Although Penn’s campus is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, students with disabilities are struggling to find accessible entrances, navigate buildings without elevators, and secure accessible on-campus housing.
Students with a range of documented disabilities receive University services, such as extended time on assessments, housing accommodations, and Penn Accessible Transit. Still, some students face many challenges to accessing sufficient accommodations, particularly regarding building accessibility.
The ADA provides protections for individuals with disabilities by requiring that workplaces, schools, and other public institutions offer reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. Such services range from academic to mobility-related accommodations that are largely managed by Student Disabilities Services and Weingarten Learning Resource Center at Penn.
Eva Lew, director of architecture and planning in the Office of the University Architect, said there aren’t any current plans to renovate campus buildings for accessibility reasons, though the department always looks for opportunities to partner with schools and centers to improve their buildings. In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Jesselson Director of Student Disabilities Services Aaron Spector also wrote that SDS works collaboratively with students to arrange accommodations on Penn’s campus.
“Physical accessibility can be a challenge on a campus as large, urban, and historic as Penn,” Spector wrote. “SDS encourages any student who has concerns about mobility to contact us.”
Struggling with accessibility in campus buildings
College junior Kruti Desai is the co-founder of Disability Advocacy @ Penn, a student group dedicated to supporting and creating a space for individuals with disabilities at Penn. Founded in 2020, DAP works closely with SDS to provide accommodations for students and make sure the Penn community is aware of SDS resources.
Desai said that while many campus buildings have accessible entrances or elevators, they are difficult to find, especially when students are running low on time. Some accessible entrances also depend on the presence of a security guard to open the door from the inside, as these entrances are not open to the public.
Desai, who walks with a crutch, said she can use the stairs if necessary but prefers to use an elevator. In multiple occurrences, Desai said she has been forced to use the stairs when she was unable to find the elevator or an individual was not available to open an accessible entrance.
“I’m very fortunate that I’m in a situation where I can go up stairs,” Desai said. “But there are definitely [Penn students] who can’t.”
College sophomore Ellie McKeown, who has hypermobility spectrum disorder, walks with a cane or a walker because the collagen between her bones is either nonexistent or non-fuctioning. McKeown is a member of Bloomers, Penn’s comedy group for underrepresented gender identities, but said she struggles to visit the rehearsal space in the Platt Performing Arts House.
The accessible entrance to Platt Performing Arts House is six times more lengthy than the primary, inaccessible entrance, McKeown said. To get to the rehearsal space, students must enter Stouffer College House, ask the guard to use the elevator, and walk underground from the Stouffer basement to the Platt basement.
McKeown said that it's likely that a lack of useful accommodations is preventing students from participating in performing arts.
“Has Penn never had a disabled performing arts student? Or has Penn just made sure no disabled student is in the performing arts?” she said.
McKeown also mentioned that many of the automatic door touchpads on campus do not work, which is problematic for individuals who use wheelchairs or don’t have the strength or ability to manually open a door. She expressed frustration that even though the wheelchair symbol is the face of the disability rights movement, the University doesn’t have adequate wheelchair access.
“Penn is not even getting the baseline of the movement,” McKeown said. “How can we progress if we can’t even get in the buildings and get in the room to let our voices be heard?”
Graduate student and DAP co-founder Emma Ronzetti spoke to another aspect of building accessibility. Ronzetti, who wears hearing aids, requires auditory accommodations for classes. Since many of Penn’s buildings are old and have low sound absorbency, there is a lot of echo, which causes hearing difficulties, Ronzetti said. She added that the microphone systems used in lecture halls are often not compatible with hearing aids.
“For me, it’s really understanding the effect that echo and [reverberation] has on your hearing," she said. "Most Penn buildings are very old, and they might need to be updated for sound quality in ways that people don’t really recognize.”
SDS gave Ronzetti a portable FM system, which helps reduce background noise and improve clarity, that hooks up to her hearing aids during classes. Some classrooms in Huntsman Hall also have hanging microphones that connect directly with her hearing aids, which she said have been really helpful.
