Breaking Down Barriers

Disabled Students at Harvard

WHEN GUY WALLACE' '88 WAS looking around at colleges last year, the usual things were on his mind--the professor-student ratio, the range of extracurricular activities, and the quality of the food. He also had to consider one unusual factor in coming to a decision.

Wallace has been confined to a wheelchair since he was 16, when he was injured while playing against the Harvard Business School rugby team as a student at Brookline High. Wallace had to consider the number of ramps, elevators and accessible rooms a school provides. One of the reasons he's here, he says, is that Harvard is the most "accessible" of all the Ivy League schools.

But that's not saying much, according to Wallace and other disabled students.

While Harvard, partly in response to federal pressure, has made dramatic strides in meeting their needs, students with physical disabilities still must face a variety of often-mundane obstacles that their fellow undergraduates never have to deal with.

All Harvard classrooms except those in the Science Center and Sever Hall remain at least partly inaccessible to students in wheelchairs, and nine of the 12 residential Houses are totally inaccessible. More important, disabled students say they must contend on a daily basis with the ignorance or insensitivity that often characterizes fellow students' attitudes about their lives.

"There is no question that there is a stereotype," says Lisa Chertkov '85, president of Advocates for a Better Learning Environment, a group that lobbys for disabled students at Harvard. Chertkov says students take it for granted that a disabled person at Harvard is some kind of "super-crip," who must be all-capable after overcoming incredible odds.

"That's not how somebody's life works," she says, attacking the stereotype. But many Harvard students who don't suffer a disability, Chertkov says, "never get past that."

AS CHERTKOV AND OTHERS tell it, disabled students are simply looking for some respect and understanding. But other barriers, more tangible in their effect, are perhaps equally frustrating.

No one denies that the University has come a long way in recent years towards better meeting the needs of the disabled. A major factor, viewed by many concerned as the prime motivation for Harvard, was the enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which in 1977 forced institutions that receive federal funds to make provisions to "accommodate" persons with disabilities.

Since that time, Harvard has attempted to create an organized program for its disabled students. All courses were opened to all students; that is, if a particular course is held in a classroom inaccessible to a student wanting to take it, Harvard officials are pledged to move it.

In addition, Widener, Hilles and Lamont libraries were made accessible to the disabled. A special shuttle van was established for disabled students. Several Houses--Currier, Mather and Quincy--have been made partially accessible. And when Harvard renovated Sever Hall two years ago, major provisions were made for the disabled--the addition of an elevator, widened doorways, and a special entrance for students in wheelchairs.

The College has also begun providing interpreters for deaf students, and Braille-reading machines have been made available to visually-impaired students. There is now even a lounge for disabled students in the basement of Lamont Library.

BUT THE MOVE to accomodate the disabled, perhaps above all for economic reasons, can never be as complete as all students would like, nor can it take into account all possible scenarios. The problem, in the eyes of officials, is that much planning for the disabled has taken the form of an afterthought, a particularly difficult challenge considering the size of Harvard's campus and the age of most University buildings, constructed without appreciation for the needs of the disabled.

"There's just too much to be done," says Thomas E. Crooks, Harvard's point-man for the problems of the disabled. "Because of their architecture, some of these buildings will never be totally accessible."

Quite simply, officials say, Harvard is faced with a dilemma about how much it should do for the very small fraction of the undergraduates--approximately 50 out of 6500-who are disabled. What, in other words, is both necessary and economically reasonable to provide to meet the needs of these students?

Students, however, counter that Harvard has only done the bare minimum towards making their lives as normal as possible.

The limited measures that Harvard has taken to accommodate the handicapped--for instance to make some of the houses partially accessible--are not always good enough, according to students. James B. Thomas '86, a Quincy House resident with an undiagnosed form of muscular dystrophy, complains that he must pass through the Quincy kitchen to get to the dining hall.

"A lot of circumstances like that are just plain humiliating," he says.

Besides living arrangements, students say, there are other more mundane, but just as frustrating, obstacles. These include bicycles that are locked to wheelchair ramp handrails, preventing access to an accessible building; or cars that are parked in front of levelled curbs, preventing a person in a wheelchair from crossing the street; or fire alarms that are of no use to hearing-impaired students.

Chertkov says these "little things" are not taken seriously enough by the administration or the students. "You can bet that if a bike was locked on the front door of Sever, they'd bring a chainsaw to get it cut off," she says.

