Accessibility forum fills up; students frustrated
On Tuesday afternoon, Brandeis students, faculty and staff met in Levin Ballroom in Usdan Student Center and discussed their often-frustrating experiences with accessibility on campus.
University Provost Lisa M. Lynch began the forum by acknowledging the University’s accessibility shortcomings. “Historically colleges and universities, … including Brandeis University, have addressed issues of disability policy and accessibility on campus, and in particular accessibility for students, through a dedicated office of disability services.” This approach “tries to fit individuals into a system that was built without [accessibility] in mind,” Lynch said. “That has to change.”
“If you’re always asking for an accommodation, finding a way for you to fit in, it’s hard to see how that squares with feeling, ‘Yes, I belong here, yes I should be here, yes I’m coming into a campus that’s welcoming of me being here on this campus,’” she added.
Lynch emphasized the importance of embracing universal design on campus. Universal design is the principle that when communities are inclusive of all their members, it is beneficial for every member. Lynch explained that universal design “is going to help advance the University’s sense of community and inclusion.”
She also said she was proud that Brandeis will be “developing a set of accessibility indicators” to measure progress in achieving accessibility on campus. “If you don’t take the time to measure how you’re impacting your community, then it’s easier for that community to not be as visible on the campus.”
“Accessibility is a shared responsibility on this campus, but I hope you see by who is here of the senior leadership that there’s a recognition among the senior leadership here on campus that it’s a shared responsibility but it starts from the top,” she said. “It’s extremely important that our work is informed and guided by those with disabilities.”
Stewart Uretsky, executive vice president for Finance and Administration, took the microphone next to discuss the University’s plan to make its buildings more accessible. He said the University is conducting a “building condition assessment” to measure “all 97 buildings on campus” and figure out which would most benefit from renovations to increase accessibility.
The next half hour of the forum was designated for discussions at round tables with audience members about the accessibility problems on campus and the support that members of the audience have found with accessibility on campus.
This format was designed so that the audience could share their experiences with each other and “brainstorm” solutions together, Lynch explained. After the discussion period, members of the audience volunteered to tell the room about their discussions.
First to volunteer was LilyFish Gomberg ’20, who expressed her frustration that there are a lot of good measures in place for students that need academic accommodations but that those measures aren’t coming to fruition. She spoke specifically about the noise-cancelling headphones that the University provides for some students for exams, which in the past have not been charged. Without power, the headphones function as little more than earmuffs. She also said the University has a lot of excessive documentation that leads to assistance and aid being more complicated than they need to be.
Rachel Steinberg ’19 observed that the students at the forum were, for the most part, not sitting with faculty. She said that without communication between those groups, it would be difficult to make any sort of progress.
Sasha Manus ’21 explained the numerous frustrations the members of her table had with campus accessibility. Describing BranVan accessibility, she said, “It’s unreliable, there’s false info about it, and there’s only one accessible BranVan, and I have cerebral palsy. I can’t use it. It’s not accessible enough.” She said the administration’s attitude toward students with disabilities amounts to “‘You’re a casualty. So be it.’”
Manus continued, “It is my second year here. I have almost transferred six times. I chose Brandeis because I love the community, but every single time I am here, I feel like I am a second-class citizen.”
Manus also expressed frustration with food contamination in the dining halls, saying, “People should not have to eat with their EpiPens out. Think about the type of message that’s sending to students.”
Steve Gulley talked about his experience in higher education as a graduate student who has used a wheelchair since he was 16. Gulley said, “Instead of approaching disability from a medical standpoint, instead of approaching disability as a matter of accommodation, instead of approaching disability as a matter fundamentally of rights … We have understand that disability is fundamentally a part of human diversity.”
“I’m painfully aware of how ridiculously privileged I am [as a white man], and at the same time, aware of the fact that, yes, there are ways that I’m oppressed,” he said.
Gulley encouraged members of the audience to learn about the changes that are happening as accessibility improves. “There’s history here, folks, that I would hope that you could take some time to study,” he said. “And that won’t make this anger or this hurt go away, but it will keep us grounded in where we came from, and that might help us to know where we’re going.”
Chris Christian ’21 said she was disappointed that the accessibility transport doesn’t operate past 6 p.m. and asked how the University manages to have a non-accessible BranVan that operates until 2 a.m. every night of the week. She also expressed her frustration with trying to navigate the Carl J. Shapiro Science Complex without the ability to walk up and down stairs.
University President Ron Liebowitz concluded the forum. “I want to give you my commitment that we’re going to start seriously,” he said. “We have several planning processes underway on this campus. … No one little [division of the administration] can address the magnitude of issues that all students, faculty and staff face here at Brandeis.”
He continued, “Our humanity is also important. That’s what underlies all of this, and the experiences that of course we want to guarantee for all our students, faculty and staff.”