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?