In addition, many extracurricular activities and events are blocked to students with disabilities. For example, to a student in a wheelchair, the usual weekend collection of films presented by House film societies are usually off-limits, since they are screened in inaccessible locations.

STUDENTS SAY THEY WANT full access to buildings, houses, and activities, not only so they car enjoy the complete benefits of Harvard, but because increased accessibility will help them overcome the attitudes of ignorance or insensitivity they now confront.

What can indeed be even more humiliating than the physical impediments facing the disabled are what they say are the often patronizing attitudes or the lack of understanding with which their fellow students and teachers greet their problems.

To prove the point, Chertkov cites an incident earlier this fall involving the Glee Club and Wallace. The Club, she says, scheduled a party in the Lowell House junior common room, a location totally inaccessible to Wallace. However, club members would not change the location until Crooks and Chertkov stepped in and mediated the dispute. The party was finally held in the Freshman Union.

Wallace refuses to talk about that specific episode, but he does speak of similar incidents, which he calls examples of blatant discrimination against disabled students.

"It's a problem of such gigantic ignorance," he says. "They're not aware, mainly because they don't want to be aware. People don't want to spend much time thinking about it."

Andrew H. Siegel '85, a Lowell House resident with cerebral palsy, recalls an incident two years ago when one person whom he did not know at all came up to him, grabbed his hand, and said, "I'm so glad you're here."

Sometimes the incidents are not as harmless. When Siegel was a sophomore, his professor in Chemistry 20 gave him very little extra time for completing exams, despite the fact that Siegel takes longer than most students to write. The professor, Siegal says, also threatened to withhold credit because he was unwilling to let Siegel participate in labs.

"He didn't think I'd be safe in the lab," Siegel says. "He asked me, "Why don't you take physics, where the most you ever work with is 12 volts of electricity?" I understood his concerns, but the proper response is to look to solutions."

Fortunately for Siegel, the professor wound up not teaching the second semester, and the new instructor willingly let Siegel participate in the labs.

According to Chertkov, however, such hassles are commonplace for disabled students and are often not resolved as fruitfully. "I don't know how many people slide through the cracks," she says. "There are a lot of people who never complain. A lot of people get screwed a lot."

CHERTKOV AND THE OTHER members of ABLE face an uphill battle in focusing student and official concern on the problems of the disabled. One obstacle is the difficulty of coordinating the concerns of the disabled, whose numbers include visually-and hearing-impaired students, students confined to wheelchairs, as well as students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Thus complaints about Harvard's accommodations often vary wildly.

ABLE itself, moreover, apparently consists of a paucity of members. Chertkov says only that a "handful" of members belong, out of the approximately 50 disabled students on campus.

"It's not enough of a unified organization," Chertkov says. "There's not enough of a commitment to broad-based goals."

Some students, moreover, see no need to join ABLE because they believe their needs are being met already. Peter H. Wilson '88, a visually-impaired student and member of the Glee Club says he has no qualms with Harvard's policy towards the disabled.

"I'm of the philosophy that if it's not a problem, don't fix it," Wilson explains. "If something does happen, I'll probably do something."

Wilson says he thinks Harvard students have been sensitive about his visual-impairment, calling the campus "the best environment I've been in so far." He adds, "Most people here are more intelligent, so they have no trouble seeing through that."

THOSE STUDENTS WHO DO COMPLAIN usually turn to Crooks, who for the last four years has been the Faculty's representative to disabled students. Crooks says there has existed a certain amount of tension between himself and ABLE.

"Sometimes they're quite aggressive and political," Crooks says. "Although it's painful for me at times, ABLE has been extremely useful and taught me a lot."

Like Chertkov, Crooks is also critical of the administration for not trying its best to accommodate disabled students, and he blames Harvard's extensive de-centralized bureaucracy for frustrating his actions. But he says he's learned a lot in the past few years.

"I used to be very leery of telling a professor to get his ass out of an inaccessible classroom. I'm not anymore," he says. "If I know about it, most of the time a problem can be solved."

Disabled students praise Crooks and feel confident that he is looking out for their interests. But they also say he is not being given a big enough role, that he is limited mostly to patching up problems instead of preventing them from appearing in the first place.

"He's just holding down the fort," Chertkov says.

And Thomas says it is symbolic that Crooks' office in University Hall is inaccessible to the very students he is trying to look out for.

"It's not all that heartening," he sighs.