Access Denied

Access Denied

Exploring the experiences of physically disabled Columbians on campus

Published on February 25, 2015

Pupin Hall’s telescope is not a secret. Most Columbia students have seen its copper-teal dome poking out from the top of the building. What the CUarts Initiative is to art students, and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library is to history students, the telescope is to budding astronomers: an opportunity to study and engage with stars in a different light than a PowerPoint or a textbook offers.

But for Evan Morris, a Columbia College first-year, Spectator deputy opinion editor, and potential astronomy major, it’s a reminder that hits close to home of how he experiences a different Columbia from many of his classmates.

Morris identifies as disabled and has limited mobility, the extent of which varies daily. He often uses a cane or a wheelchair to navigate campus. While Pupin has 14 floors, with the telescope located at the top, its elevators stop at level 13. For able bodies, the extra staircase does not pose a problem. For disabled individuals, it may. The astronomy department states on its website that the telescope is not wheelchair-accessible.

Morris recalls stargazing as a child, growing up outside of Washington, D.C. He spent his favorite parts of any weekend peering through his father’s telescope. “Having that ability to just look up—it drew me to astronomy,” he says. “Whether it’s part of the major or not, it’s something that is important to me.”

Use of the Pupin telescope is not a requirement for completing the astronomy major, so Morris could theoretically finish his degree without having to climb those stairs. But that’s not the point. The point is that, even though Morris wants to, he can’t use the telescope, because the telescope was not designed for people like him.

Columbia was constructed and cultivated with a very specific person in mind: a white person, a male person, an Anglican person, an able-bodied person. While we’ve come a long way in many respects, the idea of Barnard and Columbia as made for the able-bodied persists—Barnard’s very nickname, “College on a Hilltop,” invokes an air of inaccessibility—and it largely goes undiscussed in campus dialogue. Few op-eds or town halls discuss the obstacles this campus poses for physically disabled individuals.

Note: For the sake of brevity, the term “disabled” is hereafter used to mean “physically disabled,” unless otherwise specified.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Columbia being a college on a hilltop. But how do we ensure that everyone here has the same opportunities as anyone else, and how can Columbia do more for its disabled community?

College on a Hilltop

Imagine your daily routine at Columbia. Wake up, pull on some clothes. Gather your books. Get out the door. Wait for the elevator. If the elevator’s broken, take the stairs. Hike a few hills and cross a couple streets on your way to class. Walk up the stairs of the academic building, and thread through students and chairs as you look for any open seat.

Without the ability to walk easily, the routine looks different. Able-bodied students like myself take the ability to navigate those stairs, hills, and crowds for granted, but it’s not so easy when your mobility is limited.

“Walking from Wallach to John Jay has stairs, and people insist sometimes that it does not have stairs,” Morris says. “It does! It really does! There are only a few, but people go down them without thinking.

“Stairs are a problem,” he says. “You get the slippery stone in the ground that looks pretty sometimes when it sparkles, but is incredibly inconvenient all of the rest of the time.”

Entry into buildings and a walk from upper to lower campus becomes a route marked with breakable elevators and dark tunnels.

“I’ve gotten stuck on upper campus before because the elevators are down, and a whole bunch of the staircases at Columbia don’t have railings,” says Jess Silfa, a General Studies senior who identifies as mobility-impaired due to complications from a car accident and walks with a cane. “I’ve been here long enough to know how to get around the campus, but there are still some buildings, some routes, that I can’t go there today, because they’re doing construction.”

The design of Columbia’s campus is far from accessible, strewn with treacherously uneven walkways and stairs. Dangerous weather conditions—all too familiar to Columbians at this time of year—only compound the hazards. Silfa and I were supposed to meet in person for our interview, but in the aftermath of this month’s storms, even after rescheduling, we had no choice but to speak over the phone.

“Columbia’s great challenge is simply the geography and the age of its campus, particularly the divide between upper campus and lower campus,” Christopher Baswell, an English professor at Columbia and Barnard, says. “Most disability access is secondary access.”

