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Illustration by Darializa Avila-Chevalier

Days on Campus weekends can often produce horror stories for prospective students—a negligent host, painfully awkward social events, and less-than-ideal sleeping arrangements.

But yesterday, Bwog published a perspective on the event that is seldom heard: that of a student with a physical disability. Evan Morris, CC '18, began his piece saying, “To everyone who tried to make Columbia accessible this weekend: Thank you. You tried, but crutches and this campus just don't mix well.”

After describing some of the difficulties he faced—including being placed with a host who lacked a handicap-accessible bathroom—he wrote, “Obviously, most of my difficulties were little things that couldn't be helped—I don't expect a campus that's so clearly stretched for space to suddenly flatten itself out. … Everyone was kind and accommodating, but clearly the program wasn't set up for people like me in mind.”

Morris' experience is one that has been echoed over the years by other students, staff, and faculty with physical disabilities. In a Spectator article published in 2004, Chris Higgins, CC '06 and a wheelchair-bound student, said, “Even if buildings are legally classified as accessible, they may not be practically accessible. I once joked that if I wanted to have a rally for disability access on Low steps, I couldn't even get there.”

Ironically, Higgins' joke became a reality for organizers in 2012. When Rachel Adams, a professor of English and comparative literature who began a project called The Future of Disability Studies, set up an event to discuss the University's treatment of disabled students, staff, and faculty, she had trouble finding a room with easy access to disability-friendly bathrooms and microphones for the hard of hearing. Like Higgins, Adams raised the concern, “Even one step before you get to discussion of any substance is, can you get people into the room?”

Nationally, approximately 10 to 12 percent of all college students live with a disability. At Barnard, 90 percent of the students who register at the Office of Disability Services have an “invisible” or “non-apparent disability” such as a learning disability, a chronic medical condition, or a hearing or vision impairment. The remaining 10 percent comprises students with physical disabilities who require walkers, crutches, or wheelchairs to navigate campus. For the former group, there are specific programs in place by Columbia's Disability Services: note-taking, assistive technology, and testing accommodations, like a lengthened time to complete an exam. 

However, there is very little our administration can do when it comes to the physical difficulties created by our campus. Though there are legal requirements for wheelchair accessibility, many of the buildings on our campus were built before accessibility was prioritized and thus cannot be made entirely compliant without major renovation. Under the stipulations for postsecondary institutions in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, buildings constructed before 1977 need not be made accessible if the college can ensure that classes can be relocated to an accessible location if need be. Higgins, who was a sociology major at Columbia, never actually went inside the sociology department because of the lack of wheelchair accessibility in Fayerweather Hall. Nearly a decade since his graduation, the status quo of building accessibility remains relatively unchanged.

I got a small taste of the inaccessibility of our campus last spring. After a ski accident and a complicated knee surgery, I returned to Columbia after winter break with little mobility in my left leg, sporting a thigh-to-ankle leg brace and relying on crutches to get around. When I stopped by Disability Services during my first week back, the staffers were as accommodating as they could be: They granted me swipe access to handicap accessible elevators and entry points across campus and offered to arrange class location changes if necessary. 

But on a campus built on an incline, it was literally an uphill battle. It's impossible to recognize the extent to which you rely on stairs at Columbia until you are unable to use them. 

Let's begin with the obvious: We have a two-tier campus that requires the ability to climb stairs on a daily basis. To circumvent the endless staircases on campus, students with disabilities use tunnels, elevators, and alternate entry points. What's more, the more hidden access points often require assistance from Public Safety officers, who aren't always well-informed on accessibility protocols. What this means practically, then, is a convoluted system that requires an average of three elevator rides just to get from class to class. This is to say nothing of the difficulties of walking around on the “flat” surfaces on campus. Cobblestone might look charming and antique, but it is one small detail that makes this campus all the more unmanageable for students with physical disabilities.

I am keenly aware that I speak from a privileged perspective on this topic: My frustration dealing with disability access lasted only a few weeks before I could use stairs again. But this is a topic that few students—or members of student government, I might add—give any attention. To most of us, elevators are a perk, not a necessity.

It's an uncomfortable and unfamiliar subject for many to breach, but one that is important not to ignore. As Adams explained to The Record in 2011, “Disability is something that should be of concern to everyone. Much as we know that someday we, or someone we know, could become disabled, deep in our hearts we believe it will never happen to us.”

Legally, Columbia is compliant with ADA's standards for disability access. But it's worth questioning whether mere compliance is adequate, and whether “our campus is old” remains a satisfactory excuse for not going beyond what's necessary. 

We often assume that the choice of which college to attend comes down to factors like financial aid or academic interests. But for many students, disability access is a central issue for their quality of life—and from firsthand experience, I wouldn't blame them for not choosing our school.

 Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor. Life's a Mitch runs alternate Fridays. 

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