At the front of the Deece, Declan Cassidy ’22 feels an immediate sense of worthlessness as he stands near two massive doors in the middle. “They feel like gates to a holy land,” Cassidy lamented, “but you always feel too unworthy to enter because they never open for you for no goddamn reason.” This is the Deece Door Debacle, a problem that has devastated Vassar students for years. At the surface, it’s an inconvenience of two stuck doors that many Brewers struggle to open as they grab meals. But behind closed doors, the Deece Door Debacle represents flaws in Vassar’s historic buildings and the heirloom of ableism on campus.
First-hand experiences of trying to pull the door open follow this pattern: the user walks up the stairs to the Deece, holds the knob and pulls, only for the doors to stay shut, not even moving a centimeter. “Anytime I try to open with one hand I push down and yank, yet to no avail,” said Trina Chou ’23, who discovered her inability to open the middle doors halfway through her first semester. “I learned to always let other people go in front of me [when entering the Deece].”
It is not a matter of brute force, these doors. The knob is what Itamar Ben-Porath ’21 described as finicky. Even if you pull as hard as you can, many techniques must be tried in pressing the thumb latch—from the two thumbs trick to leaning backward with your full body— in order for the door to click and open. Injuries ensue, either from fumbling with the knob or having the door open from behind as one struggles with the latch. “Sometimes someone will push [the doors],” said Ben-Porath, “in which case you might end up with either a bruised noggin, a wrenched finger or two, or some other little injury.”
Until recently, the doors haven’t been a problem. Students managed to circumvent the issue by using the two side doors, the entrances of which lack obstinate knobs and are thus much easier to enter. But with physical distancing guidelines, the side doors are now “exit only,” leaving students cursed to only enter through the infamous Middle Door. Consequently, exasperated students yanking at the doors are now a common sight.
Yet many have taken comfort in knowing that the Deece Door Debacle is a shared experience on campus. “It’s nice to know my struggles with the door aren’t a result of lacking strength or stupidity,” said Simone Rembert ’21. “And there’s always a bit of a chuckle shared between people struggling to enter through those doors at the same time. Now that I think about it, most of my pleasantries with people I don’t know at Vassar arise from shared problems with dilapidated older buildings.”
Rembert’s comment reveals an uneven balance between tradition and modernity in building designs. The Deece doors are one of the most manifest examples of this clash—a traditional classicizing doorway that opens to a sterile, modernized dining center. When one exits the Deece, they might notice door-opening buttons, but only on the inside and not the outside. Outside, one accessibility button stands next to the right door of the Deece, but doesn’t seem to work when pressed. Students, therefore, must pull on the agonizing middle doors to gain entry.
This in turn leads to issues for students who require accommodations. Andrew Miller ’23 explained how the Deece doors in particular put him at risk for injury. “I have a disease called Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and one of its symptoms is that it makes me more susceptible to injury,” he said. “If I pull too hard on the door, there’s a possibility I could throw my hip out of whack and that could cause me to limp for days.”
Ben-Porath is also affected by the Deece doors, due to Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which can sometimes lead them to have less blood in their extremities. “[POTS] makes it really painful and unpleasant to put a lot of force on them, especially when it’s cold out,” said Ben-Porath. “…Anyone with chronic pain, chronic fatigue or any condition that makes it difficult in any way to apply a lot of force is gonna have some difficulty with it. I’ve dealt with a fair bit of structural ableism on this campus, and I’d never thought of it before, but those doors absolutely fit the bill.”
To combat ableism on campus, it seems that the easiest solution would be to build accommodations into all of Vassar’s buildings. But Bronwyn Pappas-Byers ’20, the vice president of Access, a student group for those of all types of disabilities, highlighted the difficult battle between preservation and accessibility. Certain buildings on campus carry great historical significance, hindering the chances of large structural changes. “Legally speaking, we are bound to keep some places inaccessible,” Pappas-Byers explained. “Because it’s signed in as a historical [building] and there’s not much the College can do about that. For example, in Main, only the outside is considered a historical building. [Therefore] they are allowed to renovate the inside as long as the actual frame—outside of the building—remains intact.”
Pappas-Bryers suggested finding creative means of implementing Universal Designs—environments designed for accessibility among everyone, especially disabled people—across campus. Vassar, they explained, can turn to the Committee on Disability & Inclusion (CODI) for guidance. Since last year, CODI has been working on an accessibility guide audited towards every building within the College, compiling data last spring. “The [first] thing for the college to do [is] to go talk to CODI, because they have all the information. The second thing [is to take] those considerations into account to go and talk with somebody who does Universal Design,” said Pappa-Bryers.
It’s important to note that physical accessibility is just one layer of Universal Design. Some other components of Universal Design include having signs available in written and pictorial form for those who can’t speak the local language.
As for what Vassar needs to start focusing on, some students urge current structures on campus, such as elevators, to be accessible instead of restricted. “I really wish that more elevators were available to students,” Miller expressed. “In Cushing, where I live, there’s a working elevator but only maintenance staff are allowed to use it. It’s not possible to even reach rooms on the first floor without using stairs due to the building layout.” He added that while he understands the historical value of buildings and the compromise of renovation, Vassar still has much to contribute for their students. “I know that there are lots of little things Vassar can do to make life easier for disabled students: replacing doors, allowing access to elevators—things like that.”
For students who aren’t disabled, another step in combating ableism can be kindness. Although she isn’t disabled, Rembert said, “It’s pretty obvious when a building doesn’t have a ramp, or a working elevator, or automatic doors, that it wasn’t designed with everyone in mind. Some of the accessibility challenges on campus can be alleviated with courtesy—holding doors open [or] helping someone navigate a space.”
For now, the infamous Deece Door Debacle continues to create frustration among campus, and the sight of students pushing and pulling with all their might continues to be a common occurrence. Much will have to be considered in fixing the door while keeping the historic integrity of the dining hall. But amidst the push-and-pull battle between preservation and accommodation, there is an opportunity for change behind closed doors.