The difference between primary access and secondary access lies in entering a building through the main door and entering through a side door. To most of us, the difference seems negligible. There’s nothing special about primary access—unless you’re being forced to use the side door every time, because the main door wasn’t built with your physical abilities in mind.

Note: The Americans with Disabilities Act sets guidelines for ensuring that all buildings are accessible and usable to people with physical disabilities.

Baswell, who uses a wheelchair, notes that problems of access posed by the Columbia campus’ inaccessible, pre-Americans with Disabilities Act design are compounded by a lack of prioritization of disabled people. There is at least one building on Columbia’s campus, Mathematics, that is entirely inaccessible to disabled individuals. While Math has elevators that stop at every floor, ostensibly making the building accessible, there’s just one problem: There are no ramps or tunnels into the building, and the elevators are accessible only by walking up a flight of stairs. While Math is a particularly egregious example, the sense of a lack of prioritization extends well beyond one building.

“Access from College Walk over, say, into Dodge Hall and beyond is by basement corridors. Again, not always clean, and always secondary,” Baswell says. “We are, I think, welcomed citizens, but—in terms of physical movement—second-class citizens within the University.”

Ray Budelman, a student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who has mobility impairments due to cerebral palsy, argues that truly equal access would allow disabled people to use facilities the same way able-bodied people do.

“If you create accessible environments and accommodating environments, disabled people are not only able to enter them, they want to enter them,” Budelman says. “And then the more disabled people that enter them, the more comfortable over time others become with the disabled experience.”

The problem of secondary access exists across Broadway at Barnard as well, but not to the same degree. Baswell describes the Diana Center as having been built with “mixed alertness to access,” and only to the degree mandated by the ADA. In general, however, the design and accommodations on Barnard’s campus have made it more welcoming to disabled individuals than Columbia’s.

“Barnard both got going on issues of disability access long before Columbia did, and, because it’s so much smaller a campus, has been able to do a much more systematic job of it,” Baswell says. “Barnard actually is, with modest exceptions, a very mobility-friendly campus.”

For Lacey Tompkins, a Barnard alumna who graduated in 2014 and uses a motorized wheelchair, Barnard’s tunnel system provided an effective remedy for the inaccessible campus surface. “It’s really hard to go over all the ramps, let’s say Barnard Hall to Milbank,” Tompkins says. “The tunnels have made my life at Barnard so much easier. … I didn’t find that there was anything I couldn’t do at Barnard.”

Columbia’s campus—due to its larger size, its steeper gradients, and neoclassical architecture, among other reasons—is not so easily adaptable.

“In most respects, it [the campus] is compliant with the ADA,” Rachel Adams, a Columbia English professor who teaches courses on disability studies, says. “The issue with the ADA is that in order to pass it, they had to rein in some of the more radical proposals about making spaces accessible. You are required to build new architecture according to certain standards, but there are a lot of loopholes for historic and older buildings.

“Columbia being a campus that was built in the 19th century, you know they’re able to get out of a lot of the accommodations that make it a truly accessible campus.”

Silfa reiterates the feeling of relegation and deprioritization. “A lot of it is that it’s a lot of decisions made by people who have no idea what they’re talking about,” she says.

“Not that they don’t know their job, but they’re not disabled.”

Even specific requests for accommodation or maintenance related to the safety of disabled individuals sometimes go unheard or unhelped, students say. When Silfa noticed that railings on Low Steps, which she uses to move up and down the steps safely, were loose, she contacted Facilities and asked to have the railings tightened. She was told that they would look into it over the summer.

“And I’m thinking, ‘But the railings are loose. Do you want me to get a screwdriver and tighten them?’” Silfa says. “It seems like a long process for anything, and when it comes to student safety, it shouldn’t take that long.”

Paving the Way

As inaccessible as Columbia’s terrain is, though, this is post-ADA America. The question is not if disabled individuals can be accommodated, but rather how. If your disability makes it difficult to walk across campus, how do you ensure that your classes aren’t too close in time and far in space to attend? How do you know which housing you can live in next year? How do you navigate life on a campus that can feel as though it struggles to accommodate you?

