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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Brandeis makes adjustments for handicapped students

Published: September 20, 2013
Section: News

Many Brandeis students complain that our campus is in many ways inaccessible to handicapped students. When looking at places such as the Rabb Steps or the East Quad hill, it is hard not to agree with this assertion.

The best-known accommodation for students with handicaps is the disabilities van, which takes students with temporary injuries to class. Fay Laborio ’16 used the service last semester and was happy with the help. “They were almost always on time,” Laborio said. She did run into some trouble, however, once she got to the buildings that held her classes. While some buildings did have elevators, simply walking through some of the doors that came after the elevator posed a problem.

“I’d have to whip the door open quickly and then crutch really quickly to make it through the door, and sometimes I would be hit by the door if I didn’t go quickly enough and would fall,” Laborio stated. “Some buildings have handicap buttons to automatically open the doors, but a lot of them are broken.”

Many original buildings, such as the first-year dorm rooms, do not have elevator access. In an interview, Associate Dean of Student Life Maggie Balch explained the accommodations made to the Shapiro building in Massell Quad. “Shapiro C” is the wing of the building by the loading dock to Sherman, accessible to students in scooters or wheelchairs. There are three rooms there, Balch said, that connect all the way through to Shapiro A and B. While this limits handicapped students to living and moving around on the first floor, it gives them access to the lounge. Balch also explained that the rooms and hallways are large, so a student could leave a scooter out in the hall or entertain friends in their own room with the larger space.

Brandeis has added many accommodations in this vein, many of which may go unnoticed to the average student but are irreplaceable in helping to integrate students into normal campus life.

Balch remembered a time when she was director of resident life and a student in a wheelchair wanted to live in a Rosenthal suite with her friends. “We took that opportunity to advocate one of those spaces on the ground floor of Rosenthal to be more handicap-accessible,” she said.

Currently, the university is working on at least two projects to improve transportation for handicapped students on campus. Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel wrote in an email that one specific project is the repaving of certain areas around campus. He added that this is “in conjunction with completing approximately $35,000 worth of additional repairs and upgrades that will further enhance accessibility.” Balch said that these renovations will also include sidewalk curb cuts for wheelchair accessibility.

Another improvement in the works is the addition of a crosswalk light by Cappy’s Restaurant on South Street. The university has undertaken this project after a visually-impaired student began studying at Brandeis this year. Improvements such as these involve the Waltham community as well, Balch noted. Plans need to be cleared by the city before they can be put into action.

While many of these renovations may be made on a case-by-case basis, Balch doesn’t think of the actions as behind the ball. In her 13 years at Brandeis, Balch remembers only three or four students in wheelchairs who have come through the residence halls. “It’s not that we aren’t proactive, but sometimes you aren’t aware of the need until it pops up,” she said.

Along with these improvements that come with having handicapped students, accessibility is considered in each new construction project as “an aspect of the architectural design in compliance with the ADA,” Flagel said. The newest residence halls—the Village, built in 2001, and Ridgewood, built in 2009—both have elevator access and handicap accommodations inside. The difficulty comes, Balch said, in trying to make the same accommodations to the older buildings. “How are you going to make Scheffres handicap-accessible?” she asked.

Flagel mentioned that the university is doing more than just adhering to the legal standards. “Many of us recognize that legal compliance is often a minimal standard and that there are a multitude of factors to consider in building for usability. There are times when we make additional effort to building features that will make the building useable. On occasion, Facilities has built additional ramps, added signage and so on.”