Life on the Hill comes with extra challenges for students with physical disabilities

Transitioning to college life is hard for all newcomers, but for some students, Tufts’ hilly campus and crowded lecture halls are especially troubling. From the 10-minute detour required to get from Tisch Library to Braker Hall to the need to request for student organization meetings to be moved to accessible rooms in order to check them out, the day-to-day life of a student with a physical disability can be considerably more difficult than one might think.

Aware of the possible complications students with disabilities face, several departments at Tufts have collaborated to ensure that every student who enrolls has access to the same educational opportunities.

According to Sandra Baer, director of Disability Services at Tufts, her staff works hard to arrange special accommodations for students who need them. As an institution, Tufts has a responsibility to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, she said.

The term “reasonable,” however, can be interpreted in a number of ways, Baer said.

“If [the disability] is going to cause undue hardship or costs on the university, it would probably fall out of the category of being reasonable,” Baer said.

Usually, Baer said, a student’s physical impairment is dealt with on an individual basis when that student arrives on campus.

“If a student in a wheelchair is coming to campus, we have to use a team approach, since we have to consider accessibility issues related to classroom buildings and dorms,” Baer said.

A team of Disability Services staff members meets one-on-one with students with disabilties before they matriculate in order to plan special accommodations, she said.

Junior Justin Cohen, who uses a wheelchair, said that Tufts has been helpful throughout his academic career but that he still faces daily challenges that make his life more difficult than the average student’s.

With a variety of dining options on campus, most Jumbos have the freedom to eat when and where they please. For some students with disabilities, however, any meal requires the help and coordination of Dinning Services, Cohen pointed out.

Dining Services Director Patti Klos said that the department will do anything reasonable to accommodate a student with a disability but that arrangements are usually case-specific.

“It is somewhat situational,” Klos said. “We have designed our buildings to be accessible. In recent years they have made sure there are remote activated devices on doors, for examples, to allow students to access Carmichael, Dewick and Hodgdon.”

Klos explained that all dining halls on campus adhere to ADA regulations in terms of counter height and access to food stations. Students with disabilities often still need additional help, though, she said.

“Some students have helpers, and others request help to collect their food and sit at their table,” she said.

Cohen said that when it comes to collecting food, Dining Services has been very accommodating.

“They always have someone who helps me get my food in the dining halls,” he said.

Similarly, residential options on campus are somewhat limited for students with disabilities. While not all dormitories are handicap-friendly, Cohen said he has always been placed in a handicap-friendly dorm, such as South Hall.

“In the dorms, they always make whatever adjustments I need such as making the bathroom handicap accessible, providing automatic doors and a remote to open them or putting my mailbox on a lower level,” he said.

Still, there are many dorms on campus that Cohen simply cannot live in or visit. Among the oldest buildings on the Hill, West Hall is not handicap-accessible, and in several other buildings, only the ground floor is accessible.

Some of these buildings do not lend themselves toward renovation in a disability-friendly way, according to Vice President of Operations Richard Reynolds. Tufts, instead, is focusing on ensuring accessibility in classrooms, he said.

“We need to make sure the Tufts experience is available to every student that enrolls here,” Reynolds said. “We are working to make classroom space accessible wherever possible.”

This year Tufts signed an agreement with the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB), a regulatory agency under the Massachusetts Office of Public Safety, to regulate the design of public buildings in order to make them accessible, functional and safe for persons with disabilities.

According to the agreement, over the next five years, Tufts will work to make five percent of all rooms on campus handicap-accessible, and, in exchange for this commitment, the MAAB will grant Tufts waivers for buildings that simply do not lend themselves toward handicap accessibility, Reynolds said.

“They are very happy with what Tufts is doing, and hopefully we are setting examples for other colleges in the state,” he said. “This agreement shows that we are taking the lead on trying to work out arrangements that will provide for students with disabilities and will facilitate their student life.”

Although certain dorms will inevitably remain inaccessible, according to Yolanda King, director of the Office of Residential Life and Learning, she said that students with disabilities have the same residential experience as other students.

“Currently, [the dorms] where these students are assigned [do] not inhibit them,” she said. “They are able to participate in the residential community’s programs and activities according to what they are interested in. [The] staff receives training to make sure the residences are an inclusive experience.”

But no matter how many buildings are made accessible, there will always be difficulties in some students’ daily lives, according to Cohen.

“As far as academics go, I am always able to pick my classes in advance so that classrooms can be moved if they are not in an accessible location,” Cohen said. “They also provide a note-taker and extended time on tests.”

However, the everyday challenge of getting to certain buildings still prevails for Cohen, largely because of they way the Hill is laid out, he said.

“My biggest challenge is probably getting to my classes. I usually have to take these detours that everyone else doesn’t need to take, and it adds time,” he said. “In the auditoriums I am either in the very back or very front because of how it is designed.”

Cohen also said his mobility issues have made him wary of joining extracurricular activities and student organizations.

“I can never just decide to go to a club meeting,” he said. “If it is not in a handicapped spot, then they have to try to move their locations. And if I decide the club is not for me, then they moved their location for nothing.”

Senior Molly Schwartz, who had a temporary disability and had to use crutches, agreed that the Hill poses numerous problems for students with disabilities.

“The hill was a major problem on crutches,” she said. “Even when I was off crutches but in a walking boot, I had to map out my entire day and figure out where I could cut out extra walking by combining errands. I became very aware of the freedom I had before my injury.”

Schwartz said that the Tufts community is relatively open to students with disabilities but that people are perhaps not as aware as they could be about what life at Tufts is like with a disability.

“The simplest things can become incredibly difficult, and we don’t think about this until we have to face it ourselves,” she said. “I must say, while a significant number of people did open doors for me or offer to help me out, I was surprised by the number of people who didn’t.”