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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 26, 2024

Cutting through the red tape of accessibility at Tufts, Part 1

Navigating the Hill with physical disabilities at Tufts has been extremely challenging for many students.


Accessible parking signs on the Tufts campus are pictured.

On the day that sophomore Grace Acton broke her foot, she found herself crutching down Memorial Steps when going from her class in Braker, a building with no elevator, to Kindlevan, the closest dining option. She took her normal route, which able-bodied students normally take. However, with her new temporary disability and lack of knowledge about closed side paths in the winter and accessible transport, Acton had to hop with her crutches in one hand and use her other hand to hold onto the railing.

This is one of the many stories of students having trouble with physical accessibility at Tufts.

“I feel like it’s obvious how inaccessible Tufts campus is, … but it’s hard to really grasp … until I [only had] one [working] foot,” Acton said.

Once Acton researched and found out that the Tufts University Police Department had a safety transport, she decided to put that to use in the days following her injury.

“I called TUPD to take me home, and they were being kind of grouchy about it,” Acton said.

Acton said that TUPD told her “‘Sorry I can’t get anyone to give you a ride home, because you have to connect with [the Student Accessibility and Academic Resources] Center first. … You can take an Uber or Lyft home yourself.’”

Once Acton explained that no one had told her about connecting with the StAAR center, TUPD reluctantly agreed to send her a safety transport driver, which ended up being a very positive experience.

“The safety transport drivers are some of the kindest people,” Acton said.

However, her initial struggle to communicate with TUPD made her feel as though she was not a priority. 

Eventually, Acton contacted the StAAR Center and was able to get a Lyft fund of $250 a month. She was happy with the way the accommodation worked, but these rides were also very costly and the $250 was not sufficient to cover the rides she needed.  

“Every ride I take is somewhere between $8–10, and since I have to go … to class and then back from class and then sometimes also to another meeting … that’s like three to four rides a day. … It’s very obvious that $250 is not enough,” Acton said. 

She has been told she can ask for more money but does not know how long that would take or if her request would be considered at all.

Sam Webb, a third-year Bachelor of Fine Arts student, felt similarly about the Uber and Lyft funding issue. Lyft is just one area in which financial constraints become a factor in accessibility. Webb spoke on their privilege of financial stability and also commented on how financial resources play into how one navigates accessibility at Tufts.

“It is probably the only reason I have been able to work the system here at Tufts like I have,” Webb said.

As a student with a disability, Webb has been working with Tufts accessibility since their first year, where they lived in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts housing. These brownstone apartments are about a 20-minute commute from SMFA.

“On the one hand [the brownstone apartments] were accessible in the sense that everything was nearby, … [but] if you have mobility issues it’s kind of like ‘tough luck,’” Webb said.

Like many of the buildings on both campuses, the SMFA apartments are not wheelchair accessible. BFA program students have to live on the Medford/Somerville campus during their sophomore year, and Webb ended up also living on the Medford/Somerville campus over the summer as well. By this time, Webb had started using a cane. Webb noted that the dorms on this campus are a “mixed bag.”

Webb was put in a single in Lewis Hall at one point which was not the best location, though their first-floor room was accessible. However, the next summer, Webb was put in one of the only rooms in Sophia Gordon Hall that required stairs to access.

Webb asked the Office of Residential Life & Learning to change their dorm to one more accessible, but the response was disheartening.  

Webb said that ORLL asked them, “‘Well, why would you need that? What are you, disabled or something?’”

While Webb was immediately apologized to after stating their disability and had many lovely interactions with other ORLL workers after explaining this situation, it is important to note the common thread of students being treated as though they are burdens by certain members of Tufts organizations.

“This is not just about people like me, this is about everybody. If you don’t get the support you need when you’re healing, your healing takes longer,” Webb said.

Acton and Webb also both took issue with Tufts Dining but for different reasons. For Acton, it’s the structure of the dining locations.

“On the weekends, the dining halls are the only places that are open, and it’s kind of impossible to be on crutches and then carry your food too,” Acton said.

Even at the other locations, Acton struggled to get her items without assistance from friends. As someone who lives in the Chinese Language & Culture House, she has access to a kitchen, which has been helpful when she can’t navigate Tufts Dining.

Webb also notes that the obstacles with accessibility at Tufts extend past housing, dining and transportation. 

“All of this is the physical stuff, right? The impact that this has on the academic side of things is way more prevalent than anybody actually wants to admit,” Webb said.

Professor Leandra Elion teaches a class called Disability and Difference in Children through the Department of Child Study and Human Development. She discussed the need for discourse and changing the language of accessibility.

Elion said the term accessible embodies the notion that “we all exist on this spectrum, and differences are a natural part of being human, so that’s how we came up with that name.”

On campus, Elion pointed out particular areas in which “outdated language” is used. For example, Elion suggests changing the signs in the parking lots from “handicapped parking” to “accessible parking.”

“It’s so much better because it’s not using negative terms; it’s not using outdated language; it’s really just describing it,” Elion said.

Webb shared their views on the language change.

“I think there’s a level of familiarity with the language that’s currently used. And in changing that, the unfamiliarity might put more people off. … In terms of language, the important thing is the immediate conversation surrounding accessibility has to be compassionate and honest, and you have to listen to the people who are experiencing this,” Webb said. “People just want to be treated like actual people, and that’s what’s at the root of all of this. … Compassion and honesty go hand in hand with clarity.”

All in all, there is much to be done and many conversations to be had. Webb wanted to leave a reminder that college is a transitional period for everyone.

On-campus accessibility is the first step to stability for so many people — financially, healthwise and academically,” Webb said. “So do I think there are solutions? Yes, they largely lie in more housing for students. They lie in interdepartmental communication being ramped up and the red tape being cut away.”