You didn't even notice me -- all you saw was the wheelchair. I probably rolled right by you on Locust Walk, just like I passed five or six other people I knew, with no eye contact, no recognition. I was in disguise and I had not even realized it.
The day in the wheelchair was meant as an experiment in empathy, a glimpse of life at Penn with a physical disability. As the University prepares to open a new office for students with disabilities and begins to allocate millions for structural improvements, I was determined to see exactly how accessible our campus really is.
I set out with a checklist of everyday activities: eat lunch at a dining hall, look at course books in the bookstore, check out a book from Van Pelt, go to Houston Hall, visit a room in Hamilton Village.
What I found was that the campus was technically accessible to the handicapped, but still extremely difficult to navigate. For starters, the PennAccess Web site, which provides detailed information about means of entry to campus buildings, was out of date, and many of the supposedly accessible doors were locked or not functioning.
And on this urban campus, every manually operated door, pothole, construction site and sidewalk curb presented a new challenge; just crossing the street demanded planning and navigation.
One of the first things I realized was that I was afraid to venture out alone -- it simply wasn't safe.
My nervousness was justified as soon as I tried to cross a street and became stuck in the torn-up Walnut Street pavement. A passerby ran into the road to hoist me out.
In a wheelchair, I was dependent on the assistance of strangers. And the sense of gratification at the ability to do things for myself was coupled with a sensation of immense defeat at having to ask for help.
But then, I almost never had to ask.
In the bookstore, in the library, in the coffee shop and in the college houses, even on the street, people were extremely -- condescendingly -- kind. Even a dining worker at Class of 1920 Commons offered to help me.
And along with pity for me there seemed to follow trust. No one wanted to see my PennCard, and I could have stolen half of Van Pelt's rare books collection with no one to notice as I eased out the ground floor wheelchair exit.
But some students with disabilities say that their interactions on Penn's campus have been less positive.
"I have a problem with my digestive tract, so a lot of times my energy is incredibly low. If I have a class in the third story of a building, it would take me 10 or 15 minutes to get to the third floor." said College senior Michelle White, whose disorder often makes her so tired that she must take a HandiVan rather than walk the few blocks to campus.
"Just going up in the elevator, people give you a hassle," she said. "There's actually a sign up in the Franklin Building that says 'Please take the stairs if you're going up one floor or down two.' I can't."
Other students did not look past her normal exterior, and did not take the time to consider that she might have a physical disability.
"In general, people should be aware of assuming that people are just being lazy," White said. "People push by me and almost knock me over to get to class.... People definitely need to think about what it's like for somebody who has trouble getting around. Think about it if they're blocking the sidewalk and someone comes by with crutches or a brace."
However, what I found was not indifference but overwhelming pity. At a construction site across the street from the Quadrangle, workers actually cut caution tape and offered to move a backhoe just so I could access a ramp from the sidewalk to the street.
Both ongoing construction and outdated architecture often do make accessibility for students with disabilities a problematic issue. Buildings like Hill College House become almost completely off-limits, partly because it is nearly impossible to first open a heavy manually operated door and then proceed through it.
Those convenient automated door openers, located several feet in front of many campus doors, are often out of order -- the interior doors both at Hill College House and in Houston Hall were not operating when I tried them. In some other buildings, doors designated as wheelchair entrances are regularly kept locked.
"The handicap accessible door in DRL is locked, you just have to bang on the door until someone comes by," White said. "I've reported it myself. I've had deans and professors report it. But basically, their response is that it's too much of a security issue."
Even once inside the David Rittenhouse Laboratories building there were other obstacles. I attempted to explore the "wheelchair accessible" restroom. After squeezing into the women's bathroom, I found that my standard-sized wheelchair could not even fit through the doorway of the single, supposedly accessible stall.
Like DRL, many wheelchair accessible buildings on campus accommodate disabled students only through secondary entrances. The entrances now available are often barely adequate; even those that are not locked are often out of the way.
"A lot of times there are two ways to do everything and that may require going to a different entrance," White said. "Living on campus was almost a nightmare."
However, administrators noted that even these entrances mark a determined effort on the part of the University to modernize an old campus.
"Most buildings on campus are accessible one way or another. Not all buildings have ideal entrances," Office of Affirmative Action Associate Director Alice Nagle said. "We're an old urban campus, we have these old buildings with steps.... It makes it harder in modifications and renovations to incorporate accessibility into the design. To that extent, in the first survey of how to make buildings accessible, it was the secondary entrance that provided the greatest means."
"Our mission is to provide principle entrances accessible to all buildings," added Nagle, who is often the main advocate for students with physical disabilities.
In my wheelchair, I found it understandable but frustrating when I realized that the elevator to Meyerson Hall classrooms was accessible not through the front door, but only through the rear loading dock.
But when I got to the Penn Bookstore, I was disappointed at what I found. I wound my way back toward the "elevator" sign at the rear of the store, only to find that access to the elevator was available not from the front, but only from the Sansom Street entrance, up several stairs.
