Vassar admin must play more active role in campus accessibility

In the last VSA Senate meeting before October break, President Elizabeth Bradley presented the seven working objectives for the next five years at Vassar College. They consist of the following (Twitter, [at]miscellanynews, 10.07.2018):

1. Sustain a faculty of world-class scholars and a dynamic and relevant curriculum.

2. Attract and support a highly talented and diverse student population.

3. Foster an inclusive living and learning environment where all students are valued and supported.

4. Cultivate an inclusive workplace where all employees are valued and supported.

5. Strengthen community partnerships and engagement in local and global issues.

6. Revitalize buildings and landscape to align with educational, accessibility and sustainability goals.

7. Improve shared governance to ensure that Vassar’s assets are stewarded successfully.

Over the next few months, President Bradley and the administration will reach out to the student body to determine the specific goals that the college should adopt. According to the administration, Vassar’s community values will decide these goals. However, based on my observations, I predict that the community won’t value physical accessibility as part of its objectives. Past records have shown that the Vassar administration has categorically excluded people with disabilities throughout its history. As a result, who is left to defend our interests but well-meaning able-bodied and neurotypical students? And how effective can anyone be in fighting for accessibility when the struggle is not their own?

Vassar College has been home to a variety of student-led disability rights groups, such as the Association for the Handicapped, the Vassar Student Association Committee on Disability Issues, Students with ADD and Learning Disabilities (SADDLE), the current Committee on Disability Issues and the Access and Disability Rights Coalition. These organizations have, with varying levels of success, sought over the years to improve the accessibility that students with disabilities have to the school.

Yet despite their efforts, much of the rhetoric and language surrounding disability have remained the same throughout Vassar’s history. In 1978, Ivor Muroff wrote in The Miscellany News, “[Many students with disabilities] believe that the college is hostile or insensitive to their needs” (The Miscellany News, “Handicapped Students Form Force to Reckon With,” 03.10.1978). In 1994, Shira Silverman, a member of the Committee on Disability Issues, referred to ACDC workers’ attitude toward a blind student as “paternalistic and discriminatory” (The Miscellany News, “ACDC Insensitive to Special Needs of Students,” 11.11.1994). In 2002, Laura Attanasio, an Assistant Features Editor at The Miscellany News, wrote an article about K. Mitchell-Healey, a member of the class of 2005 who struggled to get around campus after breaking her ankle and found it almost impossible to make it to her classes on time and even access her dorm (The Miscellany News, “Trying to Get Around: Disability at Vassar,” 04.19.2002). The fight for accessibility is not new, and as much as things have changed, a lot has stayed the same.

My point is not that the disability movement has been futile. When Vassar students formed the Association for the Handicapped in 1978, the ACDC didn’t have a handrail, let alone a ramp (The Miscellany News, “Handicapped Students Form Force to Reckon With,” 03.10.1978). However, by 2008, pressure from students led to the installation of new accessible sidewalks near the Town Houses, Raymond House, the Old Observatory, Skinner Hall and Baldwin Health Services. In addition, magnetic “hold-opens” were installed on the doors to the stairwells and the main lobby of Main Building, and Davison House was renovated with a new elevator and accessible bathrooms and doors to student rooms (The Miscellany News, “College seeks to improve access for students with disabilities,” 09.11.2008).

Peter Canino ’10, who broke an inch of his leg bone during rugby practice and had to rely on crutches, stated, “It’s actually been all right getting around. Most of the buildings are pretty handicapped accessible, and Security transports a lot of the times are very hasty” (The Miscellany News, “College seeks to improve access to student with disabilities,” 04.12.2008).

However, the issue hadn’t completely disappeared. Roger Rothenberg, a member of the Class of 2011 who used a wheelchair, told The Miscellany News in 2008, “In a wheelchair specifically, getting around campus has not been that bad. But it’s also tiring and uncomfortable, and I’ve got to find elevators and ramps, which is a hassle” (The Miscellany News, “College seeks”).

The biggest leap forward has pertained to rhetoric. In 1978, the student activists believed the administration was trying to portray students with disabilities as burdens, mostly so they could avoid having to pay to make the campus accessible (The Miscellany News, “Handicapped Students Form Force to Reckon With,” 03.10.1978). Now, the fact that the administration is even attempting to give off the appearance of prioritizing the needs of students with disabilities speaks to at least some semblance of progress. But, there remains a serious problem with the administration’s plan, namely that it relies on two flawed assumptions.

First, the administration assumes that the student body will prioritize accessibility. The problem with this line of thought is that there is a lack of students with disabilities on campus to advocate for their own interests. Vassar’s inaccessibility has acted as a means of discouraging students with disabilities from attending, as noted by Beverly Carney, a member of the Association for the Handicapped who told The Miscellany News in 1978 that if the College was “more receptive to the visually impaired, more blind students would have been encouraged to apply” (The Miscellany News, “Handicapped Students Form Force to Reckon With,” 03.10.1978). The paradox of accessibility is that in order to make the campus accessible, we need students with disabilities on campus who can act as advocates, but in order to get them on campus, we need to make the school accessible.

Second, the administration assumes that the student body is informed about accessibility issues. In 1978, Karen Rappaport, a deaf senior, told The Miscellany News that she had no idea that the steps to a building could be a barrier to education before attending meetings for the Association for the Handicapped (The Miscellany News, “Handicapped Students Form Force to Reckon With,” 03.10.1978). Even if there are students here who are able to advocate for accessibility, they likely won’t have enough knowledge to tackle all the issues that demand their attention.

I have been the president of Access for almost three years now. I have been active in advocating for disability rights issues during my entire time here. I could name numerous changes that we need to bring about to make this school accessible. I consistently make it a point to bring up disability rights issues during org meetings, during VSA meetings and while writing for The Miscellany News. However, I would have no idea how to make this campus more accessible to blind students, deaf students, students with severe dietary restrictions and students with countless other disabilities of which I am not properly informed. Even the entirety of Access cannot attest to the needs of every person with a disability. We can do our best, but there is no replacement for proper representation.

The administration should seek student input for the next five years, but it also must do right by students with disabilities. The Vassar administration should not base their accessibility goals on what the community values. Instead, they should base them on what is morally right and legally required. There may not be enough students showing up to ensure that the college values accessibility, but that does not give the administration permission to continue to ignore us. Regardless of what occurs, what students say or what anyone wants, Vassar College must take the initiative to make the campus more accessible.

2 Comments

  1. Bravo!

    Readers of this article will find my understanding the ADA blog useful. It has an excellent search engine and can be found here: http://www.williamgoren.com/blog/

    By the way, I entered Vassar in 1978 and do not remember the group mentioned in this article. Did it disband by then? I do remember a group of us getting together on an informal basis.

    William Goren (82)

    • I’m not sure when they disbanded. I’m pretty sure they formed around March of 1978. I’ve been compiling a resource guide of articles on disability rights written through Vassar publications, and based on what I found it seems like they were active at least as late as January of 1982, which was the last time I can find The Misc writing about them. With that said, I’m haven’t looked any deeper at the group besides sorting through old Misc articles, so I can’t attest to how present they really were, or how accurate the Misc’s information was at the time.

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