Swarthmore College has recently made improvements to increase the accessibility of campus, including the installation of a lift in the Intercultural Center (IC), new automatic door openers, and more paved pathways. However, more work remains to be make campus not only accessible, but friendly to those with disabilities.
A lift was installed over winter break in the IC, making its “big room” accessible to students with mobility issues for the first time. Many students wondered why it took so long for this lift to be installed. According to Susan Smythe, the American Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) Program Coordinator, the college was previously advised that a lift was not allowed to block the staircase when deployed.
More recent advisors, however, told the college that the lift cannot block the staircase when folded up, but that this requirement does not apply when the lift is deployed. In light of this new advice, the college installed the lift. Boardwalks to enter the small rooms of the IC were also installed.
Even without the lift, the college was not in violation of the A.D.A., as events held in the IC could technically be held in other spaces. However, Smythe emphasized that physical space of the IC is integral to its mission.
“The program of the IC is being in the IC,” Smythe said.
According to Alina Wong, who was director of the IC from 2012-2013, some students said they were unable to attend events in the IC due to its inaccessibility.
“It seemed […] unacceptable to me that the space was so inaccessible,” Wong said.
The new lift isn’t the only recent improvement to the college’s accessibility. The college has purchased new accessible shuttle vans. These new vans hold up to 14 people, and in addition to being accessible, their larger size means that students no longer have to climb over one another to board. The college previously owned an accessible van, but, according to Stu Hain, Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects, it unnecessarily singled out those who needed to use it.
Automatic openers have also been added to various building around campus, including Parrish and LPAC. The doors previously met code, as the A.D.A. only requires that doors can be opened with 8 pounds of force or less. However, Hain said these improvements make campus “friendlier.”
The college is still developing wheelchair-accessible paths throughout campus. As of now, there are accessible paths leading from Parrish to Sharples, from Willets to the dining hall and train station, and down to the PPR tunnel. However, paths have yet to be completed on the other side of the tunnel. Continued development will build paths to the Fieldhouse and all the way into the town of Swarthmore.
The Connector between Dana and Hallowell and the leveling of the ground around the two buildings also improved accessibility. The A.D.A. requires that three percent of beds on campus be accessible, which Swarthmore had already met with Alice Paul and David Kemp. However, the A.D.A. also emphasizes the importance of having accessible residence halls throughout campus, and the Connector has provided accessibility in the Wharton/Dana/Hallowell area.
Many of these changes are a response to having students in manual wheelchairs.
“Back when we did the original, overall A.D.A. plan, our goal was to make everything as accessible as possible, but we didn’t have a lot of users. We didn’t have a constant population that was testing the product, if you will,” Smythe said. “So that’s why this year has been interesting and eye-opening because sometimes the things you think work [don’t].”
The last student before this academic year who used a wheelchair had a motorized chair and had a full-time aide, which presented obstacles different from those faced by people using manual chairs. To improve accessibility, Smythe also consulted a Swarthmore resident, who used a motorized wheelchair and was familiar with the campus. However, according to Smythe, since the resident was not a student, he had a different relationship with the campus. Hain emphasized the learning process that the college is going through.
“Some of these things we have learned from having someone here in a chair,” Hain said.
For Jesus Hernandez ‘19, who uses a manual wheelchair, dealing with accessibility at the college can be frustrating. He feels that the college responds to his needs as they arise, rather than dealing with them preemptively. According to Hernandez, the college should discuss accessibility with students with disabilities before they arrive on campus.
“[These discussions] should happen before you get here, so you’re not having to deal with all this stuff when you need to adjust,” Hernandez said.
He also pointed out that, though campus is technically accessible, students with mobility impairments still face many obstacles.
“The campus is accessible, but not friendly and not optimal, and so you have to struggle with the terrain to be here. You have to fight to be here. It’s not like it’s easy going up the hills,” Hernandez said.
On top of this, some of the accommodations made for accessibility are not user-friendly. For example, to get into the Lang Music Building, students using wheelchairs must “go through LPAC, down the hall to an elevator, down to the basement, through a maze of hallways, and then out and to the [music] building,” Hernandez said.
The process of making the campus more accessible has been a long one. The A.D.A. was passed in 1991, and in 1992, the college undertook a serious effort to make campus accessible. Between 1992 and 1995, the college spent around 3 million dollars making improvements. They began with the academic buildings to ensure that all academic programs were accessible.
In 2005, Swarthmore College received a letter from the Department of Justice stating that further improvements had to be made to make the college A.D.A. compliant.
According to Smythe, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which oversees the A.D.A., tends to pick an area in which to work on accessibility. Right now, they are focusing on hospitals. However, in 2005, the office picked colleges. They chose colleges in each geographic region, which they thought could afford to make the necessary renovations.
“We were the mid-Atlantic poster child,” Smythe said.
Both the OCR and the college did audits and compiled a list of 1,300 items needing attention. The OCR then gave Swarthmore five years to complete the projects. However, with the recession of 2008, the college asked for an extension, and some projects were not completed until after the deadline. With the completion of these projects, the college has fulfilled its A.D.A. obligations.
“We’ve hit a kind of baseline everywhere. There are still places that need more work. Then there are the difficult places like the IC, or the Sharples Lane houses,” Smythe said. “Those buildings are just inherently difficult to modify.”
As a result of these difficulties, though the campus is A.D.A. compliant in all necessary ways, not every building on campus is 100 percent accessible.
Funding for accessibility projects is put into the annual budget for the college. Some projects that are uniquely tied to accessibility are specifically allocated money, but many other projects are tacked onto larger projects and renovations. “We’ve spent millions of dollars over the years bringing this campus on a hill with 150-year-old buildings up to [code] to make it as friendly as possible” Hain said.
In the future, the college will continue making the Fieldhouse accessible. Additionally, three new buildings that will be constructed over the next few years will, as the A.D.A. requires, be completely accessible.
Other than monitoring the A.D.A. compliance of new construction projects, the OCR’s focus has shifted to ensuring accessible technology for students. This includes “web access, closed captioning for videos, making sure course materials are accessible to screen-readers, and other things like that,” Smythe said. Transportation is another area on which the college’s future accessibility work will focus.
Over the years, awareness around accessibility has increased.
“One of the things I am pleased about on the physical access side is that we do now have pretty good awareness amongst grounds and maintenance…There are a lot of people now who look out for it, which I think is great,” Smythe said.
But the campus is not yet perfect.
“It’s an ongoing process, and I don’t think we’ll ever be done whether it’s with new construction or renovation, or a changing circumstance of someone who is part of the community,” Smythe said.
Featured image courtesy of swarthmore.edu