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I Won’t Get In a Public Elevator

By Haley M. Stark, Contributing Opinion Writer

The elevator in Sever Hall seduces me. When its door vanishes into the wall, the open enclosure casts a beguiling light before the entrance. The 2,000 lbs weight-limit poster flirts, “I can carry you and all of your books to the third floor, no problem!” Yet, despite my inability to feel and move my right foot or hand, I choose to remain faithful and ascend four flights of the grand staircase. In this ongoing age of the Covid-19 pandemic, the elevator is not for me. And no, it’s not for you, either.

I had a spinal cord stroke in 2014 and nerve damage disabled most of my right side. I have accommodation housing and I use railings in the shower, but outside of my residence hall, I do whatever I can to avoid using elevators and accessible spaces. Why put in all this (sometimes physically dreadful) effort?

The average elevator is about seven feet wide and six feet deep. To achieve six-foot social distancing, you may have to back someone into a corner. In the elevators on campus that are smaller than average, you can maybe, at a minimum, achieve a slightly more intimate three or four-foot distance. Regardless of the size of the elevator, you can now choose to enter an elevator without a mask on — a new right of yours as a vaccinated student at Harvard College.

How do the choices you make about your elevator usage translate to the riders who may have been among the 15.15 percent of student voters who expressed that the current Covid-19 policies are “too relaxed” on the UC referendum distributed at the end of March?

I can’t speak on behalf of the other 598 students who voted this way, but to me, your elevator etiquette demonstrates an awareness — or lack thereof — of the ongoing safety concerns that accompany a disabled person’s day-to-day life.

People who have disabilities that require them to use elevators are often the same people who are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19. Those who have no alternative to using elevators should not be endangered by able-bodied people who are potential carriers of infectious diseases.

I would like to assume that Harvard students and faculty are respectful enough to notice someone with a disability in an elevator and choose to wait until the next vacant trip.

But I have come to realize that the apathy towards the disabled community on campus is far-reaching. Before Housing Day, while applying for accessible housing close to the Yard, I received an email confirming that I would be guaranteed a dorm with an elevator. In spite of my six-pronged list of housing accommodation needs, however, the message concluded with the statement that “distance and proximity considerations may not be considered sole criteria for eligibility, as accessible transportation services are available to all Cambridge/Allston Harvard facilities.” As grateful as I am for access to Harvard’s shuttles, I cannot help but wonder why I, a student who cannot move my extremities, had to convince the Accessibility Education Office that I might want to be housed a little closer to my classes… if possible, please.

Elevator usage, unlike my housing, is something that involves all members of the Harvard community who use our accessible facilities. Unfortunately, I cannot send a polite email to all elevator riders requesting them to limit their use. The choice to not use an elevator is one that able-bodied students can make to help maintain the safety of my disabled community at Harvard, especially if those students are also exercising their right to remove masks indoors. Alternatively, people can try to use the elevator with as few other riders as possible.

As we transition to pre-pandemic rituals, I implore you to consider the parts of your daily life that might involve someone at a particular risk for contracting Covid-19.

In actively considering my own elevator usage, I will decide to pant and sweat, like an exasperated mouse after hundreds of rotations of an exercise wheel, for the first 10 minutes of all of my classes on third or fourth-story levels in their respective lecture halls. And when I see someone getting into the elevator with my disabled peers, I will not assume their able-bodiedness or ponder whether they are up-to-date on their testing cadences. I will simply hope they have no other choice but to ride the elevator.

Haley M. Stark ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.

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