A Look Into Accessibility At Manhattan

by GABRIELLA DEPINHO, Asst. News Editor

In assessing accessibility on Manhattan College’s campus, mobile accessibility and educational accessibility both need to be considered.

Manhattan College adheres to all the mandates set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as well as those set out in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504. ADA and Section 504 prohibit discrimination based on disability. ADA covers employment, state and government and public accommodations, which is the category educational institutions, such as Manhattan College, falls under.

Construction on the Riverdale campus started in 1922, long before considerations of accessibility were legally necessary. The design for the campus came from a contest in which architects were asked to design into a rocky hillside, as the school wanted to keep excavation to a minimum. Keeping excavation to a minimum preserved the natural landscape of the area and kept the project more affordable.

At the time campus was constructed, the entrances to Miguel Hall and De La Salle Hall did not have the ramps or stairs that students today are accustomed to seeing; rather, those entrances were nearly flushed with the path around the quadrangle.

However, keeping campus hilly presented the school with an accessibility challenge that the college was historically well aware of. In 1975, the college was invited to take part in a “Higher Education Accessibility Project for Disabled Students.” Those working on the project were looking to make a directory of schools’ resources for disabled students so disabled students looking at colleges could be aware of resources and accommodations available to them.

Manhattan College responded to this invitation in a letter to the project director, John Doucette, on December 8, 1975. Dr. T. James Perch of Manhattan College wrote, “The Manhattan College campus is not conducive to almost all categories of disabled students described in your survey. This is due to the extremely hilly terrain on which the Manhattan campus is situated.”

The letter notes that at the time, there were no physically disabled students but there were four visually disabled students that were accommodated by the school.

At the time this request for participation in this survey was sent, Miguel Hall, which was then Manhattan Hall, did not yet have an elevator. Plans for an elevator in Miguel Hall started in 1980 and it was completed in 1981. This information was gathered from the Buildings Collection in the archives, which lacked documentation on the implementation of the elevator in De La Salle Hall.

The college was aware of the fact that it was not physically accessible, however, this was not an issue as there was no legislation on the matter.

As construction around campus continued and as the Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced, the college became more conscious of making campus accessible.

Andrew Ryan, the current VP of facilities, spoke to some of the past changes the college made in a move towards accessibility.

“We’re looking at doing something in the RLC lobby and so I was down there with the architect and we’re looking at the blueprints and I guess it was like 1984, 86 is when the college bought the building and we did do projects in there. It was then that we added the handicap ramp in the front and elevators and all that,” said Ryan.

Ryan also said, “Generally now when we do construction projects or renovation projects where it’s required that we do things to bring it up to ADA requirements, that’s what happens. For instance, Kelly Commons is completely ADA accessible. Thomas Hall where we did the front and the third floor, the bathrooms were changed over. They were sort of ADA compliant before but they are one hundred percent compliant now.”

However, Ryan said there are challenges to making sure the things the college implements to make it more physically accessible are ADA compliant.

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(TOP) The ramp outside of Miguel Hall is the only ramp to the quad. (BOTTOM) Uneven ground outside of Smith Auditorium can cause accessibility problems for students. GABRIELLA DEPINHO/ COURTESY

“When you’re doing a ramp, by code, the maximum slope that you can have in it is 1 inch of rise in 12 inches of run so if you need to come up twelve inches, you need to have a ramp that’s 12 feet long and you know in a lot of cases, you can’t fit a ramp that’s 12 feet long so they end up putting a turn in it or something.” said Ryan, “Take the front access – the middle access – to De La Salle and Miguel. What we did with the front of those buildings, is we put a code compliant handicap access ramp on the front… But you can see, it turns. When you’ve got a long run on there, like 25 or 30 feet of run, you have to have a resting platform on there which makes your ramp even longer, so you could be quite long. I think Miguel and De La Salle are a good example that when we’re doing something, we’re compliant.”

Ryan did acknowledge that campus can be challenging to get around saying, “There is a path [that’s accessible] but it’s a little long, I think.”

Looking to test that, I had students time themselves walking from Lee Hall to Leo Engineering Building, Overlook to Leo Engineering Building, and Overlook to O’Malley Library using inaccessible routes. I then used a shopping cart full of about 50 pounds of items pushed at a slower walking pace to test accessible routes.

