News, On Campus

Students See Need For Expanded Disability Access At BC

In front of Devlin Hall, which houses Boston College’s admissions office, is a ramp. There are handrails on each side, and it looks like a person using crutches or a wheelchair could navigate up and down it with ease. On one end of the ramp is the door to Devlin—which is down a small flight of stairs. On the other end, the ramp leads to a raised pathway, flanked on either side by stone planters and running along the recently renovated O’Neill Plaza: there is no way to move down from this path toward O’Neill Library, or up, toward Gasson Hall or Bapst Library, without using stairs. Most people traversing this path would hardly give the configuration a second thought, but for some, the ramp is worse than pointless—it is one more reminder of the challenges that BC presents for those with mobility issues.

Those problems were raised a few weeks ago when the student art gallery in Bapst’s basement was closed, after it came to the University’s attention that the space was inaccessible to people who were mobility-impaired. Dean of Students Paul Chebator said that BC’s facilities department is currently compiling a list of other spaces on campus that are not accessible. “We will either do what we can to make them accessible, or we will just not use them for public programs,” he said.

Access to programs isn’t the only challenge faced by students with mobility issues. Kristof Fogarasi, A&S ’16, who had a spinal stroke when he was 14 and now uses crutches to get around, noted that certain parts of BC’s campus are especially difficult to navigate. Getting to Upper Campus necessitates walking up several flights of stairs, or using either Beacon Street or Hammond Road—which don’t always have full sidewalks, he said.

Inclement weather also poses a significant problem, as Phoebe Fico, A&S ’16, wrote in a Letter to the Editor in The Heights on Feb. 13. Maintaining balance on ice- or snow-covered walkways while on crutches is difficult, and routes often aren’t adequately cleaned during the winter, she said. On her way to a late-night class last semester, for example, the walkways were too icy for Fico to navigate on her own. “The only way I got to class was the help of strangers,” she said. “They literally held me up.”

Maryan Amaral, LGSOE ’18, attended BC as an undergraduate, training for and running several Boston Marathons while studying psychology. She was in a car accident after graduating, and she became involved in wheelchair dancing as a way of regaining strength, eventually deciding to pursue a master’s degree in the study of severe disabilities. Amaral now uses a scooter or wheelchair for mobility, and she has noticed multiple issues since her return to campus. “The problem at BC was actually astounding to me when I came here last semester,” she said. “I had such a different experience as an undergrad.”

There is acknowledgment in the administration that, although changing certain aspects of BC’s physical layout may not be feasible, the University still has room for improvement when handling access issues. “I think, as an institution, we need to kind of take a new look at the way we deliver our services to students with disabilities,” Chebator said.

To that end, a committee of representatives from over 12 departments and offices, co-chaired by Chebator and Vice Provost for Faculties Pat DeLeeuw, was formed to improve cross-departmental communication and streamline services for students with disabilities.

Following the committee’s first meeting this week, Assistant Dean for Students with Disabilities Paulette Durrett, who works through the Disability Services Office with students who have physical, temporary, medical, and psychological disabilities, said that gathering people from different disciplines was productive, as they each see varying aspects of accessibility. She anticipates that the committee will continue next year. “Hopefully, as people encounter issues, they’re thinking holistically about this—it’s not just reactionary,” Durrett said, “That’s a hard place, if you’re the person with the issue, to be at, if it’s always reactionary.”

Students at BC have advocated for greater access in the past, as well as for more proactive and conscious attitudes toward disability. Jennifer Fitz-Roy, who was LSOE ’06 and finished her degree in 2009, helped form the BC Disability Council, which worked to start conversations about disability issues.

“I was somewhat frustrated with accessibility on campus because it seemed like the infrastructure was all there, but you had to be very familiar with the campus to know how to get around,” Fitz-Roy said in an email. She noted, however, that all academic buildings at BC were accessible, which isn’t always true at older colleges—elsewhere, students sometimes must petition the administration to move classes, which she never had to do.

Ease of access is another matter, though—libraries, particularly Bapst, pose a common problem. Fitz-Roy said that while she was at BC, Bapst’s accessible entrance was difficult to find, and it was sometimes closed. Amaral said that she has recently faced problems with the accessible door being locked, the elevator being off, and nighttime security guards sometimes not letting her in immediately.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Safety Architectural Access Board (AAB) cited BC in January for the locked Bapst door. A Feb. 6 letter from BC’s Office of the General Counsel to Walter White, chairperson of the AAB, stated that BC is in the process of replacing that particular door with an automatic entrance, which will be accessible with a “proximity card” given to the necessary students and staff. That and other improvements, including a new intercom, are slated for completion by April 31.

