On improving accessibility: A case for making campus more wheelchair-friendly

Melvin Lewis

Before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, many people with physical disabilities simply could not function in society. For these individuals, a single step up to a door may have been an impossible hurdle, and a staircase may as well have been a wall. In accordance with the ADA, public entities and private commercial facilities must be accessible to wheelchair users. New construction must comply with ADA standards, such as including ramps and elevators. Existing buildings have to be modified if doing so is “readily achievable.”

Despite these laws, many places in this country are still, to a varying degree, inaccessible. City curbs are often uneven and jagged. If you push a wheelchair up one too fast and hit a bump, the user may go flying. Additionally, some businesses flagrantly violate the law by neglecting to install a ramp on the curb. While this is relatively rare, it is common to come across ramps that do not meet ADA standards because they are too steep. Certain sidewalks and floors are also challenging to navigate with a wheelchair or walker. Cobblestone, for instance, may be intolerably bumpy to roll across.

The College, to its credit, is moderately accessible for people with physical disabilities. Campus Safety and Security (CSS) offers a van transportation service around campus to those in need, and administrative and educational buildings are available to wheelchair users through ramps and elevators. While these accommodations are often inconvenient, like the side entrance to Hopkins Hall and the labyrinth of elevators in the Thompson science buildings, I am grateful that the options even exist. However, I see many possible areas for improvement.

The lack of accessibility in first-year housing is particularly disappointing. In Frosh Quad, the elevators only go from the basement to the third floor, rendering the fourth floor unavailable to anyone incapable of going up a flight of stairs. These elevators are also not usually running after First Days, so they require a phone call and a wait to access them. Mission is even worse, with an elevator that only runs from the basement dining hall to the first level. Although many upperclassman housing choices are accessible, at least through a back door, like Wood House, some dorms, such as East College, unfortunately have no entrances without a step up to the door. Others, like Lehman Hall, have multiple floors but no elevator. While the College will assign accessible rooms to students with disabilities who make such a request, these individuals may be unable to visit friends in other spaces. Additionally, visitors and families with disabilities may not get to see their student’s room.

The dining halls in Mission and Paresky are accessible, but Driscoll is almost impossible to enter without the use of stairs. The paths around Fitch House and Prospect House both include steps, yet no ramps. The only conceivable option would be to go past Driscoll on Route 2 and head up Driscoll Hall Drive. However, this would require going up the steep hill alongside the Spencer Studio Art Building that a manual wheelchair user could probably not manage alone. A person with crutches or a cane also may not be able to make the trip.

Notably absent around this campus are automatic door buttons. Pull doors are challenging – and sometimes impossible – for a person with a physical disability to open on their own. A wheelchair user and some amputees would struggle to get past the first set of doors of Schapiro Hall, Hollander Hall and many other buildings. These buttons also frequently do not work. While this technical issue may sometimes be inevitable, a higher degree of maintenance could prevent this important tool from being unavailable for too long.

According to the College’s website, “the College is committed to providing support services and reasonable accommodations to any students who need them.” I believe that some effort has been made. However, considering the cost of a ramp is in the range of $3,000-$10,000, an automatic door operator is roughly $6,000 and adding a floor to an elevator is around $10,000, it seems “readily achievable” to me that a school sitting on $2.5 billion can make this campus more accessible.

Melvin Lewis ’22 is from Rockville, Md. His major is undecided.