Enter the twin offices of Disability Services, serving Columbia and Barnard.

Note: Columbia Disability Services declined to be interviewed for this article. Barnard Disability Services had not immediately responded to inquiries by press time.

“The mission of Disability Services is to empower students with disabilities to realize their academic and personal potential,” a spokesperson for Campus Services writes in an email. The office provides support to students with physical and mental disabilities alike.

In fulfilling its mission, Disability Services (on both sides of Broadway) works primarily to provide assistance in the classroom and within Columbia administrative departments, such as Housing. In the classroom, Disability Services tries to make classes work for students on an individual basis, offering “note-taking services, assistive technology, exam administration on behalf of faculty, or assistance with high stakes testing.”

This individualized attention has been transformative for many students working with Disability Services, at Columbia and Barnard alike. “Disability Services treats you really well and is extraordinarily helpful with everything. There’s always someone you can reach out to,” Morris says. “Working with the registrar to figure out a class schedule that works has been incredibly helpful. … I really couldn’t be here without the freedom I do have to pursue whatever I want to pursue.”

As Morris attends Columbia College, he has primarily relied on the Columbia Disability Services for assistance. On the Barnard side, Tompkins speaks well of the accommodations and help she received, as well as professors’ willingness to work with the office to accommodate her. Tompkins points specifically to the practice, at both Columbia Disability Services and Barnard Disability Services, of having students speak with their professors within two weeks of the semester to identify their disability and necessary accommodation in advance.

“When I take exams, I would have to type them on a laptop instead of write them, and that’s a conversation where all teachers that I had were totally fine with that,” she says. “They were really great about it, and I think the reason they were is because of that early identification. … It does allow individually for you to be aware of what you need and think about it ahead of time.”

But as Tompkins points out, no matter how effective Disability Services is, it cannot work in a vacuum. Its efforts require collaboration, and when it comes to academics, the faculty is crucial.

“Disability Services does work regularly with faculty to address specific disability issues and arrange for accommodations,” the spokesperson writes. “This is done through formal accommodation letters or 1-1 collaboration with faculty members. … Faculty often seek guidance from DS to work out the logistics of a specific accommodation or in general to find out how to provide greater support and assistance to their students.”

Like Tompkins, Baswell echoes Disability Services’ assessment of faculty as engaged and supportive, citing developments such as Adams’ faculty seminar on disability studies as evidence of a “rising awareness” among faculty of accessibility issues on campus.

But the undergraduate experience extends beyond the classroom. Residential life, social and athletic events, and extracurriculars populate Columbians’ and Barnardians’ lives beyond the lecture hall, and Disability Services, on both sides of campus, works as best it can to include accommodations in these areas as well.

“On the administrative side, Disability Services works with departments to ensure campus programs are meaningfully accessible to those with disabilities,” the spokesperson says.

For some disabled students, Disability Services’ options in this regard allow them to participate more fully in Columbia life inside and outside of the classroom.

After Tompkins matriculated to Barnard, she found out that the only rooms on campus that would meet her accessibility needs were not located in first-year residence halls. Tompkins felt that living outside of a first-year residence hall would compromise her ability to participate in first-year bonding and, transitively, Barnard’s community. Concerned, she reached out to Barnard Disability Services, which responded with decisive action.

“They made a room for me in Sulzberger [Hall, a first-year residence hall],” Tompkins says. “It was a brand-new room, and it was accessible. They did it till the day I moved in—it was a big last-minute effort. That was fantastic, and even though of course they should have an accessible room for first-years … they made that room for me, and that was great. I actually lived there my entire four years, because it was the most successful room that I could have. … Having the tunnels nearby and my resources as close as possible was just really important for me as an individual.”

Stumbling Blocks

Despite positive experiences with Disability Services on both sides of campus, though, there exist gaps in the accommodations these offices can offer. Sometimes, it’s as simple as making information about accessibility accessible in the first place.

Tompkins, who reported the best experiences with Disability Services of all the students with whom I spoke, puts the point succinctly. “It would be great if the Office of Disability Services was a little more proactive about, in general, showing options to students and saying, ‘You might need this.’ ‘You might need that,’” she says.