For mobility across campus, the University offers Penn Accessible Transit, which provides transportation for individuals with disabilities to various campus locations.
Desai said she frequently uses the transit system to get to far-away locations such as the Chemistry Complex or David Rittenhouse Laboratories. Although she schedules her rides the night before, the transportation is usually late, with delays of around 20 minutes. Desai said she can walk to classes, but it is challenging because she has to take outside routes, such as Spruce or Chestnut Streets, because Locust Walk has inaccessible features such as the bridge adjacent to Class of 1920 Commons.
“It’s definitely a flawed system,” Desai said of Penn Accessible Transit. She added that better organizing within the program is a necessary and helpful change. McKeown also expressed a desire for more funding for the program.
Students say some College Houses aren't accessible
Desai and McKeown said Penn’s college houses are inaccessible, with several residential buildings lacking elevators or having limited elevator access, including Gregory, Du Bois, Stouffer, and the Quad.
Both students have worked with SDS to receive housing accommodations.
Desai lived in an accessible room on the ground floor of Gregory College House during her first year at Penn, since the building is not equipped with elevators. She said the laundry room in Van Pelt Manor, one of the two buildings that compose Gregory, was on the ground floor as well, which did not pose a problem for her.
The laundry room in the Class of 1925 section of Gregory, however, is in the basement, making it essentially impossible for students with disabilities living in the Class of 1925 building to do their laundry.
McKeown, who lived in the Quad last semester, said that she was originally placed in a room without elevator access, and even after she was reassigned, the elevator only allowed her to access a “strip of hallway.”
“There are so many internal stairs in the Quad that I can’t walk around inside. I have to take the elevator to go outside, find the new building, find a new elevator, and then just hope it can access my friend’s room,” she said.
Desai added that because of the Quad’s inaccessibility, students with disabilities who want to live there may not be able to. Although she didn't want to live in the Quad, she expressed frustration for others.
“I just don’t think the Quad is very accessible at all,” Desai said. “The Quad is such a quintessential freshman experience, so for someone who wanted to live there but then [ended] up having to miss out on it because of their disability, that would kind of suck.”
McKeown now lives on the third floor of Harnwell College House. McKeown said it took her months to finally receive a housing assignment that met all of their approved accommodations, which is a single room near the ground floor in a college house with elevator access close to a dining hall.
Students with disabilities push for further support
Ronzetti, McKeown, and Desai all cited various changes they would like to see in order to increase accessibility at Penn.
McKeown called on the University to ensure the functionality of existing accommodations, including that automatic door touchpads work and that ramps do not have potholes or divots. McKeown hopes to see more disability-friendly entrances — preferably not in the back of buildings — or even primary entrances that are accessible themselves.
She also complimented the PennAccess tool, which generates maps demonstrating accessibility features for each building, but noted that this is “only a start.”
“Penn culture is extremely ableist,” McKeown said. “I understand this is an old campus, but disabled people existed then, they exist now, and they will exist in the future.”
Facilities & Real Estate Services offers PennAccess, a series of documents that provides access information for campus buildings and public spaces for individuals with physical disabilities. Information includes designated accessible entrances, elevator and accessible restroom information, and routes where barriers exist.
The Accessibility Mapping Project also uses crowd-sourced data to create a map with accessibility information about campus buildings.
Ronzetti suggested that the University draw from the Universal Design concept, which requires designing an environment that can be accessed, understood, and used by all people regardless of age, size, and ability. This would include minimizing echo and increasing sound absorption in campus buildings, as well as adding microphone systems like those in Huntsman Hall to newer facilities, Ronzetti said.
This year, Disability Advocacy @ Penn has a seat on University Council, which they plan to use to raise issues of accessibility to the administration, Desai and Ronzetti said. The University Council is a deliberative forum comprised of 16 undergraduates, administrators, faculty, and graduate students. The body meets monthly to discuss Penn's activities.
“There are some really good systems set in place,” Desai said. “There’s so many resources set in place. I think they’re just not being utilized properly.”
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