Why was the course book section upstairs accessible to disabled students only through the back door, the same kind of secondary entrance, but in a building constructed just a few years ago?
"Buildings need to be equally accessible among people who are disabled and people who aren't... But the issue of whether you are making an extra effort or not somehow becomes subjective," Vice President for Facilities Services Omar Blaik said. "Our goal is to be able to provide accessibility, but not to find ourselves using resources we don't have."
While access continues to be an issue for many students with physical disabilities, administrators said that more on-campus wheelchair accessible rooms and apartments are being built, and access issues are being addressed.
"There's a long-term plan to improve the facilities at the University," said Max King, executive director of the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life. "There's a constant improvement of facilities on campus."
Blaik said the University has invested $5 million to $10 million in accessibility in the past several years.
"It is a two-pronged plan," he said. "By law we are required that all new projects and major renovations of existing buildings have to conform to federal regulations of accessibility.... There are a few buildings that are not accessible, largely because they are historic. We take on projects to make them accessible based on how many students and faculty use the facilities."
And Nagle added that while some students complained about the difficulty of navigating the campus, many had little trouble.
"I've gotten a really wide range of reactions from students," she said. "Some students with physical disabilities say it is a difficult campus to negotiate, while other students with similar disabilities rave about it."
White said that when she was confined to a wheelchair for several weeks, the situation on campus was difficult to cope with: "When I was in a wheelchair it was crazy. There were times you'd have to go completely out of your way because the food trucks or security cars were blocking the only ramps."
"The classrooms aren't really handicap accessible, because you have to sort of find a place for you to sit," she added.
Nagle said that efforts to improve accessibility have been ongoing in accordance with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. A part of the Architectural Barrier Prevention and Removal program that was launched in 1978, the Committee for an Accessible University monitors campus projects and places requests for modifications.
"What we do is take advantage of every major renovation opportunity to promote accessibility -- and the Perelman Quadrangle is an excellent example," Nagle said. "The ABRP program requested apartment modifications, and that's how we've expanded the number of housing options for students with disabilities.... The committee meets with the architect to ensure accessibility."
One type of accommodation available is the installation of strobe-light alarm clocks to equip rooms for deaf students.
But after I spent a few minutes trying to navigate a high rise apartment, steering myself back and forth, jamming into one wall after another, I realized that making that room wheelchair accessible would demand more than a few minor adjustments. I struggled to open the door, I couldn't fit into bathroom. In the kitchen I couldn't reach the stove top's back burner and could barely even see into sink.
Special housing accommodations, as well as academic adjustments, are required by law as part of reasonable accommodations. Accommodations for students can include anything from hiring proctors or notetakers to taping lectures to moving an entire class to a more accessible location. But the problem has been that students are resistant to declaring their disabilities.
"You can't get help without going to the Office of Affirmative Action... unless you come right out and say 'I have a disability,'" White said. "It was difficult at first because I didn't really feel comfortable asking for help."
Nagle said that the number of students who disclose disabilities is far larger than number who are actually seen for accommodations. Those eligible for services include those with blindness, deafness, lupus, sickle cell anemia, multiple sclerosis, HIV and other physical disabilities.
To work with the Office of Affirmative Action, the students meet with Nagle and discuss their concerns and possible accommodations, and they negotiate adjustments with professors.
"On the first day of class I always talk to my professors and explain the situation and they're usually really supportive," White said. "But when you don't go to them at the beginning, they're a lot more apt to think that you're just not doing the work."
She added that finding help on campus was not always convenient.
"The offices are completely spread out and it's hard to find," White said. "They're not really in convenient places and they're not obvious."
But with a new Office of Services for Students with Disabilities opening under the Tutoring and Learning Resources Office soon, both administrators and students hope that services will be improved and streamlined.
"Most of the services are going to be coordinated from one location in Harnwell [College] House," King said. "In the past, we've had a lot of very good services available to students -- but having them all together is a sort of one-stop shopping."
This fall, administrators are launching a nationwide search for a director for the new office, and several said they thought that the new office will catalyze qualitative changes in the services available.
"It's going to allow the professors who work with the students to provide a holistic plan," Learning Resources and Academic Support Program Associate Director Myrna Cohen said.
Cohen said that trends suggested that the number of students seeking accommodations will continue to increase over the next few years. And administrators said they thought that the new office, and its location in Hamilton Village, would draw more students. But a more ideal location more central to campus still seems like a far-off, though beneficial, step.
"We do have to think about accessibility and accessible routes of travel -- crossing 38th Street at Walnut or Spruce is pretty terrifying for anyone," Nagle said. "Hopefully at some point we'll be more centrally located."
CORRECTION Correction This article incorrectly stated that the only handicapped entrance at the Penn Bookstore is from the rear Sansom Street entrance up several stairs. In fact, there is a ramp in the rear center aisle that leads to the first floor, second tier or the elevator.Comments powered by Disqus
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