Meeting the Needs of Disabled Students

Equal Access at Harvard

Before each concert last semester, members of the Harvard Glee Club carried Guy Wallace '88, one of its members, onto the stage at Paine Hall. The routine was not unlike the antics of some of the a capella groups on campus which devise bizarre ways of opening their performances.

But Wallace made his unusual entrance because he had no other way of getting on stage. A rugby accident in high school left him paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on a wheelchair to get around. Without a special elevator, Wallace needed his friends to hoist him onto the stage. At his request, the University began plans to install a lift, but Wallace was "fed up" waiting for it and quit the group before it was built.

"I got a little tired of being carried on and off stage every time we sang," says Wallace, who has since founded Advocacy for a Better Learning Environment (ABLE). The group of 30 Harvard students, half of whom are handicapped, examines special social and academic problems facing disabled students at Harvard.

Members of ABLE say that, while the University has made some accommodations, it has been slow to offer equal access to disabled students. According to an ABLE report, Harvard has not even followed through with its own plans to make all buildings handicapped-accessible by 1983.

But Harvard officials, as well as some handicapped students, do not agree. University officials argue that creating easy access to every building is impossible because of the prohibitive cost and feasibility of such projects. Some disabled students believe that Harvard has already done a great deal by rearranging class schedules, adding ramps and offering free laundry service.


Access to Harvard

A 16-page report released last week prepared by ABLE and endorsed by the Undergraduate Council criticizes the University for not offering greater assistance to the 50 mobility-impaired Harvard students, including three confined to wheelchairs. The report says that among the problems the University should address dealing with the disabled is the accessibility of buildings and the availability of reserve reading to the visually-impaired in usable form.

Joel Downer '89, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair, has had difficulty just being a philosophy concentrator. The department's offices and library are located on the upper floors of Emerson, which does not have an elevator or special lift.

"It has been a big hassle not being able to get up there," Downer says.

Advocates believe that Downer is merely a victim of Harvard's insensitivity to the problems of the disabled. A large empty shaft exists in Emerson, remnants of renovations from approximately 25 years ago. R. Thomas Quinn, assistant dean of the College for facilities, says that the University ran out of money and could not finish the project. He added that he did not realize that a handicapped student needed access to the upper floors of the building.

According to the council's report, the college wrote a transition plan in 1978 that aimed to make all "essential" College buildings accessible in five years. However, the college has failed to follow through with the plan. "The transition plan is a dead letter," the report says.

Wallace feels that poor access restricts disabled students from using shopping period effectively. In order to attend courses in those 10 days, disabled must notify the University ahead of time in order to have those classes moved to accessible buildings. In addition, non-handicapped bathrooms in many buildings further restrict the movement of disabled students.

Help for Disabled

Although some buildings may exclude the handicapped from entering, some disabled students applaud the University's accommodation of the handicapped. Classes are often moved to structures with ramps and elevators, and special transportation is provided between classes.

"We get a lot of cooperation from the faculty when it comes to moving classes. We always find a way to let the student take what he wants," says Thomas E. Crooks, special assistant to the dean of the College.