When Valerie J. Piro ’14 was Currier HoCo chair, she couldn’t storm the freshman dorms on Housing Day like everyone else—she had to hand off the housing letters to a friend and watch as the rest of the group ran in. Dianna Hu ’15, a computer science concentrator, can’t use the back door of the Science Center—she has to enter through the front despite where she’s coming from, as there is no automatic button at the back for her to press. No matter how much she may want to, Chanel E. Washington ’15 can’t attend social events in certain houses; if the common rooms aren’t accessible, then she’s out of luck.
Physically disabled students at Harvard must overcome countless obstacles that would not occur to the average student. Class schedules must always be planned ahead to ensure that no classes are held in inaccessible locations. Roundabout routes must be taken to enter most buildings whose ramps aren’t located immediately beside the main entrance. Visits to friends in other Houses and dorms must often be forgone, as most cannot accommodate wheelchairs. Living comfortably becomes a daily challenge on top of the academic and extracurricular stresses every Harvard student must face.
NEW HOUSES, OLD PROBLEM
Since many of Harvard’s buildings have been standing for centuries, it can be difficult to increase accessibility while negotiating the restraints imposed by their historic protections. With their vertical entryways and varying architectural styles, the freshman dorms present a unique obstacle.
“While in theory it would be amazing if every freshman dorm could be accessible, it will never happen, just because they have those historical qualities behind them,” says Washington.
Few freshman dorms are fully accessible; currently, the same is true for Houses. A Crimson article from 2011 quoted administrators as noting that increased accessibility would be a major consideration in House renewals, as per the Americans with Disabilities Act. Old Quincy, now Stone Hall, was Harvard’s first test project with this kind of renovation.
Though Quincy was already one of the few fully accessible houses, only New Quincy could accommodate wheelchair-bound students; this posed an issue for disabled Quincy sophomores, who would be living in New Quincy while unable to visit the rest of their peers living in Old Quincy. This problem would be elimnated once Old Quincy was renovated and accessibility was improved.
However, for disabled students, Quincy House renewal fell short of its potential. Based on their descriptions, though there are two ramped doors that open automatically after swiping in, inside there is an additional door to the hallway that has no automatic button. The hallways are narrow, and even some rooms deemed fully accessible lack ample room for a wheelchair or scooter to turn properly.
“[Stone Hall] feels like an accessible space created by an able-bodied person,” Washington says.
Hu, a Quincy junior, feels the same way. To avoid running into this issue in the future, she suggests that administrators and architects undertaking future renewal projects invite a wheelchair-bound student to survey the space and determine whether the improvements make the House truly accessible.
“Having someone who is in a wheelchair providing feedback would be really helpful,” she says.
Though Hu, Washington, and Piro all agree that accessibility is more widespread in academic buildings than in the Houses, the academic buildings still leave much to be desired. Washington and Hu say that the buttons in the Sever Hall elevator are too high for them to reach. Hu recalls numerous instances in which she was forced to wait inside the elevator for someone else to come in and push the buttons for her. “You would think that people in wheelchairs should be able to use the elevators,” she says.
Piro has faced similar issues in academic buildings. As a history concentrator, she spends much of her time in Robinson Hall. Since the building has no elevator, she can’t access her professor’s office hours on the lower level. She also notes Lamont’s lack of accessible bathrooms. “They say that they [have them], but they don’t. My chair will not fit in there.”
Harvard does, however, make significant attempts to accommodate disabled students when it comes to academic scheduling. If a disabled student is interested in taking a class that is being held in a non-accessible location, a new classroom will be found. Along with the shuttles, which all have ramps, Harvard also runs a van service for disabled students living in the Quad who need to get to the Yard for classes. “They’ve been really accommodating,” says Piro. The Harvard Accessible Education Office was unavailable for comment on this story, but their website notes, “Harvard is committed to providing support services and accommodations to all students in all programs who need and have a legal entitlement to them.”
However, according to Washington, there is room for improvement. “There are some deeper issues of disability on campus that can be improved with some advocacy and some hard work,” Washington says.