just acquired as a runner on the track team. After being diagnosed with severe tendonitis in my right foot, my season had been cut short just days before the room draw. We laughed about how difficult it would be for me to hobble up the stairs if I was still injured upon our return in the fall.

Since that day, an overcompensation injury in my left foot led to a year-long hiatus which included several different diagnoses, months of rest, physical therapy and several relapses. When I finally underwent surgery for an inflamed posterior tibial tendon four weeks ago, the doctors and nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital all asked me what floor I lived on, and whether an elevator would be available. There are no elevators. Crutching up those four flights of stairs became my reality.

While I am extremely grateful for the help of friends, Campus Safety and Security, Dining Services and numerous strangers who went out of their way to hold doors, offer to carry my things and help me to get food, I have often thought about how different our Williams College campus must seem to those who are in some way physically impaired or handicapped. Both a lack of elevators and stairs that seem to appear out of nowhere feels like the norm at Williams.
One of my biggest accomplishments of the past two weeks has been making it to watch a friend in the water polo tournament. After making it down the Mark Hopkins stairs, across the campus and to the athletic complex, I was able to use an elevator to get to the next floor. However, the only way to get into the stands was to crutch down a steep set of dirty, slippery stairs and navigate myself to a seat balancing on one foot, without a railing to hold on to. A trip to Sawyer the following day proved even more difficult. In order to watch a film for class, I had to crutch down a set of stairs to get to the library, up stairs into the library, down more stairs to get to the basement of Sawyer and up more stairs to the viewing rooms. I have been told it is possible to get a key to the hidden elevator at Sawyer. Rumor has it that the beeping, slow-moving elevator violates discrimination laws and is a contributing factor to the rebuilding of the library. Two days later, I decided to get a ride from my 8:30 a.m. class in Griffin to a 9:55 a.m. class in Clark. Despite the transportation, traffic on Route 2 and walks to and from the car still caused me to be late to class. My list of examples could go on and on. In fact, I kept a journal of the past two weeks, and each day demonstrates several instances when I was stymied by my lack of a working foot.

I have not been alone in making these observations. Numerous times helpful strangers have approached me to help carry my food or belongings, saying that they, too, were once on crutches here and know how difficult and frustrating it can make a recovery. Several professors, coaches and fellow students have mentioned the lack of elevators, particularly in the dining halls, libraries and practically all of the dorms. How would someone who is permanently handicapped be able to get around on this campus? Would someone who is seriously disabled have to restrict where she lives or what buildings she can go into? Would someone be forced to choose classes based on whether or not she can arrive on time? Is there enough room in classrooms for a wheelchair-bound student? Are there enough chairs in some classrooms for an injured athlete to prop his or her just-operated limb upon? Disability discrimination laws require that at the postsecondary level a school must provide a student with appropriate academic adjustments to enable him/her to have an equal opportunity to participate in the school’s program, as long as this does not create an undue burden to the program. As the number one liberal arts school in the nation, Williams has astonished me with its lack of elevators, ramps, handicap doors and information from the administration about being disabled at the College. I feel fortunate that my time here on crutches is only a matter of weeks, not months or years. Luckily for my future as a runner, our obstacle course of a campus serves as strong motivation for a faster recovery.