Swat Fails to Meet ADA Standards

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The college just completed an out-of-court settlement with the Justice Department after a random check of Swarthmore facilities this summer showed that the campus was not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards that have been in place since 1992, including too-narrow doors, inaccessible round door knobs, too-steep ramps, a lack of visual fire alarms, inaccessible dorm rooms, and inaccessible performing arts spaces.

Swarthmore has been working to become compliant since 1992, but “it’s an old campus with old buildings on a hill,” as Director of Facilities Stu Hain put it, and so work has been slow going. “There’s an obligation to remove barriers from all of the college’s facilities when readily achievable… we’ve averaged half a million dollars working on that every year since 1992,” with renovations in Parrish, Kohlberg, and Trotter among others. All buildings built since 1992 are also compliant.

Why did the Justice Department come now? “They started looking at colleges in 2000,” explained Hain, “after a big settlement with Duke.”

The University of Colorado and the University of Chicago also recently completed out-of-court settlements. The Department of Justice cannot report whether there was a complaint or whether the check was purely random.

What the settlement means, says Hain, is that “they want us to go faster than we’ve been going… from now we have about six years to finish doing our work, and it’s faster than we would have done it otherwise. It just means we’ll have to spend money more quickly.” Money is already set aside for the renovations in the capital fund.

First in the process, the College has to survey the entire campus “and self-report what the problems are and what your plans to fix them are … we have to have that survey by late next fall,” specifically December 1, 2008. The College is also required to identify accessible routes through the campus, accessible parking areas, accessible entrances to buildings, and accessible spaces within buildings on its website by September 1, 2008.

Once the survey is in, Facilities will know the full extent of the work to be done, all of which must be completed by October 1, 2013.

Projects already planned for this summer are accessible entrances to Bond Hall and Lodges 5 and 6, which “will allow us to do further path work in that courtyard.” Facilities will also be re-routing the path from Willets to Sharples because it’s currently too steep for wheelchairs.

Facilities also has to ensure that there is assisted listening in all classrooms with over 50 seats, and dauntingly, make 3 percent of dorm beds accessible in a representative sample of housing. This means that Alice Paul and David Kemp alone won’t cut it.

“We’ll focus on Willets and on Dana-Well and on Parrish… we already have elevators, but bathrooms will have to be upgraded, and there are certain requirements for how much room you need.”

Hain emphasized that working with the Justice Department has “been as nice as it could possibly be… it’s been a really cooperative thing. We know that this is consistent with our mission, it’s just always about trade-offs.”

A copy of the full settlement can be found here.

Photograph by Miles Skorpen


  1. I hope for selfish reasons that the stairs from the tunnel past sharples up towards the path that goes past Tarble is one of the areas to be addressed. It would be Awesome if it were possible to bicycle without going around on the road, through the grass, or on the stairs.

  2. “…it’s faster than we would have done it otherwise. It just means we’ll have to spend money more quickly.” Money is already set aside for the renovations in the capital fund.”

    So the College recognized the barriers to access? And has the money to remove the barriers? But was planning to go slow anyway? Because welcoming prospectives, students, alumni, staff, and visitors with mobility challenges hasn’t been important enough for speed?

    Stu Hain surely has a better explanation than that, and I surely would be glad if he’d offer it.

  3. Even before Mr. Hain himself responds, I think a common sense explanation is appropriate.

    As infrastructure is replaced anyway, it’s very cheap to make new things accessible, but when capital is in place, and (otherwise) fully functional, it is very expensive to go replacing it. Further, the college budget works on a set percentage of the endowment each year, and it’s a zero sum game. So each item comes at the cost of another. The fiscal policy of the college is not to spend deeply one year and make it up in the following years, so given the existing budget it is not feasible to do everything at once.
    The School thinks very very hard about how each chunk of cash is spent, and though it is very wealthy, the endowment is not an unlimited checking account.
    Laudably, the school has the same attitude to sustainability, where though old buildings are sometimes using more than their share of energy, new buildings are relatively “green.” As things are replaced, they’re replaced in responsible ways, but the budget doesn’t allow for a complete physical overhaul at once.
    I’m sure Mr. Hain has more specific details on accessibility, but I don’t think that either nor the Gazette failed to explain critical details in this article.

  4. I don’t think the day-to-day operation of the school would be very practical if there were a complete physical overhaul at once, either–fixing every path at once would mean there were none left to take!

    Also, why are round doorknobs inaccessible?

  5. Round doorknobs are inaccessible for people who can’t grasp and turn them–the ADA requires levers (like on most Parrish office doors) because they’re accessible for people with hand mobility issues.

  6. A couple of things the article doesn’t mention. The ADA was passed in 1990 and was built on the foundation laid by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In 1973 Section 504 said that anybody who accepts more than $2,500 needs to have accessible facilities and it’s only a guess but in some form or another I bet Swathmore has been receiving Federal funds since before 1973. There is almost 20 years between the ADA and the Rehab Act that Swathmore could/should/was slowly working on its accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

    Additionally, under the ADA businesses (colleges and Universities included) were to have surveyed their facilities and come up with a plan to achieve accessibility – the plan should have been in place in the 1990s. Doing it now is doing it a decade too late. I think “slowly” is an understatement!

  7. I just want to point out that Swarthmore failing the ADA test is like your parents getting grounded. Hey now, Swarthmore! Don’t you wish the ADA had some grade inflation?

  8. Do you need us to send John Street out there to replace Stu? It would seem to be an upgrade! Go “spend you money faster”, Stu! That is the kind of expert advice we’re paying for!

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