Yair*, who graduated from Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy in March, uses a simple hypothetical situation to illustrate the universal benefits of physical accessibility and the attitude it is often met with: Imagine a building, the steps and ramp leading up to it covered in snow. Almost instinctively, the stairs are cleared first.
“If you clear off the ramp, everyone can get up, but if you clear off the stairs, only certain people can get up,” Yair* says.
Northwestern’s policy is to clear stairs and ramps at the same time, but this mentality is still present at the school in other ways. On a campus where conversations about marginalized communities and their needs frequently occur, it seems as though students with disabilities are often forgotten.
Yair* has had a chronic back and neck pain condition since birth, which he describes as a “periodic” physical disability.
“Some days I’m lucky enough to be able-bodied, and some days I’m not,” Yair* says. At its worst, his pain can feel paralyzing to the point where he is unable to move, he says. For bad days, he carries a collapsible cane in a side pocket of his backpack to help him walk and move around campus. Otherwise, his disability is mostly invisible to others.
The office set up to serve and support students with disabilities, AccessibleNU, has around 900 total registered students. About 65 percent of those are undergraduates. Ninety percent of those 900 students registered with AccessibleNU have an invisible disability, one that is unrecognizable just by looking at them. This leaves roughly 90 students with a registered, visible disability or mobility impairment.
According to a 2015 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, 11 percent of college undergraduates in both 2007–08 and 2011–12 reported having some disability. But at Northwestern, that number hovers around five percent of total undergraduate students.
“Do I think we have as small a number of people with physical disabilities or mobility impairments as we do because of our architecture and whatnot? Yes,” says Alison May, director of AccessibleNU and assistant dean of students. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a student came onto campus and pretty quickly got messages from a variety of buildings they might try to enter. They might see, ‘Oh, wait, I can only go on the first floor,’ that it’s going to be a constant struggle.”
The underrepresentation of students with disabilities is apparent across Northwestern. As outlined in Northwestern’s nondiscrimination policy and mandated by Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the school does not exclude students with physical disabilities. However, Yair* and others feel that because there are so few students with these disabilities, the University can easily ignore them, and that Northwestern as a whole is built for able-bodied students.
“In general, the University is apathetic,” Yair* says. “It’s not that they don’t support us or they do support us, but it’s like we’re not really here.”
The multiple buildings that do not comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 or Illinois state accessibility codes on the Evanston campus illustrate Northwestern’s attitude towards students with disabilities. The ADA’s Title III requires educational entities to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities and remove barriers to access (like stairs or other impediments) when “readily achievable.” Although Northwestern has renovated many historic buildings and has updated accessibility in the last decade, physical barriers remain present across campus, even in buildings that claim to be compliant.
One example is Locy Hall on South Campus. All of Locy’s entrances have steps in front of them, and the building has no ramps as an alternative. Inside, Locy does not have an elevator to transport students between its four floors.
“The long-term viability [of Locy] is under consideration,” says Bonnie Humphrey, director of design and construction for Facilities Management at Northwestern. Despite this, multiple Weinberg departments use Locy as a “swing space” while Kresge Centennial Hall undergoes major renovation, Humphrey says.
If a student cannot access a classroom in which they have a class, it will be moved to a different, accessible location. According to May, her department has moved more classes out of Locy than any other building, especially since it took over Kresge’s previous functions.
Dearborn Observatory, used by the physics department, also fails to comply – its telescope can only be reached by climbing multiple flights of stairs. At the end of 2015, Dearborn underwent construction, but accessibility was not improved because the work was a repair project. Since ADA guidelines are not retroactive, buildings only have to comply when renovated. The building is also considered a historic landmark in Evanston, and in some cases, “historic preservation trumps accessibility,” Humphrey says.
Another building of concern to May is Northwestern Career Advancement’s office on Lincoln Street, which also fails to comply with the ADA.
“That just sends a terrible message if your career advancement building is inaccessible, especially given that [disabled] unemployment rates have not changed in the 25 years since ADA,” May says. In the 2010-12 period, only 32 percent of working-age people with disabilities were employed on average, compared to 72.7 percent of people without a disability, according to the United States Department of Labor.
And while signs at the front entrance of the Norris University Center proudly proclaim ADA compliance, Norris is a common target of accessibility complaints. People with mobility issues often struggle with the steepness of the hill in front and the large amount of force required to push its automatic door button.
“Norris is pretty terrible,” Yair* says. “It’s possible to get into different rooms, but it’s very, very burdensome. If I’m having a rough day physically, which means I’m in pain, to have to walk all the way around the building and then through the food court just to get to the elevator just to get to Norbucks is kind of absurd in some ways.”
An audit performed on Norris three years ago revealed various accessibility problems with relatively cheap fixes, none of which were made due to high leadership and staffing turnover as well as future plans to demolish Norris, according to May. Meanwhile, Humphrey says plans to renovate Norris in the near future are mostly focused on increasing the building’s available space.
