When Rachel Anderson (COL ’17) broke her leg on a spring night in 2015, she soon realized that getting in and out of the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital would be the easy part. It was navigating campus in the following weeks that proved to be much more difficult.
On her first night with the injury, Anderson left the hospital and returned to her apartment in Henle Village in a Safe Rides van. As she limped to the area outside Henle, she realized the challenges in store for her.
“I remember getting out of the Safe Rides van and just looking up,” Anderson said. “My heart just sank because it was just so difficult.”
She hobbled home, and what was usually a few minutes’ walk took nearly an hour. Anderson crutched up the ramp into Henle, up the two flights of stairs to her apartment and down another flight of stairs to her room.
Henle Village is one of the 11 student dormitories at the university built before the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1990, requiring student housing to include accessible rooms and pathways. Although Anderson’s injury was only temporary, she said it opened her eyes to the experiences students with disabilities live with every day at Georgetown.
Georgetown’s elevated location on a hilltop and numerous historic buildings uniquely exacerbate the challenges ordinarily faced by students with physical disabilities. Despite these built-in challenges and the burden placed by omnipresent construction, the university is pivoting toward a more accessible campus. Although the construction of the Northeast Triangle Dormitory and the Thompson Athletic Center currently obstructs easy passage of the tricky terrain, the eventual completion of these projects will aim to make cross-campus navigation easier.
Vice President for Planning and Facilities Management Robin Morey did not hesitate to assign the university a “C” grade for its history with accessibility because of the university’s challenging terrain.
“In the past we have not done a very good job of really trying to make the campus more accessible,” Morey said. “We’ve made some significant improvements over the past few years, but I think we do have a long way to go.”
From the time Georgetown’s oldest buildings were constructed in the 1790s to the latter part of the 20th century, accessibility for mobility-impaired students was not a major concern. Even in the 1970s and 1980s with the completion of student housing in Village A, Village B and Henle, little attention was paid to creating what would be considered ADA-compliant housing by today’s standards.
The age of many of the university’s buildings — the average age of a building on the main campus is 70 years old — has forced administrators to play catch-up to make the campus more accessible. Features such as ramps and automatic door push buttons have been added retroactively to allow mobility-impaired students to get around more easily.
White-Gravenor Hall, completed in 1933, is the latest site of efforts to make historic buildings on campus easier to access for people with physical disabilities, according to Morey.
“[White-Gravenor] is on our historic quad, and the accessibility there is questionable,” Morey said. “So we’re trying to make repairs to that to make that a more pleasing entrance to get into the Admissions Office.”
Despite the university’s best efforts to make campus easier to navigate for individuals with mobility impairments, not much can be done to retroactively make certain areas of campus fully accessible. Because a majority of the apartment units in Henle Village, Village A and Village B contain stairs or require stair usage to access, they are likely to remain partially or fully inaccessible for the foreseeable future.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do unless you demolish the facilities,” Morey said. He later added, “But we’re not demolishing Village A anytime soon.”
No matter how accessible the university’s rooms or exterior pathways may be, it means nothing if individuals with disabilities cannot get to them through an accessible doorway.
Disability rights advocate Taylor Price (MSB ’10, GRD ’12), who is a quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair, learned this first-hand as a student at Georgetown. He often attended class in Healy Hall at a time when the doors into Healy from Dahlgren Quad lacked an automatic-opening function. Unable to open the doors, he was forced to wait for passerby to help him into the building.
“Thankfully, there was all this traffic, and someone would generally be coming in and out,” Price said. “But what if they weren’t? I would just kind of wait.”
Since Price’s days as a student, the historic building was retrofitted to include an automated door on its Dahlgren Quad entrance, but a number of other campus locations lack retrofitted, accessible entryways.
Katie Lee (SFS ’16) was drawn to this topic in her Cartography and Social Justice class. For her final project, she walked Georgetown’s main campus, analyzing the number of accessible entryways. The results did not surprise her. Out of 108 surveyed entryways, 51 entrances — less than half surveyed — were fully accessible, meaning that the entryway was level to the ground and had an automatic-opening door.
Another 23 entryways were partially accessible, where the entry was even to the ground but did not have an automatic-opening door, and 34 entryways (about 31 percent) were completely inaccessible with a door uneven to the ground that did not automatically open.
“It’s admirable that the new buildings are certainly a little more socially conscious,” Lee said. “But I don’t think that’s enough. I think that when this institution is built so much on history and tradition, and you want everybody to be able to enjoy that history and that tradition, there shouldn’t be a reason why a building like White-Gravenor or Healy is so limiting to students.”
Despite the obstacles of inaccessible entryways, the university has made significant upgrades to its automatic doors, retrofitting previously inaccessible doors and installing a remote control system that allows students in wheelchairs to wirelessly open doors.
“Having the clicker is super helpful,” Pryce Bevan (COL ’17), who uses a motorized wheelchair, said. “Things would be way harder to get around without it.”
As the university continues to upgrade its network of automatic entryways, Price said that able-bodied people often punch or even karate kick the blue buttons that open doors around campus, according to Price, resulting in overuse.
“All the time, people use blue buttons when they don’t need it,” Price said. He added, “But not only do they use them, they abuse them.”
