Awareness lags behind access for disabled

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, colleges and universities, among other institutions, have been required to accommodate persons with disabilities to the best of their ability. At Yale, one of the main goals of the renovation process started in the late 1980s is to make the campus more accessible to handicapped people, and the Resource Office on Disabilities coordinates efforts to help students.

Personal stories from students reveal frustrations — with stairs, with snow and with some people’s attitudes. If one thing can be improved, they say, it is awareness.

Yale is conscious of the problems disabled students face and is trying to make everything the University offers available to all students, director of the Office on Disabilities Judith York said.

“We don’t want to isolate the individual,” York said.

The office has an array of resources and strategies to accommodate every type of disability, including books in digital format for blind students, interpreting services for students with hearing impediments and extended time on exams for students with learning disabilities. The office moves classes to handicap accessible classrooms for students in wheelchairs and offers note-taking services for students who suffer from hand pain such as repetitive injury syndrome or tendonitis. It also caters to students with all injuries and illnesses — cancer, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and narcolepsy — and facilitates their recovery processes.

Students without disabilities may not know about all the office can do.

“Most people want to be private about their arrangements,” said York.

York said students with temporary injuries often try to do things on their own or rely on friends. She has seen many athletes cope with their injuries by getting help from teammates, she said

When an injury lasts longer than expected or when exams are coming up, York said, students feel they are becoming a “burden” and turn to the office for help. Gifty Kwakye ’05, who serves on the Advisory Committee on Resources for Students and Employees with Disabilities, agreed.

“People who are temporarily disabled, who haven’t been used to being helped or having to use special equipment, that’s when the pride issue comes in,” Kwakye said.

The Office on Disabilities is not alone in its attempt to make life at Yale easier for students with disabilities. Special Needs Awareness and Peer Services is a student-run volunteer organization that takes up requests for help by disabled students on campus.

“SNAPS is the bridge between the University and the students,” SNAPS founder and coordinator Sabrina Sadique ’04 said. “Judy [York] takes care of any academic requests; we do all the chores for the students.”

Sadique said SNAPS receives a huge number of requests for help at the beginning of the football season as players are injured. But she said there are also unexpected requests. York said she often refers students who come to her office to SNAPS. The group helps meet more disabled students’ requests more quickly than the Office on Disabilities would be able to if it worked alone.

“I am really proud of SNAPS. They have really filled a void,” said York.

But despite the number of people who wants to help them, disabled students still face problems.

“I have seen a student stuck in the middle of the street,” said Kwakye. “The cars in the back didn’t know what was going on and they were beeping. You have to be certified to carry a disabled person. You have to call the Yale Police. I remember: the fire service, the police and then an ambulance had to come. It was treated like an emergency call.”

Yuri Velez ’06, who is in a wheelchair, lived in Bingham Hall entryway C his freshman year. The entryway has an elevator, but because it does not reach the ninth floor and other students in his college lived in other Bingham entryways, Velez, a Calhoun College student, said he hung out mostly with Trumbull students who shared his entryway. But because Trumbull is not handicap accessible, Velez said, he could not transfer colleges to be with his closest friends.

This year Velez lives in Calhoun. His entryway is wheelchair accessible, but it is the only accessible entryway, so he still cannot visit some of his friends. Velez said he considers life on campus as “socially restrictive.”

Velez said he opposes maintaining the old architecture even when colleges are renovated — Calhoun underwent a 3-month renovation in 1990 — because it will never fully accommodate disabled students.

“Yale is very about tradition and history and the way they’ve done things for years,” said Velez. ” [But] being disabled, you have to think outside the box for everything. You have to adapt.”

Charles Boebinger ’07, who has been in a wheelchair for about a year, said he has similar problems. He said he has been frustrated with by handicap accessibility at Yale.

“There are only three rooms I can access in my own dorm,” Boebinger, who lives in Vanderbilt Hall, said.

Boebinger said he has been unable to go to class many times because wheelchair accessible doors were closed and locked. When he has class in Linsley-Chittenden Hall, he said, he must go all the way around the building to the door on High Street to use the wheelchair ramp. He has also had to battle the elements: on snowy days, it can take him up to 20 minutes to go from Vanderbilt to LC, even though the two buildings are close together on Old Campus.

“It is harder to be on a wheelchair — it takes more time to do everything,” Boebinger said.

People who are oblivious to the hardships of being disabled are the biggest problem, Boebinger said. But he said people who try to be helpful can also be “immensely irritating.”

“When I need help, I ask for it,” Boebinger said. “I do things myself, I have had practice.”

But he said sometimes he does not ask for help because it strikes a blow to his pride.

“Sometimes it’s more humiliating to accept help,” he said. “Who needs help?”

Not all disabled students at Yale are visibly so.

Molly Lubin ’06, who has a hearing impediment, said she does not face many accessibility problems at Yale. Professors have been accommodating, she said, wearing a microphone she gives them that connects to a transmitter that amplifies their lectures into an earpiece she wears. But she still has to watch their lips closely during class, she said. She cannot take notes because she must look at the professor and not her notebook. She said although the Office on Disabilities provides her with note-takers, her experience of class is not the same as others’.

“There is only so much [the Office] can do,” Lubin said.

The Office can be of help to disabled students only if the administration, the faculty and the Yale community in general are willing to bend their daily routines in order to accommodate special requests, Boebinger said.

“Judy is not in charge of getting things done. She has to talk to other people to get them to do things,” he said.

Additionally, the process of renovating the campus to make it more handicap accessible runs into aesthetic concerns.

“Yale looks pretty the way it is. Having to break down certain parts in order to put ramps and walkways, it requires a lot of work in a lot of ways,” Kwakye said.

Renovations are also costly and take time, especially when they take pains not to tamper with existing architecture.

“To make one entryway wheelchair accessible costs thousands of dollars,” said Sadique. “[Renovation] is a very slow process, but that doesn’t mean that progress is not made.”

A more immediate step to improve Yale’s friendliness toward disabled students would be to increase the University community’s awareness of the problems disabled students face in their daily lives, Lubin said.

“It is not a problem in the system but more [a problem with] individual attitudes,” she said.

On April 13 and 14, the Office on Disabilities will hold a Forum and Fair on Disabilities titled “The Diverse Paths of Disability” to increase awareness about disability issues on campus.

Renovations help to provide handicapped access, such as a wheelchair ramp outside of the Peabody Museum, to aging University facilities.
Zoe Pershing-Foley
Renovations help to provide handicapped access, such as a wheelchair ramp outside of the Peabody Museum, to aging University facilities.

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