“Certainly it would include accessibility as well, as far as the scope of the project, but that’s not the driver,” she says.
Like Norris, other compliant buildings on campus have design flaws that make them hard or impossible to use. While Northwestern voluntarily added a ramp up to the first floor of Dearborn, the heavy door it leads to has no automatic door opener. Harris Hall’s ramp is on its north side, but to get to its elevator from that entrance, one must go through two more doors without an automatic opener. The Communications Residential College has an automatic first set of doors, but once inside them, the second set of doors has no opener.
“You have buildings designed in ways that don’t allow for students to comfortably move around, and adding a ramp doesn’t make it handicap accessible or disability accessible, it just means you can walk up to it,” Yair* says. “Accessibility is thinking about design as encompassing all types of people.”
The school responds to the needs of its students, and has made significant progress, Humphrey says. In the last decade, multiple ramps have been installed in buildings, including many along Sheridan Road and in the sorority quad. Facilities Management works closely with May and AccessibleNU, she says.
The University has also been proactive in making all its new construction exceed the minimum requirements of both the ADA and Illinois accessibility codes, she says. For example, the new Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts and the under-construction Kellogg School of Management building incorporate principles of universal design, i.e. creating buildings and spaces all people can access. In the Ryan Center, gradual ramps replace traditional stairs.
AccessibleNU is meant to help students work around problems of accessibility and inclusion, but May says the small department has only been fully staffed for six months since Fall 2013, limiting its ability to do advocacy or outreach work. Instead, it focuses its resources on campus-centric accommodation requests.
Yair* says he is frustrated with the lack of student input and conversation around disability. Northwestern’s focus on forms of diversity, such as race and socioeconomic status, does not seem to include disability at all, he says. According to Carrie Ingerman, a SESP freshman with accommodations for nerve damage in her back, students with disabilities lack the campus community and support other groups have.
“Disability, and ability in general, is a form of identity,” she says. “We as a University claim to be accepting of diversity and promote diversity, and I think it’s really sad that we are so inaccessible in many different ways, because that basically cuts off an entire identity base.”
Currently, Ingerman is working with Scott Gerson, a SESP sophomore with a cognitive disability, to change that. The pair has created a new kind of student group for all students with disabilities called Beyond Compliance. As the name implies, they believe basic compliance with disability-related laws and guidelines is not enough to fully serve the needs of those students.
Ingerman says she intends to model it after groups like Rainbow Alliance, an LGBTQ advocacy and student group, providing a sense of community for students with disabilities, as well as a space to advocate for their needs.
“We didn’t really feel like students with disabilities were included past the accommodation side,” Gerson says. “There wasn’t really any community aspect when it came to disability, there wasn’t any social support, anything like that from the University.”
Because AccessibleNU keeps the names of its registered students confidential and not all students with disabilities are registered, students with disabilities – especially invisible disabilities – often have a hard time meeting one another. Beyond Compliance aims to promote that missing community.
But when Ingerman initially tried to make it an official student group, she was immediately referred back to AccessibleNU.
“That was kind of my first roadblock, the misconception that everything related to disabilities needs to go through AccessibleNU, and that was really unhelpful,” Ingerman says. May says she was also frustrated by the assumption that Ingerman was seeking AccessibleNU’s services instead of trying to establish something separate.
“It’s almost like we [at Northwestern] stop listening after we hear disability,” May says.
Beyond Compliance had its first meeting May 9 in Annenberg Hall. Seven people attended and discussed paternalism among many disability-related organizations on campus, Dance Marathon’s inaccessibility to students with physical disabilities and lack of disability awareness in academic curriculum and discussion, Ingerman says.
Overall, May describes Northwestern as reactive, not proactive, in accommodating disabilities.
“I’ve found the school to be really good to respond if there is a student with a particular need,” she says. “But if you’re choosing where you’re going to go to school, why would you choose to go somewhere where you know right off the bat you might have to ask for something major to be done?”
But students with disabilities still do come to Northwestern. For Ingerman, apart from looking for schools with relatively flat campuses, accommodations and accessibility weren’t a large factor in her college choice. Being close to home made attending Northwestern much easier for Yair* – he didn’t have to change any of his medical treatment or doctors.
Though he says he would choose Northwestern again, Yair* notes the nature of the school makes the simplest of activities, like eating in dining halls or attending events, hard for people with a physical disability, distinguishing their experiences from those of their able-bodied peers.
“I’m very, very lucky that I’m able-bodied a lot of the time, so when looking at schools I put academics above personal care,” Yair* says. “Sometimes I wonder about that. Going to physical therapy twice a week, seeing doctors, is not something you can do if you want to be an active member of the Northwestern community with extracurriculars and four classes. It’s kind of just … hobble to the finish line.”
*Yair's last name was omitted to protect his privacy.