Many buildings at Sarah Lawrence were built before the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) passed, and the evidence can be seen in door widths, faculty office locations, and bathroom sink heights.
President Karen Lawrence said, "One of the things about Sarah Lawrence is that we have beautiful old buildings that were never constructed with this in mind, and that makes it hard for us to retrofit every building. We do have a five-year plan to make buildings ADA accessible and that does not depend on donor funding. As a college, we want to do that and we need to do that.”
Until last year, Associate Dean of Studies & Disability Services Polly Waldman had an office on the second floor of Westlands that was not wheelchair accessible. When she got the job in 2006, the position was a new one at SLC. "It was created and I was hired. I had directed disability services at another college," said Waldman.
She now works closely with students of any disability, as early in the school-year as possible. Her office is also now much more accessible. "I set up a confidential file here. It's not part of a student's permanent record. No information gets shared to their faculty without written permission, and so I sit and work with each student individually once they have their classes, and we determine what accommodations they may need, what they're entitled to and what they benefit from, so then we write a letter together," she said.
While many of Sarah Lawrence's buildings remain fairly old, disability awareness has spread significantly throughout campus over the last decade. Around 2005, an SLC student group called Beyond Compliance formed. It was, "dedicated to raising disability consciousness on our campus." Today, a group on campus called Disability Alliance advocates for accessibility and respect for people with disabilities.
Rebecca Gross ('17) is the current head of Disability Alliance. She attended the group last year and eventually the group asked her to coach. "I actually went to a high school that specialized in learning disabilities,” said Ross, “so I've always been a very loud and proud advocate and I'm not ashamed of any disabilities that I have," she said. The group discussions and activities vary from week to week, and helps bring them together.
"We're sort of 50% activism and 50% community, so we want to create events to raise awareness about disability issues and disability rights issues, as well as just creating a comfortable environment where people don't feel like they have anything that they are supposed to hide or they're going to be judged for, which sadly often elsewhere can happen," said Gross.
Disability awareness also plays an important role in our curriculum. Sarah Wilcox, a sociology professor at Sarah Lawrence, has taught a few classes on disability. "Because one of my main areas is medical sociology and questions of health and illness disabilities come up in my classes in a lot of different ways," Wilcox explained.
Wilcox has spoken with many of the members of Disability Alliance, and said she has had a growing connection over the years to disability services and advocacy on campus. "There has been a number of trends that were independent but that have come together in a very synergistic way," she said.
More subtle changes have also shown up on campus over the last few years. For example, at the library underneath the walkway there is a garden, and until recently there was not a paved path; the garden is now wheelchair accessible. There are also two new handicap parking spaces outside the PAC this year.
The renovations around campus are part of a five-year strategic plan to bring SLC up to ADA standards. Kyle Wilkie, Assistant Vice President for Campus Operations and Planning wrote, “Every renovation that the college plans has persons with disabilities in mind. Aside from the less obvious architectural elements, we also consider which materials, furniture, fixtures, and equipment would be best for persons with disabilities.” Many people believe that ADA has a clause stating that something "grandfathered in," meaning something built before ADA existed, does not need to have improvements made. In reality, it has been required for facility executives since Jan. 26, 1992 to begin renovations.
According to Adata.org, the ADA has a provision called Safe Harbor which states that modifications don’t need to be made for a building that complies with 1991 standards. Renovations, however, always need to be brought up to 2010 standards.
Cait Chamberlin (‘16) has a temporarily broken foot. To get to classes, she has to call Public Safety to drive her. She claimed it is not a perfect system, however, since Public Safety is not exclusively for accessibility services. "Sometimes they have to stop an alarm from going off. Often times they'll be transporting me, but they also have their other duties," she said.
As the college continues on its five-year strategic plan, students and prospective students will hopefully see more accessibility and acceptance for any form of diversity on campus.
by Joseph McFarland '16