The average walk from Lee Hall to Leo Engineering took 8 minutes and 15 seconds; the return trip average was 9 minutes. Using the pseudo-wheelchair the trip from Lee to Leo took 13 minutes and 30 seconds; the return trip to Lee too 14 minutes and 20 seconds.

In order to get to Leo from Lee via an accessible route, one would have to exit the 8th floor bridge, enter Thomas Hall through the bridge on the fifth floor and take the elevator down to the third floor. From there, there’s a choice. One can either take the ramps down to the quadrangle and go down to the guard booth via the Jasper driveway or take the elevator by the library to go down to Hayden and then go uphill to the parking lot until you reach the guard booth. From this point, the two routes are the same. After reaching the guard booth you have to go down the sidewalk not through the main gate but via the driveway, then cross the street to the Kelly Commons path and and arrive at Leo through the one accessible entrance in the back.

The route to and from Lee or Horan to any other part of the campus, including the library, becomes inaccessible past midnight when the 8th floor bridge closes and when Thomas is locked by Public Safety for the night.

The average walk from Overlook to Leo Engineering Building was 5 minutes; the average return trip was 5 minutes and 38 seconds. Using the pseudo-wheelchair the trip to Leo from Overlook took 14 minutes and 30 seconds; the return trip took 15 minutes.

While most students take the Overlook steps to reach Leo, the accessible route requires one to go down Waldo Avenue to the three way intersection, cross the street towards Kelly Commons and then go down the Kelly Commons path.

The average walk from Overlook to O’Malley Library was 8 minutes and 38 seconds; the average return trip was 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Using the pseudo-wheelchair Overlook to O’Malley took 12 minutes and 22 seconds; the return trip took 13 minutes.

The accessible route from Overlook to O’Malley requires you to go down Waldo Avenue, enter main campus through the driveway by the guard booth and then either go up Jasper driveway and take the ramps on the quadrangle or to go down to the elevator by Hayden and take that to the fifth floor.

The times estimated by the makeshift shopping cart wheelchair are most likely inaccurate. The walking pace varied from time to time and did not accurately reflect the pace of someone in a motorized wheelchair or a self-pushing wheelchair. The routes were also not perfectly accessible. The hill up to Overlook is fairly steep and could present a challenge for a physically disabled student; the sidewalk on the side of the street that Overlook was on was uneven with many places that the pseudo-wheelchair could not get over without extra pushing or lifting it over. There are places that have cracks or are fairly uneven outside Smith that could prove an issue for someone if they did not properly avoid these spots.

ADA and Section 504 is not just about a college’s physical accessibility but also about the college’s academic accessibility.

Manhattan College has the Specialized Resource Center which exists to make sure Manhattan continues to adhere to the law.

“Section 504 is more specific for us as far as colleges are concerned. It says that any college that accepts any kind of federal funding, whether it’s a private college or not, falls under those two legislations. It’s more about what you can’t do. It’s saying you have to even the playing field. The laws for K-12, it’s a different story,” said Anne Vaccaro, the director of the Specialized Resource Center.

She continued.

“Up until high school, it’s basically the school’s job and obligation to keep you and educate you but that’s not the case with when you get into higher ed. It’s the student’s choice to be educated. It’s the responsibility of the college to make sure that you have every accommodation you need in order to participate.”

The SRC provides students with whatever academic resources and accommodations they need, as well as connect students with other resources on campus.

Vaccaro said, “We branch out and speak out with almost every department, whether it be the deans’ offices – we work closely with advisors and assistant deans. We work very closely with the counseling center, very closely with the dean of students’ office, residence life, the registrar, and with physical plant even, if need be.”

For students with physical disabilities, the SRC works to make their schedule as easily accessible as possible, considering the campus and where certain classes and departments are located.

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A 1975 letter responding to the request that the college partake in the Higher Education Accessibility Project. MANHATTAN COLLEGE ARCHIVES / COURTESY

“What we try to do is we try for students who do have physical disabilities where there are mobile barriers, we try to make that student’s schedule accommodating. So a student in a wheelchair, we’ll keep those students’ classes in De La Salle or Miguel so that there’s no having to go to Hayden or any other non-accessible – well not that they’re impossible to get to but not that easy to get to building,” said Vaccaro.

