Disabled Students at Harvard

To most of those in Humanities 9b, "Oral and Popular Literature," it made little difference when the class moved from Burr Hall to larger quarters in Sanders Theatre. For one student in the class, owever, the relocation created a serious problem. Stephanie Thomas '80 could maneuver her wheelchair into Burr, but not into Memorial Hall.

The predicament was short-lived, as the Department of Buildings and Grounds installed a temporary ramp onto Memorial Hall. Yet the situation typifies those problems which physically disabled Harvard students face. Many academic, housing, recreational and athletic facilities are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs; blind students have trouble obtaining reading material for courses; and deaf students must use interpreters at lectures. Marc Fiedler '78 was disabled after an accident in his sophomore year. Referring to the difficulties facing the disabled, he says most Harvard students "just don't think about it. I never did when I was here before."

Improvements in medical care, facilities such as motorized wheechairs for quadriplegics (people at least partially paralyzed in all four limbs) enabled the handicapped to attend college only within the past decade. For this reason, colleges have just started to face problems of making their environments accessible. Fewer changes were needed for the veterans who increased the numbers of paraplegic college students after World War II; although paraplegics rely on wheelchairs, they can deal much more easily with barriers such as heavy doors and steep inclines than quadriplegics.

Harvard's older buildings present the greatest obstacles to the mobility-impaired. Almost all of Harvard's buildings pre-date the time when the needs of the physically disabled became an architectural consideration. The addition of ramps provides students in wheelchairs with an entrance to buildings, but only partially remedies the problem. Once inside, students may find themselves confined to certain floors or rooms. The lack of access to the basement of the Fogg Art Museum, for example, discouraged Fiedler from taking a Fine Arts course.

Fortunately for Fiedler and Charles Drafts '77, both psychology concentrators, William James Hall numbers among Harvard's newer, more accessible buildings "as long as somebody opens the doors." Drafts, a deaf quadriplegic who transferred from a community college, says he applied to Harvard because friends pressured him to do so. "I never for a minute thought I'd come here because it was inaccessible...The thing that made me change my mind was when I saw how easy it was to get into William James, because I already knew I'd be a psychology major."


None of the three students in wheelchairs at Harvard concentrate in the natural sciences; even if they wanted to, they could not use the laboratories. The director of the handicapped student center at the University of Massachusetts at Boston suggests an additional explanation for this trend away from the sciences, which she notices even on that totally accessible campus. Most of the role models for these students have been social workers and rehabilitation counselors. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, however, the coordinator for handicapped student affairs says there is no such trend among the students his office serves.

Because many of its houses possess that same unwelcome characteristic of its classroom buildings--old age--Harvard limits disabled students in their housing choices. Drafts, who lives in a dormitory at the Middlesex County Hospital in Waltham, had no choice at all. The chairman of transfer students' admissions rejected his request for an on-campus room because Harvard did not have adequate facilities and because he lived nearby anyway. Drafts feels the decision was probably best for him but adds, "I have a sneaky feeling, though, not living here makes me miss a lot." He proposes that Harvard either establish a house for the disabled similar to the dormitory he lives in, or convert part of the Stillman Infirmary into disabled students' quarters, where the students would pay regular room and board charges and share attendants and facilities. (Because Drafts has not yet found the on-campus attendant he needs, he relies on friends to lift him from his wheelchair.)

Fiedler describes his House, Quincy, as "a pretty livable place," especially his suite which the University renovated before he returned to school this fall. Still, he cannot use the House library and part of the Junior Common Room. He must follow an outdoor route to the grille and take the freight elevator to the dining hall. He feels students like himself, less severely disabled than Drafts, should live in regular student housing. With some renovation, Mather and Leverett could more easily accomodate the disabled than other Houses. Currier is a fourth potentially accessible House but none of the shuttle buses have wheelchair lifts.

Her range of housing choices is narrower than that of other freshmen but this doesn't bother Stephanie Thomas, presently a Weld Hall resident. "It just seems to me that where you live is where you live. Anyway, four is better than one." Her attitude towards the problem of accessibility on campus is similarly positive. "There are buildings I can't get into but my life just goes around them."

Traveling to most buildings in Harvard Yard is less difficult than gaining access to them.

Ed Bordley '79, who is blind, says "That's one thing I like about Harvard. There aren't too many obstacles...The area is kind of weird as far as streets and sidewalks go, but for classrooms it's okay." Fiedler, however, points out the difficulty for students in wheelchairs to reach distant spots like the Divinity School and Hilles Library. Often Fiedler cannot leave Quincy in snowstorms because he finds snow piled on the curb cutouts. The students have no special problems making classes on time. "I might have trouble getting from class to class, but not because of my wheelchair. It's because I'm so disorganized," laughs Thomas.

Blind students unfamiliar with Harvard Square encounter mobility problems when they first arrive. Bordley explains, "Of course when you come to an area you should know a little something about it. But there should be maps--I know MIT has find yourself really inhibited needing to have a sighted person to go somewhere. It can be a bore for roommates; it can be a real burden on them and it's bad for relationships."

Bordley's main problem is the lack of adequate course materials. Since all of Harvard's braille books are in Japanese, he relies on tape recordings. If a tape is unavailable, Bordley has someone read to him but he prefers the tapes: "You can skim a tape somewhat, but it's hard to tell a reader to skim." He feels Harvard has inadequate facilities for blind students. "It's an area they should work on. I came here with the idea that Harvard being what it is, they'd have access to tremendous facilities." He complains of the dearth of readers in Spanish, his field of concentration.

Bordley and other visually-impaired students find their readers through the Bureau of Study Counsel's "Readers for the Blind" program. Margaret Drickamer '77, who has the "semi-paying position" of running the program, says another problem is not knowing how well the volunteers can read.

Last fall, about 12 students, both disabled and non-disabled, formed a group, "Advocating a Better Learning Environment" (ABLE), to improve conditions for the disabled and suggest changes to the administration. The group wants a coordinator of services for the disabled with University-wide powers. The coordinator would provide information for applicants and students, orient newly-arrived students, and make certain that plans and programs in the University are accessible to the disabled on a basis equal to that of their non-disabled peers. Drickamer points out that such an office would not be very expensive to establish and maintain and would be easty to contact by students and administrators. Presently, "There's no way for us to know who to call," Fiedler says.