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The great Brandeisian façade: Accessibility on crutches

Despite the hard-earned academic acclaim Brandeis receives as an institution it has continuously sat at #48 on the list of 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.”

In this edition of the column, I would like to revisit the topic from “The great Brandeisian facade: Building accessibility” from a new angle—one of someone who has been facing accessibility issues recently. Leah Beltran ’23, a current junior at Brandeis and member of the women’s rugby team, twisted her knee during competition and was in need of crutches and a brace to maneuver around campus. Recently and in good news, she was allowed to walk on her brace without crutches by her doctor. However, relying on crutches and a brace to navigate campus forced Leah to deal with some of the major issues Brandeis faces with regards to accessibility. 

After Leah’s injury was managed by Brandeis Emergency Medical Corps (BEMCo) she reached out to the Student Accessibility Services on campus. They put her in contact with the student-run accessibility van and provided no other accommodations as her classes were still being held in buildings without elevators. Fortunately, professors were accommodating of the situation, allowing for Leah to Zoom in when necessary and understanding when Leah arrived late or had to leave early. 

But while accessibility to classes may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of this topic in relation to college education, the most difficult parts of needing accessible options come outside of the classroom. On the topic of her daily routine, Leah expressed, “My routine has changed a lot, I often don’t get to the dining hall since Sherman does not have an elevator, only the wheelchair lift which I’m pretty sure you aren’t allowed to use unless you have permission (I could be wrong though). So, getting food is a lot for me, I often just don’t get to the dining hall.” Being able to take care of yourself should never be a question on a college campus when education should be everyone’s primary concern. The lack of accessibility into the dining halls, Sherman in particular as Leah noted, is beyond dangerous. There should be no world in which a campus exists where a student has to budget time and access over being able to feed themselves.

Food is not the only concern on campus when you are in need of accessible options to move around. The seemingly simple task of opening doors to enter and exit buildings becomes a herculean accomplishment when you are able to fully open them. This is due to the weight of some of the doors: it can be incredibly difficult to open them without help, and if you are on crutches like Leah, it can take throwing yourself at them to get them to move even the slightest amount. Mechanical door openers can be found on campus, but as Leah noted, “…a lot of the buttons don’t work unless you press them at a certain angle and I don’t have time or energy to scan every QR code to tell Brandeis the buttons aren’t working.” To enter and exit buildings can be a task within itself that goes largely unnoticed if you are not a student with accessibility needs, but for those who are aided by those systems, they become necessary. Most buildings on this campus do not have elevators, but to include mechanical door openers would be a large improvement as described by Leah. 

Entrances and exits are in need of work, mobility when inside buildings such as the dining halls and academic buildings without elevators is in need of work, so does navigating the physical campus of Brandeis need work as well? 

That question can be answered in a number of ways because in a perfect world the answer would be yes. But since Brandeis inherited Middlesex Community College’s land which exists on a hill it is simply impossible to restructure the physical layout of campus. Hence, other solutions must come into the fold as navigating campus when in need of accessible options can be simply impossible. For Leah on crutches, she did not walk on campus unless it was between close buildings such as Usdan and the library or from Village to the Shapiro Campus Center (SCC), which still took her half an hour on her first night on crutches. The hill of campus is a true impediment to accessibility and makes the accessibility van a necessary service on campus. However, the accessibility van is student-run, meaning it can be impossible to get a ride in the morning or on the weekends around campus. As Leah made sure to note, “this is not to say they are lacking on their end, but rather they aren’t supported by the university and students who drive the vans are students as well and have to take care of themselves and have a certain amount of time they can give to driving the van.” Because the van is student run it can only be useful during certain hours and it forces accessible students to spend a lot of time simply planning how they will get from point A to point B rather than focusing on the education they are here to cultivate. 

The accessibility van as a physical van also comes with its own accessibility issue: it is a raised van. The accessibility van is a “Branvan” for all intents and purposes, which means riders need to take a step or two up to enter the van at its height. For those like Leah, it just poses another inconvenience in the struggle of making it around campus which takes time and energy to work out. 

Brandeis’ campus is hardly an accessible one which even the untrained eye can discern, but when looked at from the perspective of someone in need of accessible accommodations the red flags fly at an even higher rate than imagined. From buildings not having elevators in them to provide access to vital necessities such as food, to doors being too heavy to open without mechanical openers (which are in need of maintenance), to the student run accessibility van in need of more support and to the arbitrary steps around campus (as discussed in the article mentioned above), Brandeis has a grocery list of things in need of improvement before it can ever consider itself an accessible campus. But rather than ending this edition as usual, stating some words reviewers could use about the university, I would like to end with two thoughts shared with me by Leah:

“If the university remains as it is, it needs to be willing to provide transportation and options for students to get around, not just during the weekdays, but weekends as well. I want to see support from the administration, not just SAS or other students. Where is the funding going if not to help students navigate their own campus?”

“It is really important to remember that this is not just about getting around, but students’ mental health and needs. For me this is not permanent, but for some students this is lifelong. Brandeis makes a promise to support its students, but has such an ableist mindset that it leaves behind those who are disabled. This isn’t a problem for people to ignore. We need to create a safe, accessible place, and asking for more elevators, buttons that work, and reliable transportation should be something Brandeis can do. I can only speak on my behalf about what I have encountered, but I know there are many more students who have not said anything, or have but have not been listened to.”

 

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