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Opinion: Elevators are essential in order to be an inclusive campus

Priya Thoren

Staff Writer

Eaton hall

As someone who climbs up to the fourth floor of Eaton Hall five days a week, I often get asked why I don’t just use the elevator. Now, I don’t mind the exercise of trudging up the stairs, but the main reason is that the elevator in Eaton is slow and oftentimes crowded. For someone like myself, climbing the stairs is a non-issue alternative to using the elevator. But what happens to people who don’t have this ability?

Disability Advocacy Club (DAC) President Andrew Caruana (‘24) said that “the community that [elevators] most immediately impact is the disabled community on campus, and it’s not necessarily just people with wheelchairs—it’s people that use various types of canes, or elbow-armpit crutches that stairs are difficult for. Stairs can be very, very difficult for people with asthma.” Aside from students, the cleaning staff uses the elevator in order to avoid taking the cleaning carts up stairs. The lack of efficiency surrounding the elevators has a lot of immediate impacts and then there’s a lot of secondary stuff that becomes a lot more difficult if it isn’t working, Caruana added.

Eaton Hall is one of the buildings on campus that has a poorly operating elevator. There are other buildings on campus, however, that do not have elevators within them at all. Baxter Hall is the only dorm on campus that is accessible for mobility disabled residents, asides Kaneko Commons, which has its own hindrances such as the requirement of being able to cross the street or go across the sky bridge to get to the building. “The buildings that do have elevators, I think generally, they’re pretty slow. They are, at least in my experience, fairly prone to breaking. I know that for pretty much the entirety of fall semester last year, the elevator in Eaton was completely broken, and made having classes anywhere other than the first floor for anyone with mobility disabilities very difficult or not possible. That was definitely a big issue,” Caruana said, referring to his own experiences with the elevators on campus.

Throughout the years, DAC has tried to push their concerns about this ongoing issue forward to the university. They have raised the issue with staff and people on campus. “I think it's come up a lot with DAC in the past about trying to have elevators or just better accessibility in residence halls, but a big issue that we run into… is that the money does not exist,” Caruana explained. This means that it does not look like this problem will be completely solved in the near future. It can be pretty difficult for disabled students to feel at home on campus and feel like they're fully welcomed and integrated into the community, Caruana added. This is because they can't easily get around campus in the first place if there's not adequate access. This clashes with Willamette’s claims to be active towards inclusion for all in their statement on the Accessible Education Services section of the school’s website: “Willamette University is committed to accessible and inclusive programs.” If this is the case, why is there still a whole group of students on campus feeling excluded?

If an elevator on campus is broken and needs a simple fix, the maintenance team is relatively quick to get on the job. Throughout recent years, several campus elevator controllers and jacks have been replaced, with the entire University Services Building elevator being replaced just last year in 2021, Facilities said in an email interview. However, Caruana provided insight into why the Eaton situation specifically is a little tricky. “My understanding is that… it took much much longer to fix because the elevator was so old that they didn’t have the parts for it anymore.” Even if, on the surface-level of the issue, it seems as though things are taken care of promptly, there is clearly a deeper matter at hand. The university needs to take accountability and realize that there are some things that need to change because there is literally no other option, which Facilities expressed awareness of: “Facilities is currently in the process of upgrading/modernizing elevators on campus that we cannot get parts for anymore due to age. This includes elevators at Sparks Athletic Center, McCulloch Stadium, Hatfield Library, Eaton Hall, Kaneko A-wing, Kaneko T-wing, Law Library, Putnam UC freight elevator and Smullin Hall,” they wrote.

It is widely known on campus that Willamette University is the oldest university in the Pacific Northwest, founded in 1842. Though the history of the campus’ buildings has, for the most part, been well preserved, there are issues that come with this effort. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures that there is no discrimination against people with disabilities, including specific accommodations and transportation. Caruana explained that the way the ADA was set up is that buildings that were built after a certain point have to adhere to certain standards, but buildings that were built before the ADA—almost every building on Willamette’s campus—don't have to have the same ADA compliance, because they're historic buildings. “So I think honestly, a lot of times Willamette as a whole tends to not do what they don't absolutely have to do. Which from a cost standpoint, makes a lot of sense. But it just leaves out a decent chunk of people that I think have a lot to offer Willamette as an institution. So I'd like to see more work being done just so that those voices can be lifted up, but I know it's a difficult issue,” Caruana said. Facilities agrees with Caruana’s views, and there appear to be some upcoming changes in the approach to the issue: “[e]levator issues aren't something we ignore since they are an important component of accessibility conveyance. The current round of modernizations were budgeted for as soon as we found out from our service company that parts were becoming hard to get or no longer available,” Facilities explained.

Willamette does seem to be moving in the right direction, but is this pace fast enough? The Facilities Team wrote that “there is a desire to add elevators to the residence halls that don't have them, but there are no current plans.” However, there have been some other recent updates to the campus that still fall into the category of making things easier for the disabled community here. The university has replaced a lot of the older door buttons, and they've added a few new ones as well. They are also putting in more handrails, which does help, according to Caruana. Even with these new additions, it is important to keep in mind that elevators are definitely a major area where they are behind as a campus, and Willamette should take the initiative to make them more widespread and better functioning.

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