Anna Landre (SFS ’21) knew Georgetown University was her dream college — cobblestone paths, steep hills and all.
Landre, who uses a motorized wheelchair, understood inaccessibility would be an issue at Georgetown. Still, the Hilltop felt like the right place.
“I came to Georgetown because it’s arguably the best foreign service school in the U.S. — in the world — and I want to pursue foreign service,” Landre said in an interview with The Hoya. “It just seems like the best place to be.”
Landre has faced physical accessibility issues traversing campus both as a prospective and enrolled student, as well as underwhelming administration responses to her concerns about campus accessibility and the university’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ADA, signed into law in 1990, mandates both public and private postsecondary universities provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. Violations of the ADA can lead to costly lawsuits and fines up to $150,000.
Landre’s first time seeing the inside of Healy Hall was during her Georgetown Admissions Ambassador Program admitted students weekend, the third time she toured Georgetown. During previous tours of the campus, Blue and Gray tour guides failed to adequately direct her to an accessible entrance to Healy, leaving her family to find it on their own — but they were unsuccessful.
Moreover, Landre’s struggles with campus inaccessibility did not end upon her enrollment. Today, she continues to encounter broken elevators, nonfunctioning ADA buttons on automatic doors and slow responses from administrators.
For students with disabilities of all kinds, Georgetown falls short of providing equal opportunities: Past criticisms levelled by students have focused not only on physical inaccessibility, but also inadequate accessibility for blind and deaf students, such as limited availability of interpreters for deaf students.
Toward an Accessible Campus
When discussing accessibility on campus, all paths lead to the Academic Resource Center. A hub of resources and support for disabled students, student-athletes and other students needing academic assistance, the center has faced both praise and critiques.
Although Academic Resource Center Director Jane Holahan declined to provide statistics about the current size of the disabled population at Georgetown, a 2016 report in The Hoya noted around 750 students had registered disabilities at the time, an increase from the 200 students with registered disabilities in 1998 (“ARC Weaknesses Revealed,” The Hoya, April 12, 2016, A1).
A 2016 external review of the ARC harshly criticized insufficient resources, inadequate staff size and its small, wheelchair-inaccessible location on the third floor of the Leavey Center; the report was never made public, but was provided to The Hoya in 2016.
The report recommended the hiring of two additional full-time coordinators to supplement its then five-person staff. Today, the center features seven full-time employees, according to its website.
Yet, the ARC’s shortcomings are far from the only issue with on-campus accessibility. In a 2016 interview with The Hoya, Vice President for Planning and Facilities Management Robin Morey assigned the university a “C” grade for its historic handling of accessibility issues (“Accessibility Push Faces Tricky Terrain,” The Hoya, April 22, 2016, A1).
“We’ve got some more do. We definitely have more to do,” University President John J. DeGioia said in a March interview with The Hoya.
Across campus, ADA buttons on automatic doors — including in the Leavey Center, throughout academic departments in the Intercultural Center and at the Student Health Center — are broken or merely absent, as Landre noted in a November op-ed in The Hoya (“Address Accessibility Shortcomings,” The Hoya, Nov. 3, 2017, A3).
Broken elevators also often exacerbate campus inaccessibility: Landre cited at least two incidents during her first semester when the elevator in O’Donovan Hall broke down. Similar malfunctions have occurred in Copley Hall, the Leavey Center and Southwest Quad this year alone.
The university stands by its accessibility efforts, though it acknowledges the inherent physical challenges Georgetown’s campus presents.
“Georgetown is committed to ensuring that our campus is accessible and inclusive,” university spokesperson Matt Hill wrote in an email to The Hoya. “With a two-hundred year old campus on hilly terrain, we have faced a number of accessibility challenges over the years, but we are continuing facility enhancements across campus to ensure ADA compliance.”
Progress is being made: The Healey Family Student Center and Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Hall — two of the newest buildings on campus, opened in 2014 and 2016, respectively — were both designed with accessible ramps and entrances. Forthcoming projects for Cooper Field, the de la Cruz Art Gallery in the Edmund A. Walsh building and White-Gravenor Hall also all seek to expand accessible routes and entrances, Morey wrote.
Additionally, Facilities Management introduced a new feature to the work order system last semester to allow students to flag ADA violations, which the office will monitor and prioritize to ensure compliance, Morey wrote.
The university also recently received an undisclosed donation to renovate the ARC as “a bigger and more inviting space for students on the third floor the Leavey Center,” according to Morey. Renovations are set to be completed by the fall semester.
University initiatives seek to improve not only the physical accessibility of the campus, but also the community’s overall culture toward disability and accessibility. Just a year ago, a disability studies minor was introduced, the product of three-year advocacy process spearheaded by students.
Landre described the frustration of her first year on campus, during which she has navigated the de facto role of advocate that has fallen to her, reaching out to one office after another to report accessibility issues and ensure they are addressed.
“It really did start to become a burden,” Landre said. “But I know that if I don’t do it, no one else is going to. So I’m here and I’m doing it because I’m not just going to sit around and complain about it and expect someone else to — because I know that’s not going to happen.”
Anastasia Somoza (COL ’07), a leading international disability rights activist, also uses a motorized wheelchair and worked to improve on-campus accessibility while at Georgetown. Since graduating, she has gained recognition worldwide, even speaking in support of former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Somoza acknowledged the need for the university to prioritize its accessibility. Still, she spoke positively of Georgetown’s efforts to address problems, citing its willingness to knock down a wall in Village C to make a room accessible for her when she insisted she live in traditional freshman housing.
