The Spirit of the Law: Accessibility pt. 2

 

Amy Deyerle-Smith
Treat Shepardson

In the inaugural issue of the Howler, we reported on multiple issues with the push buttons around campus: some worked on and off as it pleased them, and others had given up completely.

The culprits varied. In some cases, such as the doors to FPH, campus police had not been unlocking them. Others were out of batteries. One had to be repaired so as to properly display whether it was powered or not. As of this third issue of the Howler, and after a sit-down with Larry Archey and Carl Weber from Facilities and Grounds, we are happy to report that most of these problems have now been fixed.

This, perhaps, is a small example of how improvements get made at Hampshire College.

“I wish when you were in the middle of doing it you called me right away. We’re very approachable and very much want to help,” said Archey. This is a sentiment that was expressed to us many times in our interview: that students are not aware of, or underestimate, the extent to which Facilities and Grounds is willing to meet, listen, and collaborate with them.

There are merits and shortcomings to this whack-a-mole approach. It is good to know that changes to campus can be discussed collaboratively with, to use Archey’s term, “stakeholders”  and that it is not only possible but encouraged for students to bring their concerns to the attention of the administration. On the other hand, this relies on students being assertive enough– not to mention having the time and energy, something college students do not have in excess– to bring their concerns to light.

Behind this trade-off is a simple pragmatism. Universal accessibility and to-the-letter Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance are not coming to Hampshire right away. “Because there’s so much need across campus […] if you were trying to bring everything up to code [then] we are going to have to prioritize that list [and] we should do that together,” Archey said. This approach might work for active students who are used to or good at advocating for themselves, but not for students who don’t or can’t make their voice heard– or for those who assume (not unreasonably) that if it’s a legal problem, it will be fixed.
access chart
(numbers provided by Ferguson) 

We also got the impression that those bureaucratically assigned to make Hampshire accessible are doing the best they can in a less-than-perfect situation:

“The number of students who work with the Office now are like 300…industry standard, one person per caseload of 300 is bonkers. It’s usually like one to 100, and that’s even kind pragmatically difficult,” said Aaron Ferguson, director of the Office of Accessibility and Resource Services. Students with with sensory disabilities, physical disabilities, or mobility impairments make up a rather small portion of the these students–only around 3%, according to a statistical breakdown provided by Ferguson. Accommodating mobility and sensory impairments is thus both a moral (and legal) imperative, and one priority of many for a busy office.  

This, too, was a common thread in the interviews we conducted. There are simply too many demands, too many students in need, too many code issues for everything to be resolved at one time. Aaron, having only been hired last summer, is still learning the campus and looking for a way to suss out resolutions. Meanwhile, Larry and Carl at Facilities are trying to work things in when they can. A few years ago, when doing repairs to a wall in Prescott, Carl suggested that they replace the entrance stairs with a ramp. “Even though we couldn’t afford at the time to have a handicap apartment, we would at least have the ramps available,” Larry said. “And lo and behold, five six years ago, we went down there and put the handicap [accessible mods] in there ‘cause now we had the ramps.” Similar updates were made to Liebling in 2008, and to Enfield when they added sub-basements.

Another example of this ad hoc problem-solving is the history of the building now known as the Center for Academic Support and Advising, CASA. Originally, this was a small extension to Lemelson that would have included Health Services and several “no lights private exam rooms.” When a front piece was added to the building, intended to be the temporary home of college advancement, an opportunity arose to combine several offices in one. Central Records, which had previously been in Cole Science Center, and Advising, which had been located on the second floor of Dakin house, were relocated to the building. This took advising out if its previously inaccessible location, and combined several services that students need to visit frequently, sometimes one after another. Thus we ended up with a much needed improvement, thanks as much to serendipity as to planning.

While Hampshire remains below the benchmarks set by the Americans with Disabilities Act for measures such as the minimum number of accessible dorm rooms, negotiation will remain the order of the day. For example, there is one accessible room in Dakin–legally, there should be eight. “We work very closely with the town of Amherst on the buildings,” Archey said. “[We] go to the building department, [we] go to the board in Boston and they give [us] variance… [they] don’t want to say you can’t do your project in improvements because of this. We want to help you to get there.”

Ferguson worries that this strategy isn’t sustainable. “Just identifying every crack and trying to fill it one by one doesn’t really work,” he said.  “Especially when we’re starting from where we are… but come back in like 2060 and we’ll see what’s happened.”

Archey and Weber would like to invite all members of the Hampshire community who have questions and concerns to consider speaking with the Grounds staff in addition to Office of Accessibility Resources at CASA. On-campus meetings can be scheduled via email, and there is a bus stop for the Bay Road office on the 39 bus.

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