Breaking Down Barriers

A mid the flurry of papers that follows a student's admission, most freshmen probably don't notice one particular letter. But to a small group within the Class of '87, that piece of paper, asking students to state special needs such as physical disabilities, is very important.

While some disabled students never require any special services from the College (in fact, many never identify themselves as having a disability), others rely on Harvard to help provide transportation, volunteer readers or other support services. The College has repeatedly stated its commitment to provide this assistance but, as with so many issues, just how good a job it is doing depends on who you ask.

According to Nancy Randolph, special assistant to the president and University coordinator for disabled students, once Harvard receives the letters, "we go to work matching our facilities to their needs." Arrangements include setting aside accessible housing and coordinating special diets or physical therapy. Once classes begin, administrators work with the registrar to relocate classes if a course a disabled student wishes to take meets in a nonaccessible building. "The University's policy is to provide what's needed," Randolph says, adding that Harvard's policy is to keep disabled students in the mainstream and make sure they are not isolated from undergraduate life. Last year, the University, after an apparent oversight, added special ramps and seating to Harvard Stadium and this summer is making Leverett House wheel chair-accessible.

But some disabled students have voiced complaints about the receptiveness of the College, and the Harvard community in general, to their needs Members of Access to a Better Learning Environment (ABLE), a campus group dedicated to improving conditions for disabled students, last year criticized the University's support services, claiming they are both mismanaged and insufficient ABLE called for increased access to undergraduate Houses (only two, Currier and Quincy, are fully wheelchair accessible), increased centralization of support services for disabled students and a full-time ombudsman for disabled concerns.

Some of ABLE's demands would require costly construction or investing in more technology for the hearing or visually impaired, but both administrators and student activists agree that many improvements can be made at no cost to the University.

ABLE President Lisa Chetkov '85 says that some faculty members still resist moving their classic or allotting the extra time to accomodate the needs of disabled students, adding. "A lot of the problems are attitudinal, not physical, barriers." And Randolph agrees that the University should play a more active role to sensitize the community to the needs of disabled students.