Students in wheelchairs face access issues

Almost a decade after a compliance review by the Department of Justice led to a settlement under which the college was required to make campus more accessible, students who use wheelchairs continue to face barriers.

Wheelchair user Elliot Nguyen ’17, for example, takes courses in the Lang Music building, and can spend up to ten minutes taking a circuitous route through the Lang Performing Arts Center in order to get to his classes — a journey which would take him 30 seconds if he could go down the stairs on foot.

The music building is not the only one on campus that presents difficulties for Nguyen, though. Many “accessible entrance” markers on campus, Nguyen said, are incredibly confusing, and he must therefore circle each building simply to find a door he can use. He also cannot enter McCabe to work his ITS shift without help, as the accessibility button for the door is broken.

“It’s hard when the college says, ‘We’ll do everything to accommodate you,’ and they can’t even fix the button outside of the biggest library on campus,” Nguyen said.

In general, Nguyen feels the college has placed the burden upon wheelchair users to notify the school of accessibility issues.

“There’s a lot of responsibility on us to tell them what the issue is, when really they should just … do things that are going to make the buildings accessible to lots of people, rather than doing it case by case,” Nguyen said. “Case by case sounds nice and Swarthmore, but it really means they will do as few modifications as possible and not until we tell them.”

Jesus Hernandez ’19, another wheelchair user, has had a similar experience.

“I feel like I’ve been the one telling them, ‘This needs to be fixed, this isn’t what I expected, we need to change this and this and this,’” Hernandez said.

Overall, it seems to Nguyen as though the college has been reactive in terms of accessibility, rather than anticipating challenges and addressing them.

“You don’t want to go around auditing buildings, emailing the college about all of the doors you can’t open … at this small school, where we’ve been told we’ll be supported, they should be more proactive rather than waiting for us to complain,” Nguyen said. “My day shouldn’t be ruined before I have to go tell someone to fix something … I feel like the onus should not be on the wheelchair user on campus to struggle.”

Hernandez agreed.

“My expectations coming in were not that everything would be perfect, but that someone would be thinking along the lines of, ‘Oh, we might need to do this before he encounters this problem’,” he said.

Hernandez’ issues with campus accessibility have pertained mostly to extracurricular programming and student life. All of the clubs Hernandez would like to participate in are located in the Intercultural Center, which is not accessible. Hernandez said he would have liked to know that one of the college’s central locations for extracurriculars was inaccessible before he committed to attending Swarthmore.

“I would’ve liked transparency and recognition of the issues, not me having to point them out,” he said. “The IC … is supposed to be the most inclusive area, where everyone can get together, and the fact that it’s not accessible is kind of mind-blowing.”

Hernandez said he told the college about this problem and that they had scheduled a meeting in order to discuss solutions and his future options. This meeting, which included deans and other administrators involved with the IC and accessibility issues, was promising, Hernandez said. The college has plans, Hernandez added, for installing something similar to an escalator for wheelchairs. If all goes well, he recounts, the IC may be accessible by next semester.

Hernandez has also run into certain issues with shuttle transportation, which have made it difficult for him to take full advantage of the college’s services.

Hernandez said that he had spoken to Public Safety and that the college had told him they would provide an accessible shuttle to run alongside each regular shuttle as an option in case he wanted to leave campus. Most of the time, though, Hernandez said, he has had to wait between 20 and 30 minutes for the accessible shuttle to arrive.

“I think of the reverse — someone not in a wheelchair wouldn’t have to call and wait for 20 to 30 minutes, you’d just get on and go,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is unsure of how he will handle campus paths in his wheelchair during the winter. The college has told him, he said, that he will be able to call Public Safety if he cannot get to Sharples or to his classes due to ice on the paths, and that they could drive him.

“I wouldn’t want that to be my first choice,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know what you can do with ice…but it just seems like for me that calling Public Safety would be the last option. I would want to be able to move by myself.”

Nguyen feels that campus should be similarly accessible to students in wheelchairs as it is for able-bodied students.

“I shouldn’t have to go to all of this extra effort and take all of this extra time to get to class just because I’m in a wheelchair,” he said.

According to Susan Smythe, the Americans with Disabilities Act program coordinator at the college, there have only been two other students in wheelchairs at Swarthmore in recent memory. One was a Haverford student who used a motorized wheelchair, and the other was a quadriplegic student with a full-time assistant.

