On the first day his “International Studies” section met this fall, Nick Cugini ’13 had no problem finding the classroom. He just needed to figure out how to get inside.
It was not an issue of unfamiliar buildings or locked doors, but of accessibility. Due to cerebral palsy, Cugini uses a scooter to get around campus.
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Because of the stairs, he could not enter the building where his section was held. So the section came to him, meeting instead in the Silliman College courtyard. For the rest of the semester, the class was moved to a different classroom.
Cugini — the only Yale undergraduate who permanently uses a scooter on campus, according to Judy York, the director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities — juggles extracurriculars and academics as every Yalie does, but he also deals with the added challenge of accessibility to campus buildings.
A freshman in Calhoun, Cugini says he has few complaints about how Yale has helped him with access issues — he repeatedly mentioned how much he is enjoying his freshman year — but York acknowledged that while Yale is accommodating, there is room for improvement.
“We’re a long way from being perfect right now,” she said. “But so is any facility that was built before the year 2000, and that’s the reality.”
KEEPS GETTING BETTER
While Yale’s looming Gothic buildings are an appealing feature for most applicants to the College, they can have drawbacks for disabled students like Cugini.
Ever willing to take on challenges, Cugini said he was not intimidated by the difficulties he knew he would face being restricted to a scooter at Yale, given its urban campus and old buildings. In fact, accessibility issues did not play any role in his college decision, he said.
“Obviously [the Yale campus] is a lot different from where I come from where everything pretty much was accessible,” said Cugini, who hails from the Houston area and attended a high school with two stories and an elevator.
Still, Cugini accepted that Yale would not be as easily accessible, maintaining a positive attitude.
“I wasn’t really nervous about it because I can’t really be nervous about it anywhere I go,” he said.
While more and more Yale buildings are becoming accessible following recent renovations, many areas of campus — including parts of some academic buildings and areas of the residential colleges — cannot be accessed by wheelchair-bound students.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, building renovations were required to incorporate handicapped accessibility. The act is only applicable to buildings in the process of being constructed or renovated, so the law’s repercussions at Yale did not surface until the blue tarps went up and construction began on buildings such as the 12 residential colleges.
But Yale is moving forward, York said. With the renovations to the residential colleges that began in 1998, Yale is working toward increased accessibility for disabled students, she said. Silliman College Master Judith Krauss said the residential college renovations have allowed for greater accessibility on campus.
“Pre-renovation Yale had a lot of obstacles,” she said. “But the renovations certainly went a long way in meeting these challenges.”
In Silliman, for example, two elevators were installed during the renovation between summer 2006 and summer 2007, making the basement, the college’s main building, Byers Hall and the Master’s house accessible. In addition, a ramp from the upper to lower courtyards was built, the Master’s patio was made handicapped accessible from a newly installed gate, wheelchair spaces were installed in the college’s movie theater, Silliflicks, some appliances in the college kitchen were made accessible and several suites were renovated to be accessible.
Beyond construction, Yale works to improve accessibility through interactions between disabled students and the Resource Office on Disabilities. The office operates on a case-by-case basis to help disabled students, especially with housing and academics, York said. The office reaches out to all disabled students before they arrive on campus and works with their residential college deans, the Yale College Dean’s office and custodial services, among other departments, to ensure accessibility for disabled students, York explained.
Plans to accommodate disabled students begin the summer before each school year begins, York said. A disabled student turns in his or her list of courses early so that York, working with the registrar, can ensure that the student’s classes will be in accessible buildings.
Housing issues for any disabled student, too, are dealt with as soon as possible, she said. For freshmen, a committee that includes York and representatives from the Admissions Office and the Yale College Dean’s Office meets to determine the best college for each student, based on location and availability on Old Campus, as well as the student’s input. Paying attention to details as small as where the laundry facilities are located, the group accounts for the preferences of each student, along with any unique access issues.
Bingham and Vanderbilt halls are the only two residential buildings on Old Campus that are accessible by ramp, but long-term plans have been considered to make Lanman-Wright Hall accessible, York said. Freshman housing is the main factor in evaluating the degree to which individual residential colleges are equipped to handle disabled students’ needs, she said.
“We have students who may have mobility impairments but can manage a couple of stairs,” York said.
She added that Yale has also used first-floor rooms on Old Campus to house students with physical disabilities, including sophomores, juniors and seniors and students temporarily on crutches.
“So it looks like it’s really restrictive, but it really hasn’t been horribly restrictive,” York said of the system of picking residential colleges for disabled students.
In fact, beyond a semester or two that several athletes may be forced to spend in a wheelchair due to injuries, the number of undergraduate Yale students permanently using mobility devices has always been small, she said.
For the 2009-’10 school year, the number is one.
Cugini said he has nothing but praise for Yale’s efforts to accommodate him. The disabilities office works to ensure that his classes are held in accessible buildings, York said. Beyond using this service, Cugini described himself as a “low-maintenance case.” He plans to use a snow-plow service provided to help those who are permanently disabled get around more easily in the winter months, he said, but otherwise he deals with most other issues on his own.
Living in a single within a three-person suite on the first floor of Bingham, Cugini has had few issues getting from his room to class and back again, he said. But there is more to Yale than academics and sleep.
“As for my social life?” Cugini said. “Definitely hindered.”
Cugini has learned to deal with the frustration that comes with discovering he cannot get into certain buildings or finding another floor he cannot get up. Cugini cannot pick up UPS packages in Hendrie Hall, for example, because the pick-up spot is in the building’s basement. He has a gift card for Blue State Coffee but can’t use it because the only entrance to the cafe is up a flight of stairs.
“But I mean again it’s not really Blue State’s fault they bought the building that was like that,” he said. “The people who are operating the services I think are doing everything in their power to make things good.”
Still, Cugini said his impression is that basic access is the main goal of college renovations, and for him, this offers one area where Yale can improve. While he does have a room to stay in and can now enter the common spaces of most colleges, he can only enter a small percentage of other dorm rooms at Yale. Even Bingham’s elevator does not go to the second or third floors, making it impossible for him to visit most other freshman Calhoun suites.
While he spends many weekends with the debate team, when not traveling, Cugini usually can find something to do at Yale.
“If my suitemates or some of my friends go out somewhere I know that I can’t get in, I’ll find something to do or meet up with some other friends,” he said. “Everyone here has been really good at making sure I’m included before they go out.”
As far as the rest of college life goes, he said he avoids crowded dining halls where tables are pushed together, but that the dining hall in his home college, Calhoun, is open and easy to navigate.
Stacey Chen ’13 met Cugini during her senior year of high school while doing speech and debate, and the two ran into each other again during Bulldog Days in April.
“He’s a really, really sweet kid,” said Chen, now a close friend of Cugini’s. “It’s amazing because he has worked through all these little things, like getting his own food in the dining hall, that most of us don’t even think about. It’s much harder than you would expect. He’s a really good sport about it.”