When Christina Kim ’16 showed up for the first day of her math class in Leet Oliver Memorial Hall, she could not get to her classroom — the building is not wheelchair accessible. Only after she consulted with Judith York, director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities, was the class finally moved to William L. Harkness Hall a week later.
There are many resources in place for students with disabilities at Yale. The ROD is dedicated entirely to accommodating such students and provides services from note-taking to special transportation. Moreover, the majority of buildings on campus are designed to be accessible to people with mobility impairments. However, even after resources like elevators and automatic doors are put in place, practical barriers to accessibility still confront students.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, public buildings constructed prior to 1992 — the vast majority of Yale’s buildings — do not need to be made handicap-accessible until they are scheduled for a major renovation. But with a renewed wave of construction and renovations across campus, accessibility issues have again come to the forefront, as the ADA mandates that all new construction be fully compliant with accessibility codes.
According to York, the University makes accessibility adjustments whenever the need arises, even if the ADA does not specifically mandate them. For example, she said, although the ADA does not require that internal doors be automatic, her office will install automatic internal doors in a residential space where a student requires them.
But Benjamin Nadolsky ’18, who uses a wheelchair to get around campus, said this type of proactivity is the least that Yale can do.
“The ADA allows for a lot of good things, but it’s also lenient on other things,” he said. “Yale can get by without doing a lot of things because they’re so old, but at the same time they have to be held to a higher standard.”
During her freshman year at Yale, Kim realized that she could not participate in activities at the Asian American Cultural Center, due to the stairs leading to its front door. She spoke with York as well as the dean of the AACC, and after a year, a ramp was installed to allow her access to the building’s back door.
But the back door, which is infrequently used, is almost always locked, and Kim cannot reach the doorbell. She must call a friend to let her in every time she wants to access the center.
Accessibility can also be a matter of upkeep. Although WLH is technically accessible due to its elevator system and automatic doors, Kim said she has experienced times when the elevator breaks down and is not repaired for a few days, inhibiting her ability to attend her classes.
Nadolsky called WLH a “nightmare,” citing instances in which the automatic doors have been locked in the middle of the day or have failed to open as they should.
York acknowledged that maintenance difficulties can pose inconveniences, but also said they are inevitable.
“The University has worked consistently to make its buildings and facilities accessible, and it responds quickly to rectify problems with [accessibility] mechanisms,” Associate Provost for Health Affairs Cynthia Smith, who advises the Provost Advisory Committee on Resources for Students and Employees with Disabilities, said in an email.
Inaccessibility may also result from a lack of communication. During the renovations of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, Nadolsky was not notified when the elevators were turned off, and subsequently was late to class.
While Kim emphasized that she appreciates measures the University has taken to accommodate wheelchair accessibility, she added that she would like to see a more consistent awareness of the need for maintenance.
“I wish they would maybe do regular check-ups to just make sure the elevators or automatic doors are working,” she said. “I wish there was a more effective way to repair and notify students or people who might need to use a [broken] elevator, because it’s just a surprise [to find it broken] when I get there.”
A MATTER OF CONVENIENCE
According to a campus access map on the website of the Resource Office on Disabilities, Mason Lab is handicap accessible. But “accessible,” in this case, is liberally interpreted.
“Access to Mason Lab is via an underground tunnel that runs from Becton on Prospect Street and through Dunham on Hillhouse Ave.,” the map says. “Take elevator to basement floor in either building. An elevator at the end of the tunnel leads into Mason.”
For Kim, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major whose classes often take place on Science Hill, this kind of design is essentially equivalent to no accessibility at all.
“Mason Lab is not accessible from the outside,” she said. “The underground routes are helpful, but sometimes when I’m limited for time, like between classes, it’s hard to quickly go outside and get out of the building.”
Nadolsky pointed out that while most students going to Payne Whitney Gymnasium can cut through Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges, the stairs on this pathway make it impossible for handicapped students to do the same.
These extra steps that must be taken by handicapped individuals would be a hassle to anybody, but are especially difficult for people whose mobility is already impaired, said Glenn Weston-Murphy, an engineering design advisor within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who uses a wheelchair.
When Weston-Murphy first came to Yale over 15 years ago, Woolsey Hall was not handicap accessible from its primary entrance on the corner of Grove and College Streets. Handicapped individuals who wanted to access the performance space had to use the Beinecke Plaza entrance — 600 feet away.
Although the exterior of Woolsey has now been made accessible, the President’s Room on the upper level is still a “fiasco” to access, Weston-Murphy said. Previously, it could only be wheelchair accessed by cutting through somebody’s office.
“I stopped going to things that were in the President’s Room, because I didn’t want to go through all the hassle of making arrangements and getting someone to open doors [for me],” he said. “If you’re going out for an evening reception, you don’t want to have to deal with that.”
But issues of convenience stem beyond historic buildings like Woolsey. The new School of Management building on Whitney Avenue is another example of ways in which accessibility at Yale only meets the minimum requirements, Weston-Murphy said.
Weston-Murphy, who sat on the Provost’s Advisory Committee for 10 years, said that when his Facilities Access subcommittee was first presented with the sketches for the new building, he noted that entrance to the inner courtyard to the SOM required a step all the way around the courtyard except in the farthest corner, where there are ramps.
“I fought tooth and nail to have [the ramps] put in front,” he said. “I lost.”
York said the Advisory Committee has usually had great success in influencing the planning stages of construction but acknowledged that new constructions often have many stakeholders. Architects must create and negotiate environments that satisfy everyone, she said, necessitating “honest-to-goodness, practical give and take.”
Still, she said, when the Advisory Committee’s input is made available early in the construction process, it is easier to accommodate the needs of all parties involved. She pointed specifically to the two new residential colleges, which she said will be fully handicap accessible in all suites.
“All of our other residential colleges were built so long ago, before this kind of [accessibility] code came out,” she said. “We now have the opportunity to do it right with these new buildings.”
Progress has been made in other areas as well: The current renovations of Hendrie Hall will render it more accessible, York told the News last October. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway told the News last week that the AACC and La Casa Cultural should be made accessible by the end of the summer.
Still, Weston-Murphy said, there is always more room for improvement.
“I’ve been here [over] 15 years, and from when I came to now, there’s been a lot of progress on campus,” he said. “But it’s the kind of thing where you have to stay on it, or you lose ground.”