“Whenever I was having issues, Georgetown’s staff and students were really good at solving those issues and accommodating me,” Somoza said in an interview with The Hoya.
But after a decade of students’ accessibility advocacy, challenges persist.
Somoza said she usually turned to the ARC when she faced an accessibility issue, and the center would contact facilities for her.
Landre however, attributed the university’s slow response to inaccessibility to “a disconnect between the ARC and facilities.” She was told to reach out to the ARC with accessibility issues and ADA violations, so it could contact facilities.
Yet as Landre noted, the ARC is primarily intended to address academic issues, such as providing accommodations to students with disabilities and academic support more broadly. As she sees it, when she reaches out to the ARC about a facility issue, the center merely gives an extra push to a request Landre could have filed herself.
“I wish that I could go to the ARC and tell them about an issue I’m having with accessibility on campus and just know that it’ll be taken care of because the ARC is powerful,” Landre said. “But I don’t see that they can do much outside of that academic realm.”
This disconnect can make it difficult for student input to be translated into tangible accessibility improvements.
Morey said his team meets with students to receive feedback about campus accessibility improvements, but not all student advocates feel their comments are taken into account.
Landre said while the will to enact change is present, action does not always follow. She recounted one instance when she took Morey on a walkthrough of campus last semester to identify accessibility issues but saw no subsequent action.
Lydia Brown (COL ’15) — an autistic activist, writer, educator and organizer who was also a disability rights activist while at Georgetown — agreed with that characterization of Facilities Management.
Brown, who prefers they/them pronouns, was not initially planning to get involved in disability activism when they arrived at Georgetown, but a sense of responsibility drew them to advocacy.
Somoza echoed that sentiment, but, rather than viewing this advocacy role as a negative experience, she embraced the opportunity.
“I didn’t choose advocacy. Advocacy chose me,” Somoza said.
Brown, like Somoza, had to become a self-advocate during their time on campus, serving for two years as the Georgetown University Student Association’s undersecretary for disability affairs, from 2013 to 2015. In that capacity, Brown lobbied for the university’s first access coordinator and for the creation of a funding pool to cover accommodation costs for events. Brown was also involved in the early stages of the disability studies course cluster and minor, which was first offered in fall 2017.
Brown’s signature initiative was their proposed Disability Cultural Center, which would have served as a centralized hub of accessibility resources and activism. The DCC never came to fruition, despite the backing from the GUSA executive, because of a lack of widespread support and institutional discrimination against disabled individuals, according to Brown.
“There was never funding and there was never broad support.” Brown said.
At the time, university administrators expressed their desire to further engage with the idea of the DCC; but, the proposal never advanced.
Brown was also critical of the ARC and its limited scope, citing examples like a 2014 incident when GUSA requested funds from the ARC for a sign language interpreter at a Law School Admission Test preparation class they were organizing. The center denied the funds because of budget constraints.
Brown believes the administration has failed to fulfill its responsibility to disabled students, leaving student advocates no choice but to step in to work toward equal opportunity.
“Georgetown has an ethical obligation to actually care — cura personalis — for its disabled students. But it continues to fail to do that,” Brown said.
The Vicious Cycle
As inaccessibility persists and student advocates struggle to translate their voices into administrative action, student organizations have begun to take steps to ensure accessibility. Yet, such efforts can be difficult within a campus culture that often does not prioritize accessibility.
Though Blue and Gray has taken steps to ensure tours are accessible for all students, such efforts can fall short. Ari Goldstein (COL ’18), a guide who has vocalized concerns about tours’ accessibility, noted the group has an alternate, wheelchair-accessible route and a video to teach guides this route.
Goldstein recalled one instance last semester in which, of the 10 available tour guides, only he and one other guide felt comfortable enough with the accessible route to lead the tour.
“The ADA tour route is not widely used nor widely known at Blue and Gray to the extent that it really should be,” Goldstein said.
The incident led Goldstein to speak up about the issue and to additional calls by Blue and Gray’s leadership for tour guides to familiarize themselves with the accessible route.
Goldstein said such accessibility concerns have the ability to profoundly affect prospective students’ decisions, but some disagree. Somoza noted she would — and has — encouraged disabled students to consider Georgetown, citing her own positive experiences with its handling of on-campus accessibility problems.
Still, the university’s neglect of accessibility has created a cycle in which inaccessibility can drive away disabled students, according to Landre.
“I haven’t seen a very active disabled population on campus or of disabled allies on campus. And I think part of the reason we don’t have a very large population of students with disabilities is because of all the accessibility problems,” Landre said. “It’s a vicious cycle: If you’re not having students who have these needs, then these problems aren’t going to get fixed, which means you’re again not going to recruit students with these needs and again and again and again, it goes around.”
Landre has seen some improvements, including some automatic door buttons that were fixed following her complaints. Yet, as she noted, these simple results came only after her extensive lobbying — numerous emails, work orders, a walkthrough with an administrator, a GUSA resolution and more.
“It was just a big, long process that I feel like is cyclical and seems to happen every few years every time someone, a new student in a wheelchair comes, because we know Georgetown doesn’t have many, probably for these particular reasons,” Landre said. “It just should be easier.”
Correction: The language of this piece has been updated from “visual and hearing impairments” to “blind and deaf” to more accurately describe the students who have criticized the university in the past.