Despite the hard-earned academic acclaim Brandeis receives as an institution it has continuously sat at #48 on the list of the ugliest college campuses in America. As described by the college reviewers from COMPLEX magazine, despite Brandeis hiring one of the most renowned modern architects of the twenty-first century, Eero Saarinen, his skill was not enough to pull the campus together and make it beautiful. COMPLEX even wrote, “Brandeis mixed these Modernist buildings with bland, brick structures and a castle to come up with their current campus. This jumble of styles and aesthetics leaves the school looking disheveled and incoherent.” If only those writers were able to see the inside of those buildings and what complicated, dated and in some cases unsafe methods they take to foster student life on campus; it is safe to say that their conclusion of the university may be more scathing than just “disheveled and incoherent.”
For this edition of the column, I find it wise to shift gears a little here, to a topic far more nuanced than building appearance and safety, because this will not only prove how expansive the concept of infrastructure is, but also how desperately Brandeis needs to pay more attention to the infrastructure on campus. The topic for this week concerns accessibility on campus, which I want to break down into two separate issues: building accessibility and building accommodation. By this I mean I want to first dive into the routes and paths disabled students need to take to access buildings and then explore the challenges they face when they enter those buildings. This article is in no way a catch-all for every issue that is present for disabled students on campus—simply an observation based on the buildings and paths I walk on and how inaccessible they present themselves.
As a humanities major, I am all too familiar with the Rabb steps. The long staircase makes the walk up to the Mandel Quad feel like a mountain hike every morning and even for some able-bodied individuals, the staircase is no easy task. However, for disabled folks, access to the quad is incredibly cumbersome based on the entrance to it and where it lets out into the quad. To allow disabled students to have access to Mandel Quad, atop its little hill, there is a ramp (really a service road for vehicles) which is between Rabb and the Mandel Center; in other words, it is about 264 feet west of the Rabb steps. The accessible path then lets the user out behind the Rabb building about where the steps lead to as well. It is clear that any accessible way for disabled students to make it up to the Mandel Quad will be difficult due to the hill. My issue with the access comes with the cost of the time it takes for someone to use that path and how it is not specifically designed for individual access. It would be at the very least helpful to install a path specifically for those who need it. Otherwise, the cobblestone on the side of the service road, which can have cars rolling up and down it, makes for an incredibly bumpy and sometimes dangerous ride up for someone in a wheelchair.
There are many other parts of campus that need consideration on how to make them more accessible, but now I want to look inside some of the buildings and explore their efforts towards being accessible. In terms of building accommodation, it is clear to see that most dormitories have accessible restrooms. They can be found throughout campus, and as wonderful as that is, there are some which are entirely inaccessible by severely disabled and wheelchair-bound individuals. The greatest example of this issue is in Usen Hall, which is labeled as having a ground floor (what any observer would call a first floor) and then a first floor one flight of stairs up (better observed as a second floor for all intents and purposes). On the “first floor” there is an accessible bathroom with proper equipment to take a shower and use the lavatory. The singular problem is that someone in a wheelchair cannot make it up the flight of stairs to get to the proper facilities, rendering the bathroom dysfunctional for those who need it most. To fix this issue, that hall would either need an elevator or some entrance onto the “first floor” so that it can be properly accessed.
Another building accommodation issue, or really oddity in my opinion, is at Olin-Sang’s eastern entrance (the door closest to the Rabb steps). Olin-Sang’s eastern entrance is between an external and an internal staircase with an automatic opening button on the inside. While this may be helpful for someone with crutches who needs to leave the building, it does not allow for wheelchairs to make an exit through those doors or even have easy access to the classrooms. Wheelchair-bound students would need to enter through the other end of Olin-Sang which is a far more time-consuming and tedious maneuver. The stairs on both the inside and outside of the door is a clear issue, and on top of that the interior stairwell presents real danger to handicapped students. The classrooms on the side of the stairwell have their entrances right at the corner of the landing and the stairwell going down is a few inches away. Anyone, even completely able-bodied individuals, could accidentally stumble and could find themselves falling down the stairs. To fix this issue it would take some construction, as the entrance would have to be made level to the ground outside and the stairwell would have to be pulled further out from the building to allow more room between the stairs and the classroom doors.
Infrastructure is a truly nuanced topic; from building design to accessibility it impacts how we live in our world. It is not a sexy topic and does not get much screen time or attention, but the more one observes the physical spaces around them it becomes clearer and clearer how much change is needed and how soon it is needed, from increasing accessibility to academic quads through specific ramps, making “accessible” restrooms accessible from the ground floor or an entrance on its floor or even by making doors with automatic opening capabilities accessible to any student who needs to get through them. If this necessary infrastructure remains as it is, the next review of Brandeis University could end with the words “inaccessible and exclusionary.”