The Tufts Community Union Senate announced on Jan. 19 that a special election will be held to fill six vacant positions, among them a new disability community senator. An announcement from the disability justice club ABLE encourages “a member of the disability community … [who] want[s] to change the lack of accessibility, education and representation on campus” to apply.
The Office of Institutional Research website reports that 15% of students were formally registered with Student Accessibility Services in the fall of 2018. However, since the pandemic, as population levels of depression and anxiety have risen by 25%, this number very well may be higher today.
“Disabled” as a stand-alone sounds quite vague. Student Accessibility Services gives examples of students with disabilities: “impaired hearing, speech, mobility or vision; learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder” as well as serious medical and/or psychiatric illness. SAS aims to provide reasonable accommodations to those with such disabilities, but this may be difficult at an institution lacking the infrastructure to accommodate everyone.
First-year dorms such as Hodgdon Hall were built as long ago as 1954, and the lack of accessibility in these buildings reflects their age. Despite being six floors high, Hodgdon lacks an elevator — making it difficult or even impossible for anyone in a wheelchair or with mobility difficulties to access most of the building. Even if someone with a mobility disability does not live on an upper level of an elevator-less residence hall, the lack of adequate accommodations means being excluded from visiting friends, socializing and moving autonomously.
These conditions seem to be a direct violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act which prohibits discrimination based on disability; however, buildings can be exempt from regulations to build accommodations such as elevators if they can prove it is an undue hardship. With an endowment of $2.7 billion in 2021, Tufts’ lack of elevators in buildings may be less of an issue of financial hardship and more representative of the lack of housing that led to the creation of temporary first-year housing known as the Court at Professors Row. Although installing an elevator in an existing building is possible, it would require closing the residence halls and at least temporarily displacing hundreds of students. Thus enters the new senator. The creation of a disability community senator has the potential to communicate accessibility crises such as these to the wider community.
Another layer of accessibility that is particularly pertinent as many shift out of a COVID-cautious mindset is the spread of infectious diseases. The disabled community often intersects with sick or immunocompromised people and those at high risk for COVID-related complications. On Jan. 5, Tufts stated via email that the previously announced bivalent COVID booster and flu vaccine requirements would be retracted due to the impracticality of enforcing a mandate. While getting vaccinated may seem like an unfair, unnecessary and annoying burden for healthy, able-bodied individuals, the community vaccination rate is an essential part of maintaining wellbeing for immunocompromised people. As a minority community group on campus, this opinion may not always be adequately communicated. Where Tufts chooses to allocate resources, energy and attention has a lot to do with the student voices and what they are advocating for. Thus, uplifting the voices of disabled students will shine a light on perspectives that might otherwise be disregarded when making decisions about community health.
While the establishment of a disability community senator position is a stride in the right direction, there is still room for improvement. Rather than pigeonholing one student into the responsibility of advocating for an entire demographic of students that will inevitably continue to grow, Tufts as an institution and we as individuals should try to make our community as inclusive as possible. For members of our community, this can involve notifying maintenance workers if an outdoor ramp is not salted — even if you yourself do not depend on a ramp to enter a building.
Note from the author: For those interested in the position of disability community senator, a general information meeting will take place on Jan. 23 from 5–6 p.m. in the Sophia Gordon Multipurpose Room. Applications will be due on Jan. 24.