Barriers to Equal Access

Discrimination Against Disabled Harvard Students

Q: What minority group is often excluded from classes, dormitories and other essential elements of the social and academic life of Harvard because they belong to that minority?

A: This year there are (depending on how you count) about 30 students with disabilities in Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges. Many more are enrolled in the graduate schools and the extension school. This population covers a range of disabilities--mobility disabilities, deafness and hearing loss, visual disabilities and others. Most of these students share the experience of finding many of the University's doors closed to them, despite a commitment on the part of some administrators to increasing Harvard's accessibility.

How students with disabilities react to this situation depends largely on their past experiences and expectations. Many feel uncomfortable about pressing for access because they fear that identifying that they have a disability will threaten future opportunities. They also do not want the stigma often associated with disability. But the last year and a half have brought increasing attacks on programs and legislation protecting the interests of people with disabilities and Harvard has not been immune to this trend. As a result, many people with disabilities have decided that they can no longer afford to remain silent. Disabled students have emerged as a vocal element of the Harvard community.

A popular misconception about disability is that the disabled community comprises a very small part of the general population and that the numbers are decreasing. In fact, there are over 36 million people with disabilities in the U.S. comprising 12 to 15 percent of the population. The number is increasing and some estimates predict that 20 percent of the population will have disabilities by the year 2000. This makes sense when you look at the increased life span and the numbers of people who survive serious accidents or live longer with debilitating diseases.

Despite the large and growing number of people with disabilities, it was not until the last 10 years that even minimal civil rights have been protected by law. Most disabled children were barred from public schools until 1975, when P. L. 766, the Education for All Children Act, was passed. In 1978, the regulations for Title V took the first steps towards outlawing discrimination. But the experience of a person with a disability is still very different from that of an able-bodied person. Few cities have public transportation that people with mobility disadvantages can use, and most public buildings are inaccessible. Even in situations in which equal access is protected by law, the reality can be very different. A person with a disability is still seen as a bad risk by insurance companies and some employers.


The legislation which most radically affected the experience of people with disabilities--including those at Harvard-- was the 1977 set of amendments to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act itself states "no otherwise qualified handicapped individual... shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." The regulations give this statement concrete meaning in establishing standards for access and for eliminating discrimination in general. One section specifically addresses post secondary education.

Sec. 504 clearly states that admission to a class cannot be denied because of access. That does not mean that all buildings must be accessible (although new buildings and extensive interior renovations must include full access) or even that all sections of a class must be accessible. But a student must be able to take any class (s)he wishes in an accessible location. The law states, "A university may not exclude a handicapped student from a specifically requested course offering because it is not offered in an accessible location." In several other clauses, this is extended to other aspects of the University, such as counseling, financial aid, athletics, recreation and transportation.

About housing, a particularly touchy subject at Harvard, 504 says, "A recipient that provides housing to its nonhandicapped students shall provide comparable, convenient, and accessible housing to handicapped students at the same cost as to others. At the end of the transition period, such housing shall be available in sufficient quantity and variety so that the scope of handicapped students' choice of living accommodations is comparable to that of nonhandicapped students."

In cases in which it is impossible to meet the requirements within 60 days, as was the case for Harvard, 504 directs institutions to draw up a transition plan outlining how they will comply with 504 within a 3-year deadline.

In response to the 504 regulations, Harvard made a commitment to increasing its access. However, a student with a disability still confronts significant barriers, some of which are built into the institutional structure, and many of which could easily be eradicated. These barriers can be divided into two categories structural and attitudinal.

Structural barriers, as the name implies, are those which can be removed by a structural change, such as adding a ramp or an elevator to a building or interpreting a class in American Sign Language. The two areas in which structural areas have been a particular problem for Harvard are classes and the houses. A few of Harvard's classroom buildings (the Science Center, for instance) are accessible to wheelchairs, and others have accessible first floors. Students can request the Registrar's Office to move an inaccessible class to one of these areas. Also, we submit a tentative course plan to the Registrar's Office several months before the semester starts.

However, there is a long history of problems in actually getting the class moved. Often students are told that there is no free classroom on the first floor. There are professors who have gone on record saying that they would never allow their class to be moved. One student last year finally told the Registrar that if they would not move a class she was going to file a complaint with Health and Human Services. She received the answer that if she did, they would be legally forced to move the class but that the professor would be aware of her identity and her action would affect her relationship with him and the grade she would get in the course.

Getting to classes can present another barrier. Since the shuttle buses are not accessible, the transition plan dictated the implementation of an accessible van to transport students to locations on campus. The van is operating, and last year severe overcrowding problems were alleviated by adding a second van. However, because of the way it's managed, the van only performs a minimal service. One third of the time the van either does not show up at all or arrives so late that the appointment or class has been missed. This can happen when clerks make the reservations incorrectly or schedule two sequential pick-ups at opposite ends of the campus in rush hour, leaving only fifteen minutes to transport both students to where they are going and also to negotiate Harvard Square traffic.

When students make sudden cancellations or reservations, the clerk often cannot contact the driver. This major problem stems from the communication system between the clerk, who receives students' calls, and the driver. Rather than communicating directly, the clerk can contact the central dispatcher who gives the driver a message to telephone the clerk. The driver must then wait until (s)he has time between runs to find a phone, by which time the reservation may have been long passed. This also compounds the problem of garbled information. The result of these "bugs in the system" is that students with disabilities miss significant amounts of class.

For students with other disabilities, access is handled on an ad hoc basis. Problems are resolved in a manner tailored to the individual's needs and the particular resources of the University. Often this means that obtaining access depends on the University's experience with that disability or the student's aggressiveness. Volunteer readers for students with visual disabilities are provided by the University, but students with hearing losses have long complained about being unable to get interpreters for classes. In general, it can be extremely difficult to obtain accommodations if they entail spending money.