She continued.

“We did have a student, John Evans, who was blind and we had the same issue with him because he navigated for himself. However, there were certain classes that we just could not accommodate. One was his music class, which had to be in Hayden, because that’s where the equipment was necessary so we just had one of the staff walk him down to the class and pick him up after. We accommodate around what’s here, which is the best we can do.”

The SRC offers a variety of resources and accommodations to students, such as supplemental notes taken by note takers, extra time on exams, spell-check tools, and help with filing for housing accomodations, among other things.

Housing accommodations are requested, reviewed and then, if deemed reasonable and necessary, met through a combined effort of the SRC and Residence Life.

“There are handicap rooms in Lee Hall that they hold for students whether it’s a temporary need or if someone is in need of that full-time. Those are mobility accessible. I would say more common is a student requesting a single room for a myriad of reasons. We have the accommodation request for housing on the website,” said Vaccaro.

Associate director of Residence Life, AJ Goodman confirmed the location of those handicap accessible rooms and usage of the rooms via email.

“We do have two ADA accessible rooms on campus that have been used for students with particular needs around mobility.  Typically these were temporary needs with recovery from an injury.  In the event of a temporary relocation, we allow the student to have two room assignments so they can go back to their roommates and suitemates, but also have the amenities they may need in terms of an accessible shower and bathroom,” said Goodman.

Goodman also detailed the accommodations of the room.

“The accommodations include wider doors into the room and into the bathroom.  The bathroom also has handrails around the toilet, and an accessible shower (no tub). There are also open closets with shelving of various heights.”

In addition to all of the common accommodation requests the SRC gets, the SRC has seen an uptick in requests for emotional support pets in dorms, so they are continuing to develop the policy regarding that resource.

“We try our best when developing policy to be proactive instead of reactive to situations by staying current on issues and trends in higher education and disability support through listservers, publications, etc. This enables us to benchmark our policies and procedures with other universities while keeping up to date on what’s happening,” said Vaccaro.

According to Vaccaro, oftentimes, students don’t know about the center so it takes them a while to reach out or they will not take advantage of the center’s resources because they want to leave the “disabled” part of their life behind until they realize that they could still benefit from those resources.

Vaccaro said, “Mom and dad always know about us. We’re getting more and more incoming students before in the summer before school starts. We had fifty new students on the first day of classes and normally we would have half of that.”

While the SRC is the department that directly deals with students’ needs, other departments can also get involved in the conversation around the issue of accessibility and do something to educate people about the matter.

The department of Information Technology Services is a good example of this.

At the start of the semester ITS advertised their “Accessibility Challenge” in the daily announcements. The challenge ran over the course of 5 weeks and is still available online for anyone to partake in.

Each week as the challenge ran, a new blog post about accessibility was made on the ITS blog and had an accompanying quiz for readers to confirm and show that they had actually learned new skills from the blogpost.

The idea was initially director of web applications, Cynthia Duggan’s idea, inspired by various trainings and workshops she’s attended but the project became a group effort.

Defining digital accessibility was the first step in creating this challenge.

ITS student worker Alberto DeAngelis defined digital accessibility as “optimizing your content so websites, PDFs, documents to the point that anybody, no matter what your range of abilities are, anybody could easily access it.”

In ITS training coordinator Anita McCarthy’s view, digital accessibility is for everyone.

McCarthy said, “You might not think that you might ever need things to be accessible but say you break a finger or an arm and then what do you do?”

Some examples of digital accessibility include using headers in documents so that way people using screen readers can better understand the structure of the document, using larger, cleaner fonts, captioning images with descriptions of the image, and making sure that colors used are easily legible and distinguishable, among other things.

McCarthy recognized the value in making things easily accessible.

“We just want to raise awareness because yes, it’s a nice thing to do but it’s also a necessity for people. People everywhere see benefits,” said McCarthy.

While the school is providing a significant number of resources to students who need accommodations in the classroom or in their academic endeavors, students still struggle to see the school as accessible due to the physical accessibility of the campus.

Junior management and marketing major Paul Fucao worked as a campus tour guide from May 2018 to September 2018 and saw the accessibility challenges the structure of the campus creates due to two tours he gave, one with a mother who had a stroller and the other with a student in a wheelchair.

