Access Coalition hopes to increase accessibility at Tufts

Disclaimer: Tys Sweeney is the executive opinion editor at the Tufts Daily and the vice president of Access Coalition at Tufts. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

A new student organization has arrived on campus to address the lack of support for students with disabilities. The Access Coalition at Tufts (ACT) hopes to provide both physical and emotional support to students with disabilities while also engaging students on campus with the issue.

Katy Gehling, president of ACT, was inspired to start the club because of her own struggles getting around on campus.

“With my disability, it’s difficult to walk for too long. Last semester, I had to walk for longer than I really could, and it increased a whole bunch of symptoms and made it really difficult for me to finish out the semester. In a way, I am fairly lucky because I have family in the area who can help me get to places, but a lot of students at Tufts don’t have that,” Gehling, a senior, told the Daily.

“After reading a little more about the issue and how it’s really broader than I initially thought, I thought we could be part of the solution and really organize ways to help our fellow students get around,” she said.

ACT is looking to start three new programs to address accessibility on campus. Gehling highlighted two.

“Two of them are a driving program using golf carts to get people kind of door to door, and a walking program where volunteers can walk with students who are injured or have disabilities. Sometimes it’s nice to know that somebody is there in case you fall, you need help opening a door or you need help carrying your bag,” Gehling said.

Gehling said that the organization plans on using private fundraisers to pay for the carts.

Kate Murphy, a member of ACT who first became involved through her activism in Sunrise Movement Tufts and her attempts to make the climate strike more accessible, told the Daily in an interview she was excited about the programs Gehling described. Murphy, a sophomore, noted that the increase in accessibility could lead to a more diverse student body.

“I think we don’t really think of [equitable access] as much of an issue because a lot of people who do have disabilities maybe don’t enroll in this college because they realize it’s going to be a huge accessibility issue,” she said.

Murphy said she hoped the organization would eventually move to include mental health issues in its goals to increase accessibility.

As ACT is a new student organization, university administration will have to review its plan to use golf carts. A joint statement from Vice President for Operations Barbara Stein, Senior Campus Planner Heidi Sokol, Senior Facilities Director Cory Pouliot and Associate Dean of Student Accessibility and Academic Resources Kirsten Behling acknowledged the necessity of helping students with disabilities around accessibility barriers, but questioned the viability of the golf cart plan.

“Tufts Public Safety and Risk Management would need to review any such proposal to assess it for safety and risk,” the statement said.

Such risk factors include steep slopes, rain and snow, registration of the vehicles so they can cross public streets, storage of the vehicles, charging stations and logistical issues in assigning carts.

The statement emphasized that there are already resources on campus to help students navigate accessibility issues.

“Older buildings that have not yet been renovated pose a challenge for those with mobility limitations,” the statement said.

The statement emphasized that Student Accessibility Services already means to increase accessibility for students.

“Students can work with Student Accessibility Services (SAS) around access needs. SAS will work to help students by relocating their classes into accessible buildings, moving their dorm rooms if needed, and help identify accessible parking spaces if appropriate,” the statement said.

Gehling recognized the work SAS does to make Tufts more accessible for students, citing her request to proactively grant key card access to students with mobility issues.

“If you haven’t been in a building before, you don’t necessarily know that there’s a pathway that requires card access. You shouldn’t have to have a class in a building in order to get into it, if other students can get into it without having a class there. Equal access means a student with an injury or disability can get anywhere that a student without one can,” Gehling said.

Nevertheless, there is more room for improvement for student accessibility. Through ACT, students with accessibility issues can suggest improvements that would make Tufts more accessible for them, as well as other students.

“Part of the reason that we want to talk to more people who have mobility issues is that we can have a better understanding of what the issues are because it is so individualized. We would love to hear anybody’s story or anyone’s suggestions about what else we could be doing or the university could be doing to make this place more accessible to everybody,” Gehling said.

In addition to directly helping students with disabilities and injuries get around campus, Gehling hopes to engage students across campus on the issue of disability.

“Our third program is an educational wing to the group where we could have panels or bring in speakers just to raise awareness about this issue,” she said.

ACT is still looking for new members to join the organization, including students to fill leadership positions on its executive board.

“We are looking for a liaison between our group and the administration, a fleet director to be in charge of one of our programs, a volunteer director and a few other positions,” Gehling said.

Rachel Freedman contributed reporting to this article.