By Becky Koenig
Walking the College of William and Mary’s paths is a dangerous business. The bricks crumble seemingly upon footfall. When it rains, rivulets of mud make them perilously slick. Navigating the uneven lanes that connect the College is challenging even under the best of circumstances.
Imagine doing it in a wheelchair.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990 and renewed in 2010, addresses concerns of this kind by requiring places of public accommodation, including universities, to be designed, constructed and altered to comply with specific standards of accessibility. In its policies and physical layout, the College conforms to the law’s conditions.
However, its historic campus is not especially hospitable to individuals with restricted mobility.
“We’re not perfect but we try hard,” Haskell Brown, the College’s senior review architect, said. “The College wants to do a good job.”
According to a 2003-04 National Center for Education Statistics report, 11.3 percent of undergraduate
students at American universities reported having a disability. At the College, approximately 10 to 20 students, or between 0.1 and 0.3 percent of the student body, are approved for disability housing accommodations each year, Associate Director of Residence Life Katrina Pawvluk said. There are currently no students at the College who rely on wheelchairs full time.
To ensure the disabled equal access to facilities, the ADA provides highly detailed building guidelines, to which all construction projects approved for occupancy after January 1993 must comply. Among the law’s stipulations are wheelchair accessible hallways, doorways, bathrooms and water fountains, visual fire alarms for the hearing-impaired and elevator access between floors. Campus buildings in full accordance with the ADA include the Jamestown Residences (2006), the Integrated Science Center (2008), Alan B. Miller Hall (2009), the Sherman and Gloria H. Cohen Career Center (2010) and the School of Education (2010).
“If it’s a brand new building, you’ve got to comply, and you got no excuses, because you’re designing it from scratch,” Brown said. “You’re to make it conform to the greatest degree you possibly can.”
Brown, a licensed architect, and three engineers make up the College’s architectural code review team charged with ensuring construction designs meet the ADA standards. The board also assesses building renovation plans, since all alterations started after January 1992 must bring the affected areas up to code. The Commons Dining Hall and Small Hall are among campus structures that have been significantly renovated to comply with the law. According to Brown, the Tucker Hall alterations currently underway are proving challenging.
“It is a very difficult building because it has multiple floor levels,” he said. “The architect has done a pretty good job of making it accessible. It requires cutting holes in the floor, putting in an elevator shaft.”
Brown noted a shift in attitude toward improving accessibility for handicapped individuals.
“Back before the law, there was very low social consciousness with regard to people with disabilities,” he said. “In the early days when it was first happening and people weren’t familiar with it, getting people to understand and comply was sometimes difficult, just because people were not tuned with it.”
Even as late as 2000, when he arrived at the College, Brown said he encountered some outdated ideas.
“When I first got here there was the idea that we should just put handicapped parking spots everywhere and people could drive around from place to place,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s a terrible idea.’”
A wheelchair-bound co-worker at a previous job showed him how difficult it is for handicapped people to move in and out of cars.
“It’s a trial. I was really sensitized by that,” he said. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”
While all College buildings required by the ADA to be handicap accessible are, many more on campus are exempt from the law. It does not apply to the Wren Building, for example, because of the structure’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the 1920s and 1960s, respectively, some old and new campus dormitories also do not have to comply, unless they undergo alteration.
“If you go through the old buildings on campus, you’ll find things that don’t apply,” Brown said. “When we do our renovations we try to comply. We don’t have the ability to comply wholesale with everything.”
To qualify for dormitory accommodations, students must submit disability reports from medical professionals to the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Disability Service. If approved, they meet with Pawvluk, who helps them find rooms that meet their needs. She cited the first floors of Barrett, Hunt, and Monroe Halls, as well as the Jamestown Residences, as good choices for handicapped students.
“I want them to be somewhere they’re going to be happy, somewhere they’re going to be comfortable, somewhere they’re going to do well,” Pawvluk said.
The ADA calls for the installation of accessible paths of travel when new construction projects or renovations are undertaken. According to Lisette Armstrong ’11, who spent the fall 2010 semester on crutches due to a broken ankle, the College’s walkways are difficult to navigate for individuals with limited mobility.
“It’s the nature of the school; it’s old and we’ve got all these brick paths,” she said. “It’s a small campus, so usually you don’t think it’s inconvenient. But there’s no possible way to go anywhere on campus that you don’t have to go up a few sets of stairs.”
Her difficulties traversing the campus on crutches led her to doubt that students who rely on wheelchairs would be comfortable at the College.
“Any kid in a wheelchair would drive down and look at the school and feel like, ‘I can’t go there,’” she said. “They’d have to make a lot of changes and do a lot of things.”
Building by building, those changes are happening. Even the College’s crooked paths are being straightened out, as construction around campus replaces their sand sub-bases with concrete ones designed to prevent sinkage.
The College is slowly becoming more accessible. One brick at a time.