“This year is a testing ground for us, because we’re finding out if the things that we think work really do, and we have been finding some deficiencies in terms of trying to rectify those issues as soon as possible,” Smythe said.

The small size of the college, Smythe explained, presents unique challenges.

“One of the advantages is that we are small enough to be able to treat people with quite a bit of individual attention and spend some resources doing that,” Smythe said. “The disadvantage may be that we have a smaller population and at a larger school you would have a constant influx of people, constantly have users testing the system, and we really haven’t had that.”

In 2005, the Office of Civil Rights, the division of the Department of Justice which administers the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act, came to campus and began initial auditing. The OCR’s presence on campus was not complaint-based, Smythe said — its focus on Swarthmore was part of a wave of its attempt to highlight accessibility at colleges and universities across the country.

“I think, frankly, they chose schools that showed geographic representation and schools who they thought had the money to make the changes,” Smythe said. Along with Swarthmore, the OCR selected Mills College in Oakland, California as well as Colorado College and the University of Chicago as schools to audit. Swarthmore is thus frequently cited as an example in terms of best practices for compliance with the ADA, Smythe said, and she is contacted often by other schools looking for advice on these practices.

Under the 2007 Department of Justice settlement which followed the OCR’s audit, the college was given one year to assess its accessibility and then four years address any issues. Swarthmore hired Kessler McGuinness & Associates, a Boston-based firm that specializes in accessibility planning, to audit campus. The firm, which Smythe said received somewhere around $300,000 from the college, examined each building on campus and created detailed reports over the course of the year.

Smythe said that the college has had to prioritize in terms of addressing the issues which the firm identified.

“In trying to craft how we were going to do this, we made priorities across the campus — academic areas were the highest, then residence halls, then student life,” Smythe said.

Smythe said that the aim of the college’s changes to campus infrastructure was to make the program of the college as well as its physical spaces accessible to students. After the firm’s audit, the college underwent a number of changes, from major pathway reconstruction to building ramps to replacing doorknobs with lever handles.

“It’s fair to say we have touched every building on campus.” However, the college needed to balance its resources.

“We were trying to do the projects that we felt would benefit the most people or the biggest section of campus,” she explained.

Some buildings were changed less than others, Smythe said, due to strategic and master plans which have developed in the period since the OCR and firm audit. For instance, in spaces set to be demolished in the course of other building construction, such as Papazian, full compliance was not as much of a concern. Smythe said the college did ensure there were basic functions in buildings like these, such as an accessible entrance and a bathroom.

In newer spaces, however, such as the Science Center, Kohlberg Hall, and Trotter Hall, the college sought to immediately correct all issues. These buildings, Smythe noted, were constructed after the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and should thus have been compliant in the first place.

In total, Smythe said, the college spent somewhere around a “millions of dollars number” addressing the issues found by Kessler McGuinness.

Despite these massive changes in infrastructure, Nguyen believes there are challenges to understanding accessibility which the college cannot fully address.

“People who are trying to be helpful just don’t have that hands-on experience,” he said. “Dealing with the practicalities of accessibility is a lot harder unless you’ve spent a long time in a wheelchair. It’s not just about one ramp, it’s about making campus accessible in terms of being able to go to all of its places without a ridiculous amount of effort.”

Smythe said that the accessibility goal for the college is to enable students to operate as independently as possible. She also noted that the ADA program on campus addresses issues not limited to wheelchair use. Sight issues, for instance, present a different set of challenges, as do the learning or processing disabilities which most of the seventy students registered with Disability Services at the college have. These do not necessarily require physical adjustments, Smythe noted, but program adjustments, software purchases, and classroom setup are all directed towards this end.

Smythe’s role at the college has shifted from the nuts and bolts of addressing the OCR’s audit and changing campus in line with the firm’s recommendation to taking a big-picture look at campus accessibility, she said. New building projects in particular receive a great deal of her scrutiny — such as the Danawell connector, which Smythe considers an accessibility project — as well as renovation processes and an ongoing focus on where the OCR is taking the ADA and what the college should do in response.

“I look at how the college is doing in an overall capacity, and try to make the best use of the college’s obviously limited resources,” Smythe said.

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