Tufts accommodates handicapped students on the Hill, but college life still presents struggles

Tufts’ hilly terrain and the occasional block of back-to-back classes may be a slight nuisance to the average student. For Jumbos with physical disabilities, however, “the Hill” presents a challenge far beyond the realm of annoyance.

According to Yolanda King, director of Residential Life, Tufts currently has six residence facilities that are deemed handicap accessible — Carmichael, Hodgdon, Metcalf, Miller, South and Sophia Gordon. King said that while these halls have housed students with a range of disabilities, students in wheelchairs or with impaired hearing are the current disabled occupants.

The level of handicap accessibility throughout the campus molds the daily activities of freshman Justin Cohen, who has been wheelchair-bound since the eleventh grade.

Cohen’s transition from high school to college was assisted by accommodations provided by Disability Services at the Academic Resource Center.

“One of the neatest things that they have is a remote control that automatically opens all of the electric doors around campus,” Cohen said. “That’s been really helpful for me.”

Along with other accommodations, including package delivery to his dormitory and assistance in the dining halls, subtle changes in the classroom have additionally lessened the difficulty of Cohen’s adjustment to college life on the Hill.

“There is a microphone that the teacher wears that sends a signal to my hearing aid that allows me to hear better,” he said. “It’s not something anyone else would hear any louder with; it just sends an electric signal to my hearing aid. The school provided me with that.”

Despite such assistance on what Cohen called one of the more handicap-accessible campuses he visited, he faces inconveniences on a daily basis due to his wheelchair use.

“One of the more difficult things is that I cannot get into all of the dorms on campus,” Cohen said. “Most of the dorms I can get onto the first floor, but if there is no elevator I cannot go onto the other floors. For the dorms with stairs leading into the entrance, I cannot get into those at all.”

Cohen also said that certain areas of the campus itself are lacking in accessibility, adding extra minutes to his commute between classes.

“When I need to get to the area near Miner hall, instead of going up the stairs towards the library, I have to go all the way around the side of the library on the winding path,” Cohen said. “One of the things they need to do is create some sort of lift or something to allow me to get over that hill instead of going all the way around the library, because it really takes a lot of time.”

Tufts Facilities Department is currently in the process of submitting a plan to the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board in the hopes of expanding handicap accessibility on campus. The campus currently provides 26 handicap accessible rooms.

“We’ve been working on this for about a year and a half, and we’ve acquired some help from architects and code consultants to help formulate a plan,” said Eugene Berrio, manager of planning. “With this preliminary plan that we are looking at, we are trying to get up to the appropriate standards.”

Primarily due to the age of the Medford/Somerville campus, some buildings are difficult if not impossible to renovate and facilitate accessibility, Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman said.

“When you have a facility that is varied in the age of the buildings, and things that were built 50 or 75 years ago were not built to the standard of accessibility that we know is the expectation of all of us today, it is difficult,” Reitman said. “It would be unrealistic to have 100 percent of them accessible because you just can’t make some of these buildings accessible. You could throw all of the money in the world at them, and you still couldn’t do it, you’d be better off knocking the building down and starting again.”

In regards to Tufts’ notorious upward slope, Reitman noted that navigation of the Tufts campus proves difficult to those with physical limitations.

“Getting from uphill to downhill or downhill to uphill is not so easy,” Reitman said. “Packard Avenue does it, and the walkway around the lower side of the library does it. But is that good? I wish there was something — and I know many people do — in the middle of the campus around the campus center, which is the thoroughfare.”

According to Sandra Baer, program director of Disability Services, many physically handicapped students may not choose Tufts for reasons including the campus geography.

“I think that the terrain of this campus is very challenging, and I think we only have a few students using wheelchairs because of the fact that we have hills and the upper campus and lower campus,” Baer said. “Students may feel that that’s just not their choice in terms of what it’s like to navigate that type of terrain.”

Baer added that a big challenge for physically disabled students upon beginning college is attempting to prepare for class and activities without prior familiarity with the campus.

“Coming to a new campus that they are totally unfamiliar [with], students may not be totally aware of what the access issues are and how to orient themselves,” Baer said.

Baer argued that it is the school’s responsibility to practice vigilance in adhering to the American Disabilities Act, under which the school has an obligation to provide equal access, both in terms of academic resources and accessibility with regard to buildings and grounds.

While acknowledging the constraints of the Tufts campus and climate, Reitman argued that Tufts always has and will continue to make any necessary accommodations for all disabled students who choose to attend.

“Is Tufts an attractive place to come for everyone? Probably not. There are easier places to go, so I think a modern campus in a temperate part of the country has some advantages in that respect,” Reitman said. “But I can see why New England and the Ivies have a draw, so people with ability issues should not be precluded. They’ve got to want it, though, because it takes work on our part, but it also takes work on their part.”

According to Cohen, the commute to class and dorm accessibility are not the most affected areas of his life at Tufts, but rather the social limitations due to his relative immobility.

“I mostly regret not being able to have the same social life that the other students have at college more than the difficulty commuting to classes,” Cohen said. “While I never really liked dancing even when I could, it is nice just to have the option to go.”

While Cohen’s collegiate experience thus far is not drastically different from that of high school, as he has always maintained a small group of close friends, he said that his expectations of campus life were different than reality.

“Eventually, after being in some classes with me, some of my classmates might make an effort to get to know me, but usually it takes a while before the school community is used to me,” he said. “Socially, I did think that the college community would be more forthcoming than high school, and while it is a little bit, it is not as much as I thought it would be.”