In 2008, two students and former disabilities services coordinator Joel Dansky embarked on a survey of accessibility on Hampshire’s campus. The trio, in an almost-70 page report, outlined both the problems with the buildings and put forward recommended fixes–such as increasing the number of accessible bathrooms and moving student centers and health services to more accessible locations. The changes suggested in the report were to be incorporated into the Capital Facilities Plan 2009-2028, which included an accessibility budget of $100,000 per year.
“The problem was, within a year or two it was quite evident that the aggressive funding of… the capital plan itself wasn’t sustainable,” said Larry Archey, Director of Facilities and Grounds, when we sat down with him and Carl Weber. Instead, Hampshire switched to a more gradual approach: going year to year, seeing what money they had and what problems were the most pressing.
Last spring, Dansky retired. He was replaced by Aaron Ferguson, a full-time Director of Accessibility instead of part time disabilities services. Ferguson’s vision for the campus, while including the changes and goals shared with Facilities, goes beyond the ADA requirements. “[Joel’s approach was] an old school approach that I would call the medical model, which… puts the focus on the student as the problem and focuses on diagnoses and retroactive accommodations and stuff like that,” he said. “The industry is shifting more towards universal and inclusive design, a social model, as opposed to a medical model.”
The medical model of disability works to focus efforts on “curing” the individual as much as is possible, treating a disability as something that lowers an individual’s quality of life and can only be thought about negatively. The social model turns that idea on its head: “disabilities” are caused by society. The problem is not with the person who has trouble opening the door, but with the person who made the door too heavy for some to open. “Universal design” is the idea that human environments should designed so that they are available to everyone, regardless of abilities. This newer model incorporates these considerations into the planning process instead of tacking them on as an afterthought.
“It’s an ideal,” Ferguson said, “but working towards it by bringing in other folks in the community, helping them understand what their role is in creating elements of accessibility… just that, educating the campus, faculty, staff and students, is a big shift.”
But the social model breaks down when the people in charge don’t trust the community. There is a disclosure process for disabilities and the concomitant accommodations for a reason, but the process is not perfect: disclosure can be a terrifying obstacle for some, and a minor barrier for others. From Ferguson’s vantage point, “there [are] a lot of students who are flat-out okay with abusing the ADA and being like… ‘I’ll say whatever I want to get my cat in my dorm.’ Folks aren’t thinking in the social justice mindset. Not to say that it’s rampant, but it happens more frequently than I’ve ever experienced.” Talk to enough people who have moved in the middle of the semester and you are sure to find some with stories about how mentioning mental illness changed the way the HOO treated them. And then there are pets, which are sometimes the only benefit that students feel is worthwhile to seek from accessibility resources– and many students see nothing wrong with misrepresenting their need.
Our community often has a very different idea about what the rules should be compared to what they actually are. When the popular idea about how life should be at Hampshire (i.e. pets allowed) intersects with those benefits that really are accessible, a conflict of interests arises. Situations like these are the troubled terrain of the social model. “So I’ve had to draw some pretty strong boundaries with students for the legitimacy of other students,” Ferguson said.
The distrust can also run the other way: while most professors will accept accommodations without too much fuss, the language used on syllabuses can put off some students with disabilities right away. “No eating in class,” for example, or “absolutely no extensions.” In Aaron’s vision, such a statement would be a teachable moment and an attempt to bring more people into the fold: “And trying to empower folks to feel like they don’t have to have a degree, they don’t have to be the person with that in their title, to have some effect on accessibility.”
According to Hampshire’s current Knowledge and Wellness Commons plan, Health Services should soon be moving to a more accessible location in the Library/Robert Crown Center complex–one of the recommendations in the 2008 plan that has been neglected in the time since. We can tentatively report that the Hitchcock Center may soon install ADA accessible trails around Hampshire’s farm and woods (look out for more on this in coming weeks!). Plenty remains to be done–and one place for students to start is to look at the 2008 plan, which can easily be found online. We do not conclude this report with a call to action; if it has been successful, you are already aware of your ability to be active on this campus. There is no natural place for the conversation to end: accessibility is not a fixed goal post, but an ongoing project, one the whole community must take part in.
The 2008 Accessibility Report is available for viewing here