Besides issues at Bapst, Amaral also mentioned steep slopes, a lack of access to computers, and an old wheelchair lift in the O’Neill atrium as cause for concern. “They can’t turn around and say that the problems that they have on campus [are] just due to old buildings,” Amaral said. “They have new buildings and new construction. I’m here because of the program and because of BC-I’m not here to have to spend all my time fighting to figure out how to get from point A to point B, to find a computer, a place to sit down and study. That is absolutely ridiculous that BC has not figured that out by now, in 2014.”

BC’s legal requirements to provide access and services are delineated by section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees rights to individuals with disabilities, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. All institutions receiving federal funding-of which BC is one-are required to provide students with appropriate academic adjustments and offer equal opportunity through auxiliary aids and services, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Institutions are not required, however, to make adjustments that would fundamentally alter a program or impose an undue burden.

“A thing that we struggle with is, the law stipulates that we need to provide reasonable accommodations,” Chebator said. “Sometimes the definition of ‘reasonable’ is pretty slippery, and we have to try to understand exactly what that means.”

Executive Director of the Office for Institutional Diversity Richard Jefferson serves as the University’s ADA/504 Coordinator, and in that capacity he is responsible for arbitrating disability discrimination complaints.

“Because of the geography of our campus, we are challenged,” Jefferson said. “It’s important to hear from people in the community about ways in which we can do better.”

During his time as coordinator, he said, very few issues have risen to the level of grievance. In fact, according to Jefferson, there had not been many formal complaints about physical access at BC until the last six to eight months. He differentiated between knowing about issues and formally addressing them as ADA/504 coordinator, though—he said that he is aware that BC’s facilities department keeps an inventory of issues involving physical access as they come up.

As issues arise, Jefferson said, BC tries to address them informally through the departments or offices closest to where the issues originate, so that the concerned party does not have to resort to filing a complaint—if the grievant is unsatisfied with the initial response, he or she can follow BC’s formal grievance procedures.

“We try to avoid issues escalating to the point where the only way to resolve them is through a formal grievance process,” Jefferson said. “It tends to harden people into positions and really does make it more difficult to really solve problems.”

In order to anticipate problems, the cross-departmental committee plans to release short- and long-term recommendations by semester’s end. The Disability Services Office was also recently audited, and Chebator said the report will likely become public around the same time.

“The University commissioned [the audit],” Durrett said. “They wanted this person to do this so that we could see where we were, in the beginning. Some of the specific recommendations from that report will be forwarded up the chain, to maybe the Executive VP, Pat Keating, for his review … this is kind of a big deal for us, and it also means that we’ll have upper-level administrative support. Not that we didn’t have it before, but when it’s on somebody’s radar, it makes a big difference, and it’ll be better than reacting to individual concerns. We’ll have a systemic approach.”

While she agrees that institutional changes are necessary, Fico said that issues surrounding mobility access and disabilities go deeper. “It’s a social problem, really,” Fico said. “People don’t think about it, and I don’t blame them, because if I wasn’t like this I wouldn’t think about it either.”

Fogarasi agreed, saying that other students are friendly, often offering to hold doors or carry his bag—but he has noticed a disconcerting preoccupation with his disability. “When I’m talking to [people], the first question that kind of pops into their head and is kind of lingering there—and I can tell—is, ‘What happened to you?'” he said. “I want people to look at me and say, ‘That’s Kris, that’s the guy in the a cappella group Against The Current,’ or, ‘That’s Kris, 48 Hours pointguard,’ or, ‘That’s Kris, the guy who sings at the Mass,’ you know? Not, ‘That’s Kris, that guy on crutches.'”

Although Fitz-Roy felt respected and included at BC, participating in a wide range of activities during her undergraduate years, mindsets were similar in the early 2000s—she still saw a need for disability advocacy. “I do think that other students saw disability as a charity issue instead of a rights issue, especially within UGBC,” Fitz-Roy said.

The current UGBC recently created a task force to raise awareness and make recommendations about disability and access issues. Fico plans to work with them, and she also hopes to increase discussion among the general student body. For graduate students, Amaral has begun a Disability Awareness Committee to work toward the same purpose.

“I feel like, in a way, handicapped people are still not seen as people,” Fico said. “That’s why I wrote the Letter to the Editor, and I talked to UGBC … I think I just got angry. I feel like anger is so often confused with hate. And I feel like anger is really a sort of powerful and useful emotion, if you use it in the right way, and I think it can spark real change.”

Featured Image by Daniel Lee / Heights Senior Staff

March 27, 2014