Constantly Fighting an Uphill Battle (The Hoya)

For Taylor Price (MSB ’09), getting around campus isn’t easy. Operating a motorized wheelchair forces him to take elevators and ramps, which are subject to malfunctioning and inclement weather. In order to access the McDonough School of Business lab in New South, Price must take the Village A elevator down to the first level. Once, when the elevator was broken, Price was stranded until it was fixed.

Georgetown’s hilly landscape can often make traveling around campus a chore, evidenced by the grimaces of those trekking up the Library Road hill. However, it’s more than an inconvenience for students with physical disabilities, who are often relegated to a series of elevators and detours.

Jenny Faenza (COL ’11), who suffers from pulmonary hypertension, a high blood pressure condition that makes physical exercise and breathing more difficult, said that frequent elevator malfunctions lead to complications for her.

“If they have the money to put number plates in Village C, the elevators could be fixed. There are all these signs, and yet the elevators break constantly,” she said.

Price and Faenza also brought up the difficulty they have with using the SafeRides services on campus. Both the Department of Public Safety and SafeRides representatives said the service cannot accommodate wheelchair-bound passengers.

Bad weather can often increase risk for mobility-disabled students in navigating campus roads and walkways.

“I’m like a car 24/7,” Price said. “An icy sidewalk is like an icy road.”

Price, however, took matters into his own hands last fall when he spoke to an administrator about the entrance to Healy Hall from Dahlgren Quadrangle. The heavy doors, he said, made it nearly impossible for him to enter the building independently. After Price’s push for change, the university replaced the doors, making them automatic – and thus handicapped-accessible – at the beginning of this semester.

Price said that university officials are, more often than not, willing to address concerns, but enacting larger-scale changes can be a challenge because physically disabled students are such a small minority.

“I would generally say that facilities are good. If there is something wrong, they tend to be receptive,” he said. “There’s no question that this group of students is a vast minority. But it would be our hope that the appropriate amount of funds be allocated even though it’s a small group of students.”

Faenza said she believes the university can do more to help mobility-disabled students get around. “I just assumed that every campus would do all that they could to help people with special needs. But I feel that the campus could do a better job overall,” she said.

Jane Holahan, director of the Academic Resource Center, admits that it is not always easy for physically disabled students to navigate the campus, and sometimes students need to point out problems in order for changes to be made.

“To say [an] assessment is going to catch every single item is unrealistic. It’s going to take someone in a wheelchair, or with a cane, to raise an issue that maybe wasn’t thought about before,” she said.

Terra Cusack, learning skills specialist at the ANC, said that the center serves as the central coordinating hub for disability services.

“Our office doesn’t work alone. Although it is our mission, what we are tasked to do, we work with other offices,” she said. “We are the first point of contact because students have personal relationships with us. The students are really listened to and respected. Our desire is to meet the needs of the whole person.”

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that aims to protect against discrimination based on disability. Title III of the act establishes regulations for the accessibility of public accommodations and commercial facilities.

Buildings constructed before the act was passed, as most of Georgetown’s were, are only required to comply with the act if they undergo renovations or new construction. Many of the campus’s buildings were erected before advancements in technology allowed for easy accessibility.

For example, Older Law Center buildings do not need to provide Braille signage as they were built before 1990.

But Holahan added that Georgetown is conscious of the difficulty that mobility-disabled students have in getting around campus.

“Georgetown was one of the first campuses to actually implement the mandates under the ADA,” she said.

Holahan said the university stringently follows ADA guidelines when designing new buildings, including the new MSB building.

“The architect is beholden under the ADA,” she said.

Different architectural teams are hired with an ADA expert on staff or with a contracted ADA consultant, according to Karen Frank, vice president for facilities and student housing.

Frank added that the university has consistently tried to improve its facilities in order to make facilities more accommodating to the special needs of students.

“There has been a lot of work done over the years with curb cuts and making restrooms handicapped accessible,” Frank said.

Although the university is taking care to plan new buildings according to ADA guidelines, Frank said that the university relies on student feedback to make changes to existing facilities. She emphasized, though, that the structural capacities of older university buildings limit accessibility upgrades. In particular, she said the varying floor heights in Ryder Hall of LXR inhibit the creation of a seamlessly accessible building.

“Not all of Ryder is accessible,” she said. “It was an existing building and we made them as accessible as possible.”

Although ARC and the Office of Student Housing work together to meet the needs of mobility-disabled students who require special living conditions, some students said that this leads to few options.

“For housing, they’re helpful, but I feel like you’ve got to jump through hoops. If you tell them you have special needs, they assign you a room and there’s no leeway. We don’t get as many options,” Faenza said.

Robert Hurtekant (SFS ’08), a wheelchair-bound student, said that although he has always been able to secure an accessible room before the lottery process, he and his roommates had problems communicating with ARC, housing and facilities last year.

“The major problem was that my apartment, in and of itself, is quite accessible, but there is a set of stairs between the apartment and the courtyard,” he said. “Georgetown was able to give me a remote clicker, which gives me an alternate access route through an external emergency door, but that didn’t happen until right before school started.”

Students have agreed, though, that though Georgetown can at times be inconvenient to navigate, and the general accessibility of campus figured prominently in their decisions to attend Georgetown.

“Of course, I wouldn’t have come here if I thought that getting around would be impossible,” Hurtekant said. “I made a visit to Georgetown in the spring of my high school senior year and spent an entire weekend here. I paced the campus and was convinced that I could get everywhere I needed to go. New South Hill was a bit daunting, though.”

Faenza said that many stairwells on campus made her realize early on that navigation would be challenging.

“I came to GAAP weekend, and it was very difficult. I remember walking up the Village C steps, and it was torture,” she said.

For Hurtekant, getting acclimated to his surroundings was a process that took years to complete.

“By senior year, I’ve got the lay of the land,” he said.

Price said that Georgetown has been accommodating for him but can always reach out to more people, students, faculty and visitors alike, to make the campus a more accessible place.

“We should be as inviting to all people, in all situations, in all walks of life, to be as facility-friendly as possible,” he said.”

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