“When I came, I was really proactive about asking about what’s accessible, and how do I get to class, and certain navigations while I was making my class schedule, because I didn’t know the campus at all,” she says. But if she hadn’t taken the initiative, Tompkins admits that she likely would not have received nearly as much help as she did.

As she points out, she was the one who had to reach out to Barnard Disability Services to fix her housing situation, despite the clear social ramifications of placing a first-year in a non-first-year residence hall. “It’s not like Barnard ODS [Office of Disability Services] necessarily recommended that to me,” she says. “It was more me being proactive. Once I had that room and it was so great, that was amazing, but then it was like, ‘What do I need to have a successful time at Barnard?’”

Budelman, who has spent 10 years earning a B.A. and two law degrees, echoes Tompkins on the importance of self-advocacy. “I also think that all of those experiences have enabled me—highlight the word ‘enable’ there, I’m using it intentionally—to really actively pursue accommodations when I need them. And I demand them, I don’t request them,” Budelman says, “because I’m able to do that, and because I’m so informed, experienced with this subject in relation to my own life.”

Beyond feeling that the onus is on them to initiate action, students also report simple failures in the support systems designed to help them. While Morris and Tompkins have had some positive experiences in securing academic accommodations, not every experience goes so smoothly.

“I missed the first five weeks of a class, because my furniture wasn’t in place, and the building wasn’t accessible. I nearly failed the class,” Silfa says. “The professor doesn’t really care.

“She had a ‘Well, that’s not my problem’ attitude about it, which I thought was really callous, because it wasn’t really my fault either.”

Additionally, implementation of accommodations—for whatever reason—is not always consistent. While Morris has been able to have classes moved, not everyone has. “They said that they would be able to switch classes for me,” Silfa says. “I’ve never actually been able to have a class moved.”

Morris also points out that accessible entrances to academic buildings, among others, aren’t always open. Morris, who is also considering a creative writing major, uses the accessible campus-level elevator on Kent’s second floor to get to his classes. However, while going to a 6:10 p.m. class, he discovered that Kent’s accessible entrance closes before his class started. “So I’m realizing that it’s locked, running across campus to another elevator as fast as I can to get to class,” Morris says, “or I’m taking the really long way around over the bumpy bricks to begin with, because what other elevator, what other entrance, gets me to upper campus? Nothing.”

Additionally, outside academic buildings, Disability Services cannot always match students’ needs. For Morris, residential life is one such sticking point: as sophomore year and housing selection approaches, a lack of easily available information has made an already challenging process even more stressful.

“Ideally, Columbia would just have a building with a ramp or no steps at the entrance that had suites where I could not be isolated, and be around my friends, and kitchens that were not nooks,” Morris says. “That would be lovely—senior housing that was doable, and not up a bunch of random stairs like EC [East Campus], but we don’t have that.”

The Eyes of Their Peers

One of the biggest problems for disabled students is extracurricular life. While classes can be moved or classrooms modified to accommodate disabled students, clubs and other social activities are not as easily regulated.

In one of the better experiences reported, Tompkins discussed successfully securing accommodation for her sorority. “I was in Sigma Delta Tau, and they made the house accessible. It wasn’t before,” Tompkins says. When Tompkins was rushing sororities in her sophomore year, she says, an administrator reached out to her to let her know that the brownstones her future sorority might occupy were not accessible, but the office was hoping to change that. After she joined SDT, construction on an elevator began almost immediately; she estimates it lasted for about a year.

“There were students who were living in the house,” Tompkins says. “They could have complained, and they definitely did not.”

When it was finished, Tompkins recalls the joy that the access brought her.

“It had just been completed,” Tompkins says. “It was a Friday afternoon, and we just went up, and it was really fun. I saw the house for the first time.”

Silfa and Morris report similar problems with extracurriculars, but not similar successes. One particular point of contention for both has been Q House, a special interest community for students identifying as LGBTQ. Silfa and Morris identify as such, and Q House serves as an important resource for them, as well as a common location for meetings of the community. However, Q House does not have an accessible entrance—there are six steps in front of its 114th Street entrance.

