Harvard Houses Grapple with Accessibility

Hillary W. Berkowitz

Dunster

When Matthew P. Cavedon ’11 wanted to attend a scholarship dinner in the Eliot dining hall, he had to plan ahead. Cavedon, who uses a motorized wheelchair, needed a special ramp installed for the ceremony. For one day that year, the Eliot dining hall was accessible to people with disabilities.

Students with physical disabilities face the daily challenge of navigating Harvard’s Houses, most of which were built long before federal and state governments passed laws requiring buildings to be accessible.

According to Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesman Jeff Neal, 9 out of Harvard’s 12 Houses are not accessible enough for wheelchair-bound students to live in them.

But as Harvard embarks on its long-planned House renewal project, beginning with the renovation of Old Quincy in 2012, administrators say that improving accessibility is a priority in the construction plans.

The College’s 2009 report outlining its vision for House renewal mentions in a footnote the legal requirements that the renovated Houses must meet—five percent of the suites in each House must be accessible—and also addresses the more elusive concept of “visit-ability.” While stating that the College will aim to make every student room accessible enough that a student in a wheelchair could visit it, if not live there, the report acknowledges that this will likely be impossible due to the historical nature of the structures.

To avoid making some difficult renovations, the report states that the College will need to seek exemptions from state laws.

Between the lofty goal of vastly increased visit-ability and the practical concerns which renovating neo-Georgian buildings entail, it is not yet clear exactly what changes will be made to the existing House infrastructure in order to improve the undergraduate experience for students with mobility impairments.

LIFE IN THE YARD

For students with physical disabilities, the housing process begins from the moment they open Harvard’s acceptance letter.

“When you have a disability, you learn to get the ball rolling fairly early on,” Cavedon says.

Students with physical disabilities say that arranging freshman year housing is often the first and most important step in their transition to college. According to Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, about 20 students per class request accommodations for housing, with a half dozen needing arrangements for some sort of mobility impairment. Students who are blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled account for the rest of the accommodations.

These students typically talk to the FAS Accessible Education Office and work directly with Harvard Yard Operations in the summer before they arrive on campus.

Weld and Thayer are the only two fully accessible freshman dorms, according to Neal, and Greenough, Matthews, and Canaday are partially accessible.

Lauren E. Faraino ’13 lived in a room on the second floor of Thayer last year with a connecting room for her live-in aide. Faraino, who uses a wheelchair and writes with her feet, requires a specialized desk for taking notes in class and completing exams, in addition to an accessible shower and restroom in her suite.

Cavedon, who spent his freshman year in a single on the first floor of Weld, says that the College was willing to make personalized changes to the already-accessible room, including changing the toilet and sink heights, installing an automatic door, and ordering a custom desk that his raised wheelchair could fit under.

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