Open letter prompts administration to hold accessibility forum
In response to an open letter sent to University President Ron Liebowitz two weeks ago, Brandeis will hold an open forum to discuss accessibility on campus. The announcement, made by Liebowitz at Sunday’s Union Senate meeting, marks a success for the group that wrote the letter, Addressing Accessibility at Brandeis.
Jack Rubinstein ’20, representing AAB, sent the open letter to Liebowitz in a Nov. 8 email, along with a document of personal accounts from Brandeis students with disabilities sharing their experiences on campus.
More than 250 students and alumni signed the letter. The email was also sent to the Justice and The Brandeis Hoot “for the purpose of transparency.”
In the open letter, students expressed their concern at the “growing unrest” in the Brandeis community around “the big question: is Brandeis truly accessible? Or is it just accessible to some, and, if so, which communities of students are left out?”
The letter added: “We as a Brandeis community are hurt, harmed, and demoralized when not everyone has access on this campus. … This is a letter asking for our voices to be heard, seen, or signed.”
To address this, the letter implored the Brandeis administration to “hold an open forum to discuss accessibility on this campus.”
In an email to the Justice, Liebowitz wrote that he has “been in touch personally” with Rubenstein and that the pair “have a meeting set up to discuss the issues [identified in the email].”
Asked if the administration plans to make any changes in response to the email, Liebowitz reiterated that his administration is “committed to improving student life … and to … being open and inclusive.”
Liebowitz also expressed his desire to make campus more accessible, noting that he personally intervened during the planning of Skyline Residence Hall to make it more accessible to students with mobility disabilities.
“Though the plans [for Skyline] met all [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements, … it would have been impossible for students who couldn’t navigate stairs to go to the upper floors of the building. … I requested that we change our plans [to make Skyline wheelchair accessible], even if it meant… additional costs,” he explained. Having some students be unable to visit their friends on upper floors would not have aligned "with our philosophy and values,” he said.
The authors of the letter wrote that they understand the great financial costs of making a college campus accessible for students with disabilities, emphasizing that they were “asking what [the University] can do now to pave a path for a later generation of students.”
There is little question that parts of the Brandeis campus are inaccessible to many students with mobility impairments: For example, none of the buildings in East Quad, Massell Quad, Rosenthal Quad or North Quad contain elevators.
The attached five-page document, titled “Personal Accounts,” contained a number of anecdotes from students who wrote about difficulties they encountered with transportation across campus, learning disabilities, academic accommodations and housing.
Student Accessibility Support Director Beth Rodgers-Kay explained in an interview with the Justice that to her knowledge, none of the concerns described “Personal Accounts” had been communicated to her or her office. One student wrote that Rodgers-Kay “told [the student] to give up on a college [sic]” because the student “was clearly incapable of finishing [the student’s] college degree.” Rodgers-Kay denied having said this to a student or words to a similar effect to a student, saying, “Why would I come to work every day if I thought students should give up on college?”
In the same account, the student accused the Golding Health Center of lacking transparency. “I requested a wheelchair when I hurt my ankle but was denied for an unknown reason by the Health Center,” the student wrote. Rodgers-Kay explained that the University provides crutches, not wheelchairs, to students with relatively short-term mobility impairments, such as ankle injuries.
The Health Center has one wheelchair available for its own use, Rodgers-Kay explained. “An example would be if a student fainted in an appointment [at the Health Center]: They would put [the student] in a wheelchair and wheel them out to the ambulance or car that was going to go to a hospital. But they don’t provide wheelchairs to people.” Health Center Administrative Director Diana Denning confirmed this in an email to the Justice: “A student would need to obtain a wheelchair designed for outdoor conditions from a medical supplier.”
Another student’s account expressed frustration that there is no list of classes that students with learning disabilities can choose from to fulfill the University’s language requirement. Rodgers-Kay explained that this list has not been created because the number of classes that can count toward the language requirement is huge and the classes that can count may change depending on what a student chooses to focus on.
For example, she said, a student might choose to take three classes in Asian culture if they’re having difficulties in a language class. If the student has already taken two of the classes in that cluster, a class about French history would not fulfill the requirement, since the three classes need a common cultural focus. But if that student were taking three classes about French culture for the language requirement, that class would fulfill the requirement.
She clarified that students can simply email her about a class and she can check whether it will count for that student, without having to set up an in-person meeting. Rodgers-Kay said the class will be approved “99 times out of 100.”
In response to another account, which implied that the University can take steps to improve professors’ availability to help students, Rodgers-Kay acknowledged that professors are ultimately responsible for making their classrooms accessible. She said the University holds trainings about accessibility that professors can elect to take but that aren’t mandatory. She added that she believes the training is effective for faculty who attend and would benefit the community if it were required of all faculty. But, she admitted, “I can’t make [training] mandatory.”
Another student wrote that the Department of Community Living didn’t take students’ requests for housing accommodation seriously, asserting that “Skyline has available, empty singles on floors with single-use bathrooms.” In an email to the Justice, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Tim Touchette, who works for DCL, said in an email to the Justice that the student’s assertion about Skyline housing was simply false. “Although rooms are held for medical reasons all over campus, there are no empty singles, or any other vacant rooms, specifically in Skyline. Availability on campus is constantly changing, and we always keep a small number of rooms open for emergencies, temporary accommodation, and other reasons,” Touchette explained.
Several students complained that the Health Center is inaccessible for students with physical impairments, especially in the winter, when hills and roads can become icy. Denning responded in an email to the Justice, “The Health Center has a handicapped accessible entrance, bathroom and exam rooms.”
— Editor’s note: Justice editors Morgan Mayback, Maya Zanger-Nadis and Lily Swartz signed the open letter. Sam Stockbridge is a DCL employee.