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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Brandeis lacks in handicap-accessible accommodations

Published: September 12, 2014
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Across the hall from my dorm room is a giant room. It’s handicap accessible, with no lip at the door to roll or trip over, with easy access to the lounge next to it. Our bathroom, just down the hall, is specially equipped as well, with a fold-down seat in the shower stall and bars around the toilet. All in all, our floor is perfectly designed so that anyone, with a physical impairment or not, can live comfortably. Unfortunately, it’s on the third story of a building with no elevator.

It’s regrettable that our university has done such a terrible job providing a reasonable number of accommodations for handicapped students, especially those who are first-years like myself. Though many upperclassmen residences do have elevators or ground-level access to rooms on the first floor, the available options in first-year residence halls are incredibly limited. Obviously, while the room across the hall from me might officially be handicap accessible, in reality it’s anything but. The majority of residence halls for first-years have steps leading up to the entrance, blocking access to even rooms on the ground level. No first-year residence hall has an elevator, and many stairwells are narrow and would be difficult to climb with crutches or any other type of physical disability.

However, the campus does offer some options for people with physical disabilities. Though not every building is accessible from ground level, there are a few dorm rooms that are handicap accessible in both Massell and North. These rooms are so few, though, that with the recent increases in class size it’s plausible that there will be more students who need accommodations than rooms are available. In that situation, it is not clear what would happen to those students who need accommodations. For our physically handicapped students, that situation would be a nightmare.

The difficulties of our campus for physically handicapped individuals are not limited to housing. Both major first-year lounges have stairs in them that block access for many disabled students. Many academic buildings have only one handicap-accessible entrance, and often times it’s located out of the way or on the far side of a building. With just 10 minutes between classes in subsequent blocks, this extra distance can cause a student to always miss the beginning of a class and the important announcements that often go with it.

As a university devoted to social justice, we have an obligation to improve access to education for the physically disabled, not create undue hardships to overcome. Nationally, the American Community Survey estimates that only 12.4 percent of people with disabilities aged 21 to 64 have a college degree, and over 25 percent of those surveyed lived below the federal poverty line. Access to education has the potential to transform these statistics and provide economic stability to the disabled community, but only if we can create a supportive environment for these students to succeed. Instead, too often our university fails those it should be the most devoted to.

The concept of handicap-accessible housing is not difficult—simply provide a living environment that doesn’t interfere with basic life functions. That means not forcing someone to have to climb stairs in crutches or a wheelchair. That means have a bathroom door large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. That means creating a welcoming environment for everyone who lives on campus, not just those who can live in any room, anywhere. It is not simply calling an inaccessible space a handicap-accessible room. It is not hoping that few enough handicapped students will attend this school that creating true accessibility becomes necessary. It should be simple, at a university committed to social justice, to create truly open communities. Unfortunately for now, that giant room across the hall stands as a symbol of the changes we all need to make.