Whittier College, handicapable?

Lauren Ho's picture

disability on campus, disability-friendly, handicapable? handicap-accessible, Lauren Ho, Whittier College, Features - By Lauren Ho on Thursday, February 16, 2012 - 02:00

You are out of breath and your legs ache. Your heart is pounding against your chest. You feel like you have just come back from the gym but all you did was walk up the hill and staircases from Stauffer Science Center to Turner residence hall. It is difficult for non-disabled students to travel across campus but can you imagine having to go from location to location in a wheelchair or on crutches? Compared to others, services offered by the school are not as easily accessible to disabled students and faculty on campus.

Professor of Psychology Joanne Hash-Converse transferred to Whittier College last August from Rutgers University. Compared to Rutgers, Hash-Converse found Whittier more accommodating of her disability. Having to travel in a wheelchair on Rutgers campus, there were times when she was unable to go to the classroom where she was assigned to teach due to inaccessible building structures and unprepared disability services. At Whittier, Hash-Converse can travel to almost any place on campus. However, she did have difficulty finding the alternative routes to certain locations.

One of the things that impressed Hash-Converse the most when she arrived at Whittier was the welcoming and organized staff of Disability Services. “I think it’s great that Disability Services is staffed with people that do have disabilities,” Hash-Converse said. “They took a lot of forethought to make plans for me to come here.”

However, Hash-Converse believes that there are things that can be improved on campus. “There’s no electric button for the doors in the [Campus Inn],” she said. “I think that this would be helpful especially since most people carry food as they leave. Some buildings do have the buttons but they don’t always work. It’s pretty sporadic.”

Senior Victor Padilla, who travels in a wheelchair, had a similar observation. “The thing that bothers me the most is the electric door, especially the one in Stauffer Science Center because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Padilla said. “It’s frustrating, if you have a morning or afternoon class because then not much people are around.”

Director of Disability Services Rosalba Rios is proud of her position as she works with administration and faculty on policies as well as interacting with students. “The office is there to ensure accessibility and accommodations for people with disabilities,” Rios said. “Whittier finds a way for students to have access to classes and services. For people with physical impairments, we try to be as accommodating as structurally possible.”

However, the campus is not always easy for people with disabilities to travel across, and Rios acknowledges this. “Regarding being structurally accessible, we could definitely be better but we’re working towards that,” Rios said. “A lot of buildings are old so renovations are not possible. It’s a slow process because the campus is pretty old and these changes take time and money. The administration is aware of the bigger needs but the reality is that it’s going to take a lot of money and time.”

This obstacle is not only applicable to Whittier College. “Every institution has challenges to accessibility including age of buildings and the building codes at the time of construction and renovation, the physical geography of the campus and competing financial resources,” Vice President and Dean of Students Jeanne Ortiz said via e-mail. “Whittier College is not unlike many other institutions who are trying to commit resources on a regular basis to improving the accessibility of programs and services.”

Ortiz recalls that the campus has improved greatly compared to when she first arrived in 2006. “When Stauffer and Johnson residence halls, the Campus Center, Hoover Academic Building and the Graham Athletic Center were renovated, handicapped accessibility was improved in the buildings,” Ortiz said. “In addition, modifications have been made to CAAS and the Stauffer Academic Building to meet the needs of specific users. Technology has been added, the needs of individuals with disabilities have been taken into consideration including such things as a specific, quiet testing room in the library, new software, access to Moodle by visually impaired students and adaptive equipment. The College purchased a handicapped accessible van for campus use. Curb cuts and newly graded walkways have been installed. Appropriate desks have been ordered as classroom furniture is replaced. Parking spaces have been set aside in each lot as handicapped spaces.”

Senior Julia Beltran believes that the campus is not accessible to students and faculty. She has traveled across the Whittier campus for four years with forearm crutches and says that there is much the school can do to improve. “Rosalba really does everything that she can do for you and the faculty has been great,” Beltran said. “But if the school really wanted to make it a more accessible campus, there is so much more that they can do.” Beltran recalls the short period when she was in a wheelchair and could not push herself up the hills. “It’s hard,” Beltran said. “I’ve called Campus Safety for rides but I feel like I have to wait 20-30 minutes and you never know when they’ll come. It’s stressful if you’re waiting but you have a class in five or ten minutes.”

Not many people are aware of the extra efforts that students and faculty with disabilities make when doing commonplace actions, such as going to class or opening building doors. While the school has improved in terms of making transportation more convenient for students and faculty with physical disabilities, they still face obstacles with building and service accessibility.