On the 25th Anniversary of the ADA, Accessibility Issues Continue in Smith Houses

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Northrop and Gillett are two of the eleven houses on campus with elevators.

Photo by Carolyn Brown ’16 | Northrop and Gillett are two of the eleven houses on campus with elevators.

 

Veronica Brown ’16
Associate Editor

Twenty-five years have passed since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. Like all institutions that receive federal funding, Smith must comply with the standards of the ADA to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.

Compliance, however, does not mean complete accessibility. The ADA requires a postsecondary school to provide accessible housing comparable to what it offers other students and at the same cost. Smith’s residences, a system of small houses instead of traditional dorms, comply with the ADA but remain far from fully accessible.

Of the 35 student residences at Smith, only 11 have elevators. The 11 houses, an estimated 814 beds, combine with first-floor rooms in other houses for a total of 924 beds that can be reached without using stairs.

Although this number exceeds the Massachusetts state standard that five percent of dwellings be fully accessible, many of these rooms may not be fully maneuverable to those with mobility-related disabilities, significantly lowering the proportion of fully accessible rooms.

“Students who start using mobility aids after they enroll here may need elevators, and not all the houses have them, so that typically means they have to move houses,” said Sarah Orsak ’16, a chair of the Smith Disability Alliance.

“Not enough of Smith is accessible,” said Kye Garcia ’16, who requested an accessible single last year for a physical disability. “When I went to housing to talk to them about it, they said, ‘Well, we can move you into one of the houses that has an elevator, but you can’t have an accessible single in your house.’” Garcia chose to stay in the original room instead of moving away from a supportive house community, despite considerable difficulty taking the stairs.

Four of the houses with elevators are located in the Quad, the furthest area from campus. No house in the Green Street area, one of the most convenient housing locations, has an elevator.

The ADA stipulates schools provide a variety of accessible housing choices similar to what it offers students without disabilities. In the Friedmans, Smith’s only current on-campus apartment option, 2 of 51 total rooms are wheelchair accessible. The Paradise Road apartments, which are currently under construction, are expected to have increased accessibility.

Improved accessibility will certainly be achieved with the new Paradise Road apartments,” said Roger Mosier, associate vice president of Facilities Management. “They will be much more accessible overall than the old Friedman apartments.”

The entire first floor, which includes half of the 80 units, will be fully accessible according to the standards of the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board. Additionally, five apartments will meet the accessibility requirements for residents who are deaf or hard of hearing, which exceeds Massachusetts’s requirement that two percent of units be hearing accessible.

Several residences, including traditional houses Talbot and Albright, remain completely inaccessible. “There are houses on this campus that are completely inaccessible, that you can’t get into, when we’re supposed to be a school that’s all about community,” said Garcia, who now lives on the first floor of Chapin.

“I can’t go up to the third floor and hang out with my best friend … because we don’t have an elevator,” Garcia continued. “We’re all about community, but I’m stuck on the first floor of my house.”

Students can request accessible rooms for a wide variety of medical reasons through the Office of Disability Services. Students register with the office and meet with Director of Disability Services Laura Rauscher. They then submit information from a doctor or other medical professional, and Rauscher submits a report to Residence Life recommending proper housing accommodations.

These requests are almost always fulfilled, but some students may have to wait until a room becomes open. “When people come forward in the summer, the slate is wide open, but there are less choices if it’s in the middle of October,” said Rauscher.

On-campus summer housing is assigned weekly on a first-come, first-served basis. “The accommodations for summer housing are also first-come, first-served, which is so messed up,” said Orsak, “I get that it doesn’t work with your system for getting housing, but that’s not an excuse.”

Smith’s commitment to the extended house system and preserving historical buildings complicates renovations. “The challenge is not so much keeping [houses] accessible, but rather making them accessible in the first place,” said Mosier. “There is always more work to do.”

The addition of an elevator can lead to the loss of usable space, meaning Smith could have fewer beds to offer students. With the loss of space comes a potential drop in enrollment.

“Installing an elevator in a building where none currently exists is a unique technical challenge requiring significant resources,” said Mosier. “Nevertheless, such projects have been executed in the past and will likely be part of our upgrade plans in the future.”

The College is unable to make any announcements about future housing renovations at this time. “We are in the process of performing a campus-wide facility condition assessment that will inform our planning for future residence upgrades,” said Mosier. “Resources are anticipated to be available for work in the summer, as is typical, but we haven’t yet determined what the work will be.”

For the time being, accessible housing remains limited. “This year is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Orsak, “Smith has had 25 years to plan their renovations.”

This article is the first in The Sophian’s ongoing series about accessibility on campus.

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