As the number of students with disabilities grows, the college’s Student Disability Service is continuing its efforts to reduce the barriers students with disabilities face, such as inaccessible buildings and unaccommodating academic standards. For students with disabilities, these barriers continue to make it difficult to fully participate in life at Swarthmore. The administration has been somewhat responsive to the needs of the changing student body, but its efforts to make the campus fully accessible are limited by factors like old buildings and laws which stipulate that students with disabilities must self-identify.
In 2007, the college was audited by the Justice Department to examine its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the time, the Justice Department was investigating a number of colleges’ compliance with the law. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act Program Coordinator and Director of the Lang Performing Arts Center Susan Smythe, the audit was somewhat cursory, but served as a major wake-up call for the college. The audit revealed that, among other problems, a significant number buildings were inaccessible to students who used wheelchairs.
The audit led the college to hire an outside consulting firm to conduct a more comprehensive, year-long audit of its own, from which the college developed more extensive and detailed plans to increase the accessibility of buildings. However, the 2008 global financia crisis forced the college to put these plans on hold, as the college significantly reduced overall capital spending that year. During the years following the financial crisis, a Campus Master plan was developed which called for the construction of many new buildings. The plan further delayed efforts because the college decided it would not be worth it to make accessible soon to be destroyed buildings. According to Smythe, significant progress has been made in recent years, including the fact that now all academic buildings are accessible to students who use wheelchairs. The accessibility plans are continuously changing as the college continues to plan more building construction.
Additionally, the number of students with mobility impairments has increased significantly in the last few years. The college went nearly a decade without a student who used a wheelchair, and now it has three. These new students informed Smythe of a number of problems with the buildings at the college, including that many doors thought to be accessible were actually not accessible and needed modifications. While the college made some of these relatively quick and inexpensive modifications, several buildings on campus, like Wharton and the Intercultural Center, remain inaccessible because of their age and design. The Americans with Disabilities Act only requires three percent of beds to be fully accessible to students with mobility disabilities. Though a far higher percentage of beds at the college are accessible, there are some dorms the administration does not currently intend to make accessible.
“Wharton is not accessible and we’re never going make it accessible. It’s too old and the design of the building would make it extremely difficult,” said Smythe.
According to Smythe, when she examines accessibility at the college, she prioritizes making programs unique to certain buildings available to students over totally removing all barriers to accessibility.
“If you had some aspect of the psychology program in a building like Papazian in an inaccessible space, you could move it. But many buildings have unique programs, like the Intercultural Center,” said Smythe.
Smythe noted that the renovations to the Intercultural Center that were announced Monday will make it accessible. Smythe also mentioned that the college is installing accessible bleachers to the baseball field.
The number of students with cognitive disabilities is also increasing on campus. Director of Student Disability Services Leslie Hempling noted that while the college has significant resources for students with cognitive disabilities, it is limited by the laws surrounding disability in higher education.
“It is hard for me to help unless I know a student has a disability. Individuals have a right to self-identify with a disability or potential disability, but under the law it is their responsibility to report.”
Hempling noted that individuals could be recommended for help from Disability Services by colleagues or friends , but it is still up to the student to accept and engage with these services. Students also need an official diagnosis with documentation for Disability Services to be provided with accommodations by the college. Hempling said that the nature of many cognitive disabilities as well as “invisible illnesses” like chronic pain or migraines also hinder Disability Services’ ability to identify and help students.
”When we are trying to figure out how to best help a students with a chronic unpredictable illness that causes unexpected absences, it can be very challenging,” she explained.
Admissions also attempts to make itself accessible to prospective students with disabilities. Director of Admissions Jim Bock said that prospective students are told about the resources the college has available, and and tours are provided that allow prospective students with disabilities to see all of campus.
“We will work with each student individually before arrival and once [they are] on campus. We do encourage dialogue before matriculation when we are aware of a student who may request accommodation,” said Bock.
According to Smythe, who is also involved with the admissions’ efforts to be more accessible, the accommodations can include sign language interpreters and aids for students with visual impairments.
While the college has made a number of efforts in recent years to improve accessibility, there are still a number of buildings and programs that remain inaccessible to students and it continues to be difficult for many students with cognitive disabilities to live a healthy life at the college. It remains to be seen what the college administration will do to further increase accessibility for students with all types of disabilities.