“Everyone who knows campus knows that there is a straight path through one of the arches when you go through the main gate but that has a lot of stairs and is not accessible at all so you have to zig zag the whole way,” said Fucao, “At least from a tour perspective, the accessible route kind of misses out on the best parts of the campus and it certainly took longer than expected. Usually my tours were an hour flat but that tour was about an hour and thirty or forty minutes.”

Those two tours made Fucao realize the extent of MC’s physical accessibility.

“At least the two tours I gave, they didn’t want to trouble me much. They felt bad for, in their words, “dragging the tour” but you know, you see the campus as it is. They say it’s accessible but this is it,” said Fucao.

Fucao still thinks that even though the tour route is inconvenient, students who need a physically accessible way around campus can still find Manhattan College attractive.

“I don’t think it looks negative to prospective students. I don’t know how other colleges deal with this but this is always an issue… I don’t think prospective students will be turned away from the school because of this but I think from a tour perspective, the school could draw an alternate route,” said Fucao.

Gerianne Martin, a member of the class of 2018, also came to realize the limitations of campus’ accessibility during her junior year of college after she ruptured her achilles playing intramural volleyball.

“I was on crutches for two days and then I was like I can’t do this so I just walked with a boot on but then I was gifted one of those scooters by my boyfriend so I would stay off of my foot because the school wouldn’t give me one because I wasn’t an athlete,” said Martin, “On the crutches, it was a disaster, I got really tired really fast. The scooter was a lot more fun, going downhill, going uphill, not fun at all. I think I already knew from seeing other people being injured [that the campus isn’t very accessible] and then I experienced it and I realized how much worse it was.”

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The quadrangle of Manhattan College during construction in July 1923. MANHATTAN COLLEGE ARCHIVES / COURTESY

Martin was able to get around campus through accessible routes fairly easily but once ran into a problem with a campus elevator which made her trip back to her apartment in Overlook a bit more cumbersome.

“I was leaving the library and the elevator that goes down to Hayden was stuck down at the bottom so I had to scoot myself all the way down to the Jasper driveway to get home. For a normal person, that’s not that far but when you think about the ramps and other things you have to go around, it’s really far,” said Martin.

For Martin, the experience was all-around frustrating but incredibly eye-opening.

“Manhattan College is not an all-abilities inclusive school. If you are wheelchair bound, I literally do not think you could go to this school. That blind guy who graduated from here not that long ago, I cannot figure out how he made it here.” said Martin, “There are steps and loose bricks everywhere that I don’t know how he made it. There were really nice people that would help him around but at the same time, he shouldn’t have to be helped around like that. He should be able to function on his own at his school.”

For freshman communication major Jovanni Rodriguez, the need for accessibility in education and in public spaces isn’t temporary but permanent. Rodriguez is wheelchair bound and comes to school everyday with an aid who helps him get around.

“I found out about their [Manhattan’s] great communications program so I just wanted to come see it. I came for the first time on accepted students day. It was difficult at first, but I’ve found a way around campus,” said Rodriguez.

Similar to Martin, Rodriguez has also run into a problem because of an elevator not working.

Rodriguez said, “[I’ve run into a problem with] the elevator in Miguel. It was about ten minutes before my class and I had to miss it because the elevator was broken, but it was just once.”

According to Ryan, there is a set procedure for dealing with elevators when they stop functioning but it can take a lot of time.

“We have 21 or 22 elevators on this campus so we have 3 different elevator contracts so depending on where the elevator is, it gets addressed by the right party… If an elevator goes out, during the day, generally it’s four hour response, unless someone is stuck in the elevator. If someone is stuck in the elevator, it’s an hour or less response,” said Ryan.

Rodriguez said he would like to see the school have more and bigger elevators, as well as more ramps.

Despite the challenges Rodriguez faces getting around campus, he is hopeful that in the future, there will be more students like him on Manhattan College’s campus.

“I think [I want] for people to understand that being different is okay. The term disability doesn’t define who I am as a person. I can do anything that you guys can do,” said Rodriguez.

He continued.

“Before I leave here, I want to see more people who are different come here. I feel like, when they come here, it doesn’t look accessible, so they kind of turn away from it because they get scared. I want to change that. I want people to be able to come here because the school does have a lot of great programs and I feel like some people miss out on it because of the accessibility problem.”