Opinion: Campus Architecture Should Be Modified to Meet Standards of Universal Accessibility
The long, winding wheelchair accessibility ramp that leads to Montag Center. Photos by Rebecca May.
Able-bodied individuals, such as myself, take their condition for granted and often fail to consider the privilege of being able to move about the world uninhibited by uncontrollable physical circumstances. The same absent-mindedness towards disability issues can also be said about Willamette University’s construction, which either makes meager attempts at universally accessible architecture that end up not doing enough, or shirking accessibility concerns entirely. It wasn’t until I helped a student in a wheelchair up one of the bricked ramps of Eaton after witnessing that they were about to tip over backwards due to the steep incline, that I realized regardless of its efforts, Willamette’s campus is [not accessible] for students with physical disabilities, and that even the accessibility measures in place are not enough to accommodate all levels of physical ability. Plain and simple, something has to be done to fix this issue.
To gain deeper insight into the accessibility struggles faced by disabled students, I spoke with the president of Disability Advocacy Club (DAC), Andrew Caruana (‘24), and vice president Charlotte Holmes (‘22) to hear about the architecture and accessibility problems they and others in the DAC faced daily. Caruana informed me that he doesn’t face too many issues with accessibility on a daily basis, but only because he goes out of his way to avoid areas and particular architecture that is inaccessible. For Andrew, this means taking a long way around through Baxter and down elevators to access Montag Den, because the allegedly accessible ramp to Montag is “too steep to go up, and kind of unsafe to go down” for Andrew’s wheelchair or on his cane. As a resident advisor on Eastside, he also noted how difficult any sort of work in the Matthews Complex is for him due to the lack of elevators, saying that “bringing my wheelchair isn’t even an option” in some areas of campus. How is an RA with a disability supposed to adequately perform their duties and maintain the health of students if an absence of accessible architecture restricts them from doing so? Clearly, administration has overlooked the need for accessible buildings if this is the case.
It isn’t just building access that needs to meet the needs of all students, but the ability to get around campus more generally too. Holmes informed me of a running joke in DAC: “in other news, the sky bridge still isn’t accessible.” During their time living in Kaneko, Holmes has noticed disabled students “go way out of their way to get to and from” the residence hall since there is no accessible way for them to cross the skybridge. She cites other accessibility “issues that could come with crossing the train tracks” with a cane or wheelchair, as well as the risks of reckless driving or cat-calling. I realized this also meant disabled students coming and going to Kaneko had to double the amount of doors they open to get into the building, something that could cause problems for students with conditions that restrict muscle use, or make it painful. Caruana admitted similar troubles during his routine trips to Goudy, caused by the presence of potholes in walking paths leading there which have tipped his “wheelchair over a couple times.” If students of differing physical ability are unable to efficiently commute between one of the university’s largest residential areas to class, or have to worry about tipping over their mobility-enhancing accessories on their way to get food, then surely a project to make universally accessible architectural changes is necessary.
Accessibility is a point of trouble even for students trying to gain access to the Accessibility services office. Holmes was sure to emphasize the ironic, “honestly embarrassing” fact that the office of Accessible Education itself does not have an easy-access button that disabled students can use to open its door without physically straining their bodies. Caruana said his experience with accommodations has been “about 70/30 positive to negative,” easily finding accessible housing accommodations. At the semester’s start, he “needed three classes moved because the Eaton elevator was broken” and because he “can’t get up three flights of stairs,” but said that professors were receptive to classroom movement accommodations. Yet, this anecdote still illustrates how architectural accessibility failures complicate things not just for disabled students, but for professors and their classmates as well.
Caruana said that given the visible nature of his disability, nobody questioned his need for accommodations, but that “it can be difficult for students who have invisible disabilities, or ones that aren’t as well documented and diagnosed.” Holmes echoed this point, speaking of her own struggle to receive accomodations without proper documentation, and another student in DAC who was told by AES to “not even try to get housing accommodations on campus, just live off campus.” This is a tone-deaf response which displays the lack of effort put into universal accessibility by administration, and supports Holmes’ claim that there is a “general attitude of trying to weed out as many students as possible from getting accommodations to cost the university less money.” Overall, the two of them agreed that while good for assisting more generalized campus needs, “when it comes to really specific, individualized student needs, Willamette sometimes struggles to make adequate accommodations,” with Caruana adding that there “seems to be a reluctance to think outside the box.”
In terms of direct changes that could be made to improve accessibility for all, Holmes and Caruana stressed the need for lighter, easier to open doors. Holmes honed in on Smulin’s door facing the quad as the worst offender, and shared that one member of DAC with Cerebral Palsy “had multiple instances where they have been late to class because they haven’t been able to open” it and were “stuck waiting out there for 15 minutes.” Caruana added the Olin/Collins doors facing the quad to this list, saying that he knows “several students with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome who have dislocated joints trying to get doors open.” It is unfathomable that these stories are something the university allows to occur by failing to modify door hydraulics or provide automatic access buttons such that students can safely and easily get to class. Caruana said that ensuring every stairwell in academic and residential buildings has a handrail rail would be another “tangible smaller change that would make a difference in quality of student life,” making it easier for students of varying physical circumstance to get around, “especially in a fire or emergency situation.” This is true for disabled students, and any able-bodied individual who sustains injuries from sports or other accidents. Universal accessibility is important for everyone, as something like a broken bone could happen at any time.
These small, easy fixes should be implemented as swiftly as possible, yet Caruana acknowledged it may take a while to get around to renovations on “the older buildings that are built in such fundamentally inaccessible ways.” One of Willamette’s draws is its vintage architecture that gives the school the feel of a classical, hallowed university of prestige, yet in maintaining the aged architecture of campus buildings like Eaton or Waller, current students lose out on accessibility needs. Caruana feels like “Faculty tends to lean on the shortcomings of the Americans With Disabilities Act to justify why things haven’t been made better.” The shortcoming in question is a [provision] that makes buildings constructed before 1993 exempt from accessible architectural mandates due to their status as historic buildings, yet Caruana says that the school’s use of that argument to explain why these buildings can’t be improved “feels misleading because there’s nothing saying you can’t make these buildings more accessible.” If Willamette has the resources to make our historic buildings like Eaton and Smulin/Walton accessible, they should, and even if the resources are not currently there, they should still invest in them to support and protect the human dignity of disabled folks.
Holmes gave reasoning that “When disabled prospective students tour, and see that even the main areas of campus aren’t wheelchair accessible, they’re not going to want to come here.” Caruana closed with a decisive statement: “Yes, Willamette needs to prioritize universal accessibility. Part of it is getting students in the door, but the other is keeping them here. If physically disabled students come to Willamette, and then after a semester find that it's not an accessible campus, that isn’t going to bother making it more accessible beyond lip service, they’ll take their money and go elsewhere.” Therefore, it is in the school’s best interest to approach and apply new renovations or constructions from the framework of universally accessible design, as it would not just benefit disabled students in their day to day lives, but every person on campus and the university’s goal to increase attendance as a whole.