College defends progress against claims of campus inaccessibility

An estimated 34.2 million people in the United States have a disability that results in a functional limitation, including 6.5 million people who use a cane, walker, or crutches to assist with mobility, and 2.2 million people who depend on a wheelchair for day-to-day tasks. Members of the Colby College community by and large are not confronted with these statistics, due in part to the inconspicuousness of some disabilities, but also to the lack of accessibility on campus for people with physical disabilities, preventing many from even coming to  campus.

Although the discourse revolving around community members with physically limiting disabilities has not been extremely active in recent years, both students and the College have been advocating for improvements. Unfortunately, the necessary renovations are complex and slowly evolving. Colby is not alone in its struggle to accommodate all community members— this is an issue facing campuses around the country, with pressure to improve becoming increasingly adamant.

Although the College is largely compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, there remain accessibility barriers on campus.

Carolyn Harney ’19, a Colby tour guide, has observed implications of the College’s hilly topography. “It is an unfortunate fact that our campus is not accommodating for students and families with physical disabilities.”

Harney said that she is typically delegated the tours for disabled applicants, “because it requires an entirely different route than we traditionally follow.” The alternate tour avoids “multiple buildings, pathways, and even sections on campus.”

Although Harney noted that she is not often asked about accessibility on her tours, she said, “When families tour Colby, they are trying to picture a home here for their student. It does place us as tour guides in an awkward position when asked how realistic a complete experience is for a student with a physical handicap.”

The “complete experience” that a student expects before coming to college is something that Assistant Vice President for Facilities and Campus Planning Mina Amundsen is highly cognizant of in her work. Amundsen is a proponent of using the term “universal access” as opposed to designating a space an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approved space. Universal access connotes the most inclusive space possible, taking into account a range of abilities.

Amundsen’s assessment of the campus’ accessibility for people with limited walking capability revolves around the fact that Mayflower Hill consists of a mix of topographies, with areas like the Heights and Miller Lawn posing some obstacles, while areas like the Colby Green are entirely accessible.

President David A. Greene referred to Amundsen’s work on the College’s physical plan in an email correspondence with the Echo, noting that renovations to Grossman, the Osborne House, and Miller Lawn have been completed. Moving forward, the College has committed to making all future construction universally accessible.

There was an assessment of the campus’s accessibility around a decade ago, according to Amundsen, upon which some renovations were based. The dorms on Roberts Row were all outfitted with elevators and accessible entrances, for example. This initial study brought to light the fact that most of the College was built in an age when, for the most part, accessibility was not taken into account.

A later 2015 study looked at campus issues more through the scope of universal access, and thus did not focus solely on mobility barriers. Using the budget item that accessibility carries each year, changes were implemented that applied to a range of things, from bathrooms to lighting to pathways. Specifically for mobility, the 2015 study resulted in the suggestion of less roadways on campus to make it more pedestrian friendly, allowing only  ADA or service vehicles.  As more construction occurs on certain roadways, Amundsen said the College is working to ensure that the slopes and grades of those roads are accessible to all community members.

An important aspect of campus renovations is to not only improve the accessibility of buildings, but also improve the accessibility of pathways to buildings. Amundsen said that while “we can’t flatten the campus,” there are creative ways to deal with incline or pathway issues. The administration is looking closely at how students move around campus to make sure that popular routes are as inclusive as possible. An example of a renovation based off of this new approach  will be the steps leading into the new Athletic Center, which will ensure that all  paths towards the  facility are completely accessible.

Dean of Studies Barbara Moore is also involved in the accommodation process at the College. Moore is responsible for hiring a Coordinator of Student Support and Disability Services, an opening that was initially posted in May 2017.

Moore said that this position will be focused on broad experiences affected by an array of disabilities—visible or otherwise, temporary or long-term—and must work collaboratively with other groups on campus.

The incoming administrator will work on both a macro and micro level, attending to both systematic changes the College needs to consider, as well as individual student needs as they arrive. This requires intense coordination between the academic, residential, and facilities branches of the College. The position is full time, something Moore hopes will allow the Coordinator to be strategic and ensure that every student has full access to a complete Colby experience.

Louis Kraham ’18 was injured during his sophomore year, resulting in a period requiring the use of crutches. Kraham was introduced to the temporary support services the College currently has in place, and observed that the College “has room to improve with regard to the accessibility of study spaces for disabled students. I found it very difficult while on crutches to go study in the libraries.” Alluding to Moore’s work, Kraham said, “Making these spaces more accessible would really [enhance] the experiences of disabled or temporarily handicapped students.”

He also alluded to the fact that some current systems in place are lackluster. “I found it quite difficult to navigate campus while on crutches. Security was super helpful driving me places I needed to go, but having to call to be able to go to class in the morning was frustrating and did sometimes take longer than I would have liked,” Kraham said. Despite the accommodations available, disability still produces obstacles to a seamless experience on the Hill.

Harney reiterated Kraham’s sentiment, “A student in a wheelchair would have a very difficult time reaching many places they need or want to go. [Major] academic buildings as well as dorm buildings do not have elevators or ramps. It would not be easy to have a normal experience here at Colby, and that is something that needs to change quickly.”

Greene commented to the Echo regarding the state of the College’s commitment to accessibility. “We have been making progress on the accessibility of our campus and have considerable work still needed to be done…We will always have some challenges given the topography of our campus, but we are committed to improving the accessibility of our campus in a focused, systematic way.”

The commitment of the administration to improving accessibility on campus will have profound effects on future applicants. The College has consistently voiced its aspiration to create the most diverse possible applicant pool, and many students note that the topography of the campus limits some level of diversity. Harney said, “I absolutely think that the campus hinders students with physical disabilities from applying.”

Kraham built on Harney’s statement, “I think the hilly, icy terrain on Colby’s campus would cause a lot of issues for a disabled student and ultimately really challenge their ability to successfully and happily complete a Colby degree.”

Harney continued that with the unprecedented amount of fundraising occurring on campus through the Dare Northward campaign, “a lot of us are counting on Colby to recognize and change [accessibility issues].”