The Quest for a Fuller Existence

Benjamin M. Mattlin '84 vividly remembers a classroom scene from ninth grade, when he was new to the small, private Rudolf Steiner School in New York and "very self-conscious" of his wheelchair and quadriplegic condition. A boy with a hearing aid was visiting the school, which has an almost entirely ablebodied student population. Mattlin remembers. "I looked at him and thought. "He looks pitiful. It's just a minor disability, but he identifies as a handicapped person. You can't really relate to him as a whole human being because he seems so dominated by that disability.'" Mattlin recalls thinking at the time that "the thing is to be recognized as something else. You may be the kid in the wheelchair, but if you're telling jokes, you're the kid in the wheelchair with a sense of humor--you become a full character."

His commitment to living a full, normal life led Mattlin to select Mather as his housing choice this spring, despite the fact that the House is not equipped for the handicapped. Mattlin, who currently shares a double in Canaday Hall with a paid, full-time attendant, chose Mather primarily because it has only large suites, where he would have roommates--potential "buddies" who could relieve some of the "great strain" of living only with an attendant on whom he relies heavily.

But College officials last month requested that Mattlin select either Currier House or Quincy House because they have double rooms equipped for disabled students. The University--although it sympathizes with Mattlin's desire for a rooming situation that provides companionship and although it recognizes a need for more housing alternatives for disabled students--is not prepared to undertake the revamping of entrances and bathrooms at Mather necessary for Mattlin. Thomas E. Crooks '49, Faculty liaison to Harvard's Working Committee for the Handicapped, told Mattlin last month.

Instead of immediately renovating Mather, Crooks told Mattlin, the College would begin to survey all the River Houses to determine where the most feasible accomodations could be made and would begin work on proposed changes. Crooks asked Mattlin to select Currier or Quincy in the meantime and to live alone with his attendant again. And Mattlin--although he believes he legally does not have to accept what's available--recently consented to live in Quincy.

Although Mattlin will reluctantly take his belongings to a House with limited wheelchair accessibility and no suites for the disabled, he will undoubtedly arrive at Quincy in September with the same outgoing attitude and distinct sense of humor that helped him through high school and his freshman year at Harvard. "It'll be a really tight squeeze." Mattlin says of the wheelchair route to the Quincy House dining hall. "There's the smell of garbage, and you have to go through the kitchen," he adds, accurately but humorously.


While Mattlin does not know what he will do back home in New York between now and then--"I applied for a few jobs, but I hope I don't get them, so I can relax"--officials here will work this summer on the promised survey and development of a work schedule for accomodating more Houses for the handicapped under the direction of Brenda Szabo, planning officer. Although no changes are likely to have been instituted by fall. "I think we'll certainly have something planned by then," Crooks anticipates.

Those changes--set in motion by Mattlin's request--mark a new stage in renovations for the handicapped, initiated in 1977 following the signing of the federal Rehabilitation Act. The act required that any institution receiving federal funds make its programs and activities accessible to the handicapped by June, 1980.

In response to the act, Harvard has either completed or drafted plans for all the required renovations of buildings and facilities, which have included the installation of ramps, elevators and wider doors. Dorothy Moser, consultant to Harvard's Program for the Handicapped, says. The establishment of the disabled student shuttle service and the soon-to-be-completed Lamont Library handicapped resource room represent Harvard's efforts to go beyond federal standards to accomodate the 43 self-identified disabled students here and to help many others, Moser adds. The required renovations--all part of an approximately $1-million project dubbed "the transition plan"--will be finished within a few months, Moser says.

But Mattlin's request goes beyond these efforts. While Moser says Harvard has made programs and activities accessible, she adds that attempting to fulfill Mattlin's wish for roommates marks a new effort to provide disabled students "access to the same lifestyle as others." Harvard had planned to focus attention on changes that would provide the disabled with even greater access after completing its transition plan. But, according to Crooks, Mattlin has prompted an acceleration of the time table.

Mattlin's quest for a fulfilling college experience began when he was a high school junior during a visit to Harvard. "I knew they were encouraging me to apply. Other places were indifferent and discouraging." Mattlin recalls. He selected Harvard after becoming the third person from his high school in 35 years to be accepted to the University. He cites "the bigness and tension of the urban environment." Harvard's diversity, accessible facilities, and the University's previous experience with disabled students as the school's primary attractions.

Mattlin visited Harvard twice last summer to discuss his desire to experience a regular freshman year. Specifically, Mattlin expressed his wish for roommates--an idea vetoed by Henry C. Moses, dean of freshman, despite support from Crooks and other administrators in the Freshman Dean's Office. "Mr. Crooks wanted me in Weld North--that would have meant like six roommates. But the argument went that Hank Moses didn't like that because he didn't want to put any burden on other freshmen, whether it was explicit or implicit." Mattlin says. Moses refuses comment.

Mattlin accepted his current double on the ground floor of a Canaday entry instead of the Weld suite. "They really wanted me here. I could have fought, but it seemed nice being on the ground floor in terms of socializing." Workers widened Mattlin's bedroom and bathroom doors, constructed a small, wooden ramp at the door to his double, and poured fresh asphalt at the entryway door at a cost of about $2500. Robert Mortimer, superintendent of the Yard, says.

But, after a year of living in his Canaday room, Mattlin says that he still feels somewhat left out socially and finds that Canaday is really not an accessible dorm because only four rooms in the 70-plus-room building are accessible without ascending steps. Mattlin says that, as a result, his life is primarily "self-contained" and that he is somewhat envious of the two six-man suites on the fourth floor of his entry. "I'm not saying I want to have 10,000 people in my room, but it's not the same living only with an attendant--it's not quite normalized."

To compensate for the lack of accessibility to some forms of socializing, Mattlin has "put forth an effort to be social--I always have. Because I care about that, I'm willing to get to know people. And the only way to do that is to go out there and get to know them." Sometimes his efforts at friendliness are misinterpreted, Mattlin says. He often asks friends to come over sometime or give him a call; but occasionally his suggestions make women feel uncomfortable, Mattlin admits, saying, "I mean well."

The limitations of his rooming situation and his disability have caused problems for which his extroverted character and sense of humor have been unable to compensate. For example, Mattlin is currently employing his third fulltime attendant for this year. The problem that caused Mattlin to relieve the first two attendants--one in December and the other in March--relates directly to his desire to have friends living with him. When Mattlin sought his first two attendants, he looked for companionship qualities--he wanted a full-time friend as well as a full-time attendant. But he found that that arrangement does not work out. "At home, my attendant would come in, leave me alone at school and go home at night. But now he's not only here all the time, but also he's supposed to serve as a roommate and an attendant--it's a relationship which is difficult to define."