Celia Cooper, a Columbia College senior and Q House coordinator, says that Q House has “talked about the possibility about that [making the entrance accessible], but that’s very much Housing’s decision to make.” The effect is that disabled individuals, including Silfa and Morris, cannot utilize Q House as much as their able-bodied peers can.

Silfa serves as president of GS Alliance, an LGBTQ group with 100 members, and is sometimes called to meetings at Q House. “All the queer groups want to meet, but then it’s like, ‘Oh wait, Jess is coming, where are we going to meet?’” Silfa says. “They’re nicer about that, don’t get me wrong, but they never thought about that before.”

“The assumption is not that there will be someone disabled there, the assumption is that it’s okay to have whatever number of steps at the entrance to your event,” Morris says. “I can’t live in Q House. I don’t know whether I would have wanted to, but there was a time when I looked into things here, and it’s like, ‘Oh, they have that? That’s really cool! I want to do that!’ I don’t know if I still would want to do that, but I don’t have the option.”

The problem with Disability Services’ mission of ensuring that disabled Columbia and Barnard students feel as integrated into the community as possible is that, as an administrative office, it can’t oversee every aspect of students’ lives. On one hand, this makes sense; few college students would want administrators regulating how inclusive parties are. But at the same time, at what point does ensuring that school-sponsored activities are as inclusive as possible fall to administrators, and at what point are such basic student interactions out of their hands? In this nebulous area, it is often up to fellow students to ensure their disabled peers feel as welcomed as possible.

These experiences can often be positive. “Students were really great,” Tompkins recalls, noting that she tried and failed to think of a negative disability-related interaction with an able-bodied peer while at Barnard. “They were really open and nice, and obviously it’s an individual experience, but I never ran into an issue that way.”

Other students have a different perspective. While they note that most of their able-bodied peers are supportive on an individual basis, there can still be insidious social tension, ranging from awkwardness to hostility.

“With individuals or clubs, whenever you get pressed for space, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘Oh, we have this inaccessible place here, let’s still hold it there,’” Morris says. “‘I can’t find a seat in the bottom floor of Ferris, and I can if I just go up these stairs, that would be a lot easier for everyone else.’ There’s that pressure—it’s on you, the reason things are harder in this little situation. … That always bites.”

“Students quite frequently say to me … ‘You’re not like other disabled persons. You’re smart,’” Budelman says. “That’s backhanded. I can’t even call it a compliment.”

Outside of clubs and classrooms, Silfa sees students treat her poorly even in fleeting interactions. “There are some students who don’t know how to deal with a disabled person. I’ve gotten made fun of,” Silfa says. “I have the misfortune to be fat and disabled, and that adds to it.

“Even in Hamilton, people have defaced the sign for ‘take the stairs,’” she says. “I’m not taking the elevator because I’m fat and disabled. I’m taking the elevator because someone hit me with their car. It’s disheartening.”

“Columbia is very uncomfortable with disability,” Budelman says. “People at Columbia don’t know how to talk about disability—that’s students, faculty, administration—and because there’s discomfort around the topic, that makes me uncomfortable.”

Although he acknowledges that Disability Services works hard to help students, Budelman still feels the University has more work to do. “Many disabled people, including myself, believe that Columbia University as an institution is failing its disabled students,” he says. “Because of that, it’s failing its students in general.”

It’s easy to think that, because Disability Services cannot control every social interaction on campus, no matter how much it may accommodate disabled individuals, Columbia may not be able to change disability perception and culture effectively. Because Disability Services does not necessarily work with able-bodied students (or professors), it can’t change their ideas about disability and its role on campus.

This thinking is defeatist and incorrect. Disability Services may not work directly with able-bodied community members, but the administration can still influence their perceptions. From increasing the visibility of accessible entrances through Disability Services, to bringing up discussion of disability more frequently in academic settings (including the Core Curriculum and Nine Ways of Knowing), there are many ways to shift the perception of disability on campus, and, with it, the idea of Columbia as a place primarily for able-bodied students.

