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Barriers to Equal Access

Discrimination Against Disabled Harvard Students

By Rani Kronick

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.

The other area in which access has been an issue is the Houses. For students who use wheelchairs, there are currently a few accessible rooms in Quincy House; Currier House could easily be made accessible, yet the transition plan provided for five accessible houses by 1981. At the moment, there is a shortage of rooms for these students because all the Quincy House rooms are full and none of them allow a student who lives with an attendant to have roommates, an essential part of student life here.

The administration's response to this problem is that making additional space available in the River Houses would be too expensive for the University and that the problem should be resolved by accommodating Currier. We feel that this solution has several problems. First of all, it concentrates all students in wheelchairs in two Houses which would have negative social effects as well as violating 504's provision for equal choice in housing. Second, because the Quad is separated from most of the other Houses and is off the beaten track, making Currier the accessible House would exacerbate problems of isolation--already an issue for students with disabilities living in a largely inaccessible world.

We feel that the solution to the obvious problem of the housing shortage should be one which contributes to solving problems for students with disabilities on campus, not simply the cheapest or easiest answer. Students with other disabilities generally rely on their own resources to make their living space accessible, such as installing high-powered lamps or an amplified phone.

The other category of barriers concern attitudes. Attitudes which contribute to excluding students from the community cover a wide range, and vary according to the individual and his or her disability. A common one is the conception of students with disabilities as being "afflicted." People often view anyone with a visible disability--such as cerebral palsy or a mobility disability--as a pitiful and diminutive Tiny Tim figure. These are the people who bless you on the street, who ask your friends questions directed at you ("And what would she like to order?") or have praise for your "wonderful courage and achievements."

All that attitudes such as these accomplish is to group people with disabilities together in a composite image called "the disabled," assigning them a secondary role outside society. Behind their praise for "courage" and "achievements" is the message that when we do break into mainstream society we are only there because of some superior personal qualities, not because that is our rightful place as human beings. Attitudinal barriers often stem from discomfort and fear, and create a barrier for which there is no ready solution. Underneath them is a wish to avoid contact with people with disabilities, perhaps out of fear of confronting one's own mortality, as some people posit, of "there but for fortune go I." Attitudinal barriers can only be eliminated by years of education, part of which ideally should happen at Harvard.

While Harvard's environment does prevent severe obstacles for students with disabilities towards integrating into and participating in the community, it is better than many schools whose attitude is that students with disabilities should go somewhere else.

But it is important to remember that most of the gains made at Harvard are the direct result of the 504 regulations. For the past year, the Reagan Administration, through the Office of Management and Budget, has been "reinterpreting" the regulations, weakening them to the point at which they have almost no use. (This is part of a process which will include reinterpreting Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972). If the new regulations are adopted, almost all of the progress made in the past few years will be lost. The 504 regulations constitute the only assurance for people with disabilities that their civil rights will be protected by law. It is urgent that you write President Reagan, your senator, and representative, and register your opposition.

Rani Kronick '84 is the president of Advocating a Better Learning Environment, an organization for disabled students.

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