The more than $130 million dollars of construction projects on Georgetown’s campus over the last couple of years have presented the university with an opportunity to attempt to improve accessibility on campus.
The addition of the Northeast Triangle will add four new ADA-compliant rooms to the university’s 53 existing handicap-accessible dorms, according to Residential Services Executive Director Patrick Killilee. The new residential building also allowed the university to make the current pathway between Reiss Science Building and Leavey Center easier to navigate, according to Morey.
The construction of the centralized bus turnaround near the McDonough Arena enabled the university to add a mini-shuttle to help individuals with mobility impairments get from South Campus to North Campus. The overall plan is to designate main thoroughfares of accessible east-west and north-south passages on campus.
“We’re doing our best to leverage our current capital and investment program to improve [accessibility] features along the way,” Morey said.
Despite the forthcoming accessibility benefits of the new infrastructure on campus, students have expressed frustration at the construction’s effect on limiting routes around the university. When the Georgetown University Student Association released a survey last fall assessing student’s thoughts on accessibility at Georgetown, about 11 percent of the 122 respondents said that construction was in some way a hindrance to accessibility.
GUSA Accessibility Policy Team Vice Chair Ken Marrs (COL ’19) said that construction has been a major focus of his team’s discussions this past year. The team has worked in recent months to ensure that the university is providing a sufficient number of alternate routes when there are closures due to construction.
“With the construction, that’s something we’re really aware of because it can cause some really big challenges for people who already kind of need to plan a little bit more about how [they’re] going around campus,” Marrs said.
Dozens of students annually are injured and forced to navigate campus with temporary disabilities. Many of these students live in inaccessible dorms — such as Henle Village, Village A or Village B — and have to adjust to new styles of living.
For some students like Anderson, when walking long distances becomes too much of a difficulty, it means not being able to attend class. Anderson, who lived in Henle at the time of her leg injury, had to stop attending class in Car Barn — half a mile away — because of the challenge of getting there on crutches. She said she still remembers the first day she tried attending all of her classes with her injury. The crutches tore her skin and drew blood.
Anderson said she was frustrated the university does not provide transportation options for students with temporary disabilities. She said she thinks Georgetown should operate a system with golf carts during the day similar to Safe Rides for disabled students.
“I felt helpless, and there was so little that I could do,” Anderson said of her experience. “And I understand the sweat, I understand the tears, but there really shouldn’t be blood to get my education here.”
A petition started by a dean in the College to bring a transportation system with golf carts to campus has garnered more than 120 signatures since its creation a year ago. The university has yet to officially respond to the suggestion.
Disability rights advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown (COL ’15), while an undergraduate at Georgetown, tried for years to get the administration to support the establishment of a disability cultural center on campus. Brown said that after three years of working on the proposal, the university never offered any support, even after the GUSA executive branch endorsed the center in early 2015.
The center would serve as a conduit for communication between different offices handling disability issues, according to Brown. Only three universities — Syracuse University, University of Minnesota and University of Washington at Seattle — currently have such a center that works with disabled students and their allies.
The lack of action by the university in creating a disability cultural center is indicative of a larger problem with ableism on Georgetown’s campus, according to Brown.
“Overall, the biggest problem is institutional non-recognition of ableism on this campus,” Brown said. “And that covers a lot of sub-things or sub-points such as there’s no coordinated set of resources or support system for people with disabilities or for people who want to practice ally-ship.”
In October, during Georgetown’s celebration of Disability Cultural Month, the university announced the new formation of a disability studies course cluster, a move that sets the stage for a future creation of a disability studies minor.
Disability studies professor Libbie Rifkin said that around 1,000 students have taken disability courses over the past 8 years, with demand growing in recent years. The increased interest in disability studies has helped break some of the stigma surrounding disabilities on Georgetown’s campus, according to Rifkin.
“I think that Georgetown’s campus is characterized by a hyper-aspiration towards normality and perfection,” Rifkin said. “And I think that this is particularly paralyzing for students who learn differently and think differently.”
According to a GUSA survey from the fall, the university has failed to adequately inform students about existing resources and accommodations.
“The vast majority of complaints that we got could be handled by the resources that we already have,” GUSA disability policy team leader Dani Zamalin (NHS ’18) said. “So, it was a big problem with not knowing what’s available.”
When Rifkin had her students pull out all of the syllabi from other classes one semester, she said that less than half had accommodation statements, encouraging students to seek support from the Academic Resource Center if needed.
“If we’re not including statements about disability on our syllabi,” Rifkin said, “how are we making clear that we have a commitment to supporting students? I think it’s a problem.”
In the fall of 2015, the university hired Anisha Thadani to serve as Georgetown’s first access coordinator and events manager, a position within the Office of Campus Activity Facilities that handles accommodation requests for events, but Thadani said many people within the university do not know that her position exists.
“People don’t know who to contact when they have event-related issues,” Thadani said. “Sometimes people contact the ARC because they have some resources there; sometimes they contact us.”
Because of the knowledge gap, Marrs said that GUSA has a lot of work in the coming years to communicate to students what resources exist.
“We’re going to make sure that students know [resources] are there,” Marrs said. “We’re going to make it public. We’re going to over-compensate if we have to. I think that’s what we’re trying to work for and hopefully, as time goes on, that’s how it’s framed.”