Moving forward

The situation of physically disabled students on campus holds no easy answers. The problems of ensuring that disabled people are treated equally in a society that was historically constructed with able bodies in mind are not contained to Columbia’s campus. The problems such a culture creates cannot be solved in a Morningside Heights vacuum, no matter how valiantly Columbia may try.

However, it is equally fruitless to pretend that nothing can be done to make our college on a hilltop more accessible.

Better accessibility starts with better communication. “Start talking with disabled people before you make your decision,” Budelman says. “Columbia is following the letter of the law in many instances, but that’s not the same thing.”

“You’re not going to achieve accessibility if you’re not actually listening and engaging with disabled people.”

Morris also emphasizes the importance of communication, but through making information more available, particularly online. “Getting classes listed, just somewhere, as, ‘Here are this semester’s courses that are related to disability studies.’ Getting a relatively in-depth description of the accessibility of different dorms, whether that’s through Housing or Spec or Bwog,” Morris says. “They mean much more to me in terms of my ability to assess my options, whatever they are.”

Better accessibility could also come via academic spotlight on disability issues. “I would be happy if in the next some years Columbia developed a minor, or perhaps a program, in disability studies,” Baswell says. “They need faculty leadership to happen.”

Finally, for some, better accessibility comes through the community—both within the group of disabled individuals and outside of it. “I would love to have a forum or some place for us to talk about our experiences and just vent,” Silfa says. “I would love to have more people to speak to in my position, or maybe incoming people.”

This social accessibility is not limited to the disabled community, though. “This is a problem in general that really ends up hurting Columbia students, but very specifically to disabled students, there just isn’t a sense of community,” Budelman says. “It causes all individuals to struggle with subjects like mental health and just helping taking care of each other as a community of students. … Columbia needs to do a much greater job facilitating community involvement as a campus, and that most certainly includes facilitating the participation of disabled persons within that community.”

*  *  *

As a largely able-bodied student body, it’s easy to be ignorant of what disabled peers deal with at this college on a hilltop. That’s not to indict able-bodied Columbians—it’s something that can happen to any group with a predetermined and reinforced idea of who belongs.

When I began to write this story, I wanted to believe that I was sensitive. My younger sister is hard-of-hearing. I have grown up looking straight at her when I speak, so she can read my lips, and scanning the backs of DVD cases to check for captions. I wanted to believe that I wouldn’t be oblivious to the challenges disabled individuals face at Columbia, particularly as I’ve traversed this campus for four years. As soon as I began to look more closely, though, I realized how ignorant I was, and am.

Despite years’ worth of classes and meetings in Math, I never noticed its inaccessible design. As Morris points out to me, as Spectator’s former staff director, I never considered how Spec’s less-visible accessible entrance could deter potential Speccies from joining. In short, I’d never realized the number of inaccessible paths I blithely traverse at Columbia. These are challenges I didn’t consider because I don’t face them, and I suspect almost every able-bodied person on campus feels similarly.

But it’s not always easy for able-bodied people to relate to disabled individuals’ experiences. As with any social divide, the empathy gap can complicate problem-solving. For a disabled person, Budelman explains, it’s easy to imagine that the able-bodied can never overcome that barrier. He takes a different approach.

“There was this premise that nondisabled people just don’t understand us, they don’t understand anything, they don’t understand the oppression we feel,” he says.

“I think that’s a really bad starting point. It makes people really defensive,” Budelman continues. “We have to get people comfortable with the idea that they might not be able to imagine what we’re going through.”

In the end, being disabled at Columbia doesn’t by any means equate to a bad experience here, and there exist myriad ways to improve accessibility and openness on campus. The disabled Columbia experience is just currently, and hopefully impermanently, less easy than an able-bodied one.

“The ability to be casual, the ability to sort of be spontaneous on campus, and do things without necessarily planning them, or go on adventures … is a lot harder when you’re planning around a disability,” Morris says. “It’s not impossible. I do it all the time, it works out, and my friends are very accommodating and very helpful.

“I love my life here, but it’s just made more difficult by the little steps along the way.”


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