College upholds handicap accessibility standards in campus buildings

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, made handicap accessibility a primary concern of the United States government. The law defines a handicapped person as someone with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity,” and forbids discrimination against handicapped employees. It is Title III of the ADA, however, which has had the most far-reaching effects both nationally and here at the College, requiring that newly constructed buildings meet the higher standard set by the new codes on accessibility, and that older buildings be renovated to meet the new codes. Handicap accessibility is a very important issue in terms of making sure that no student, faculty or staff member is prevented from accessing any aspect of the College.

Legal aspects of accessibility 

Frank Bowe, the lead witness on Title III, predicted that out of all the titles, Title III would affect and change the lives of Americans with disabilities more than any other act. And indeed, ever since 1992, Title III and the accompanying ADA Accessibility Guidelines have revolutionized the way we construct new buildings. Title III states that “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to) or operates a place of public accommodation.” Places of public accommodation include restaurants, hotels, transportation, stores and places of education.

This means that the College, although it is a private institution, is subject to Title III of the ADA. As Jeffrey Jones, College Counsel explained, “At the Federal level, the College is subject to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice. At the Massachusetts level, the College must comply with the regulations of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB), which are incorporated in the Massachusetts Building Code and enforced by the MAAB and the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards. At the town level, the responsibility for ensuring compliance with all building code requirements, including accessibility requirements, lies with the Williamstown Building Inspector.”

College policies and procedures

Jones explained that the College’s compliance with legal codes is fairly easy when it comes to new construction. “For new construction, such as the library project, the architects who design the building are charged with ensuring that it complies in every respect with building and accessibility code requirements in effect at the time of construction,” he said. “Existing College buildings present a very different challenge. As a general rule, building and accessibility codes recognize that older buildings cannot be modified for every newly adopted code requirement.” In effect, this means that almost all buildings (and not just those at the College) are out of code on some level just a couple years after construction. Whenever the College chooses to renovate a building, it is often required that they bring the building up to code, which includes accessibility standards. Director of Facilities Bob Wright noted that Chapin Hall and the Jewish Resource Center (JRC) were both recently renovated to be more accessible. “The new kitchen [in the JRC] was designed to make work surfaces, sinks and appliances wheelchair accessible,” Wright said. “The Chapin Hall renovations also addressed upgrades in accessibility with the addition of the access ramp on the front of the building and electronic door openers on the main entrance of the building.”

Jones added that legal compliance is not the only standard by which the College measures accessibility. “The College is mindful of the safety, security and comfort of its students, staff and visitors, which means that a good deal of its regular facilities improvement work is not driven by code compliance but rather by the goal of keeping the campus safe, attractive and accessible for all who live and work here.”

“At the moment we don’t have any students who have long term physical constraints,” Dean Bolton said. “But if we do, it’s our obligation to make sure that they have full access to the academic programs, so if that meant that a class they wanted to take had to be moved to a more accessible building, that’s what we would do. We would do a lot of individual planning with any particular student to find out what their needs were and how we could make the place work for them. That involves all kinds of things that aren’t even to do with the physical shape of the buildings, like how soon the path is plowed.” Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass added, “We have to be just as rigorous in thinking about our staff and faculty. We do have some folks with long-term mobility impairments and we have to take that all into account. We will adapt anything we believe is our responsibility to adapt.”

Although there are currently no students with long-term disabilities, Campus Safety and Security often works with students who have short-term disabilities to help with transportation. “Many of the people we serve are in need of our assistance for short periods of time due to illness, injury or medical condition,” Head of Security Dave Boyer said. “We frequently transport authorized students to classes and other academic venues.” Boyer added that Security also works with faculty and staff to provide short-term handicap parking permits.

Student perspectives

Eirann Cohen ’15, a member of the cross-country team who is currently injured, spoke about her experience being temporarily disabled at the College. “It’s actually hardest to go to places that are closer together, because I can get a ride with Security to places that are farther away, but if I want to go to Goodrich it’s difficult because you can’t drive there,” she said. She commented that the buildings with stairs were especially difficult for her. “I think a lot of the problems are just inherent in the infrastructure of our school and since a lot of buildings are old, there aren’t any elevators,” she explained. “I read somewhere that only one person who has attended Williams in the past 20 years has been handicapped. I don’t know if that’s because it’s hard for handicapped people to get around the campus. Because our campus is more athletic I don’t think it makes sense for it not to be accessible.”

Postyn Smith ’15, a student athlete who broke both feet last summer, bought a scooter to deal with his injury.

“For complete accessibility, the campus would have to make some pretty big changes with elevators in dorms and upgrades to railings and bathrooms,” he said. “One thing that affected me more was the quality of the sidewalks … there are some big holes.” Smith emphasized that there are ways that students could better assist handicapped students, such as not using handicapped bathroom stalls empty and using the stairs rather than the elevators. “Also, I think the training room and health center should invest in scooters like mine for students on campus,” he added. “There is no way I would have been able to make it last semester if I had been on crutches for three months. Crutching around campus is very difficult.”

The ’62 Center

As a building that sees a lot of public, non-student use, both during the school year and the summer, the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance has a an invested interest in making sure there are handicap accessible seating areas.

Cosmo Catalano, technical supervisor for the ’62 Center provided some insight into the specifics of the building’s accessibility. Catalano explained that the ’62 Center is up to legal code, but that “there is a lot an architect can do that goes beyond mandated minimums to make a building accessible. The ’62 Center has its good points (most audience areas are on the main level) and bad points (the designated parking areas are far from the building). Not only are the audience areas accessible, but all of our classrooms, stages, shops and control booths must also meet the same standards.”

Catalano also commented on things that the ’62 Center is attempting to fix. “We have found that the MainStage auditorium, while meeting all the regulations in force in 2004, has areas that are not particularly easy for older patrons to navigate. The stairs in the main seating area are irregularly spaced, and there are no handrails – since none were required at the time. Over spring break, Facilities will be rebuilding these steps and adding handrails in the most problematic areas of the auditorium.”

There aren’t any students with long-term disabilities who currently attend the College, and there are issues with transportation and accessibility that could still be addressed. However, the College’s stringent adherence to legal codes and additional focus on student, staff and faculty comfort indicate that the College is capable of making its facilities accessible for all.