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Accessibility at Grinnell?

Here’s an interesting experiment. If you have a bike, get on it and try to ride to one of your classes. Chances are that you can, and you won’t think too much about it. That is, until you’ve got to get through a door. Or go up some stairs. Anyone who’s tried to get a bike into the loggia will know that this is a fairly frustrating endeavor.

Pat Comparin '13 worked at the College this summer as an Accessibility Specialist, helping FM test out new accessibility features on campus while compiling a handbook for future students. Photograph by Kathlyn Cabrera.

Now, shift your bike into the lowest setting you can manage, and pedal just fast enough to avoid tipping over. Suddenly, bumps in the sidewalk and the railroad ramps have become a lot harder to cross. Moving that slowly, your bike’s wheels are barely able to keep you upright, much less carry you over ruts and gaps.
For a long time, this was the situation that students with physical disabilities faced here at Grinnell.

Recently things have started to change, in part because of a video posted on YouTube in 2007 entitled “Accessible Grinnell.” The video features Leah Krandel ’09, who had no injury or mobility impairment, attempting to navigate campus in a wheelchair in the winter. The results were somewhat disturbing, to say the least. The video also includes an interview with Jamie Alper ’09 who, after breaking her leg her freshman year in an accident behind Loose, had to drop classes for a semester because there was no way for her to get to class, even in the best of weather.

Take the railroad ramps. They were designed especially for people with physical disabilities—but Krandel quickly discovered that the front two wheels of a wheelchair almost immediately got stuck in the space between the rail and the ramp surface. And despite her greatest efforts, there was no way for her to get out of that rut by herself.

Doors were almost as bad—although there were a few accessibility doors at the time of the video, many of them either froze shut during the winter or simply didn’t work. When doors did open, simply getting through the entryway could take several minutes at best, and be flat out impossible at worst.

While there are still many problem areas around campus, things are rapidly changing for the better, according to Patrick Comparin ’13, who relies on a power chair to get around.

“Before I came here, they started revamping … the dorm areas,” Comparin said. “Some of the academic buildings didn’t have a door in them … but every academic building now is accessible.”

Comparin stayed in Grinnell this summer and worked in a new position as Accessibility Specialist, which will now hopefully be a job every summer. He did an enormous amount of work studying the practical use of the accessibility ramps and features on campus, including testing changes with FM, such as the sliding tables in certain lecture halls, a new feature which allows a wheelchair to comfortably come to rest during a presentation.

“They’d ask me if [a new modification was] good enough,” Comparin said.

While this work took up much time on its own, Comparin set far higher sights for himself. He started this summer, and is still compiling, a booklet of information and advice for future students.

“Section one … is before I came to Grinnell, and what I looked for in a college,” Comparin said. “The second part was basically my past three years here … and the third part is helpful information I got here.”

Comparin’s archive is still being assembled, but once it’s done it will become part of the College’s official website. Besides covering the broad strokes of life on campus, some of the notes contain small, but nevertheless crucial bits of advice—the small things that get left out of so many guides.

“So say my [room] door breaks down … who do I contact?” Comparin asked.

Jennifer Krohn, College Services, notes that recent changes around campus have been both big and small. Some of the highlights have been the accessibility page on the college website——including new entrances to Mears Cottage, more accessible sidewalks, additional door operators and better seating in classrooms. Much of this work and planning is shouldered by the Accessibility Committee.

“The committee includes 14 staff members from Facilities Management (FM), Dining, Communications, ITS, Human Resources, Campus Safety and Security, Student Affairs, Athletics, Conference Operations and Events,” Krohn said. “The committee meets about every other week through the academic year and a number of times through the summer.”

Support for accessibility measures across campus is overwhelmingly high. Last year, SGA decided only to fund All-Campus Events in accessible locations, except in extenuating circumstances. This semester, when a student initiative to make Bob’s Underground Café a more accessible place went up for a vote last week, it was passed by a margin of 90 percent.

“I can assure you that all the people who are involved in the decisions around this ramp have been having these conversations at length for a while now,” said Daniel Hirsch, Residence Life Coordinator for East Campus. “The word is the College and Accessibility Committee [are] looking into it and weighing the ramp against all the other [Americans with Disabilities Act] related needs at the College.”

If all goes well, the door from Gardner to Bob’s (located in Main basement) will become motorized, and a ramp will be put into place in the connecting hallway. However, there are a host of other accessibility-related needs around campus that the College must weigh against this new issue, but student support for an accessible Bob’s is now high on the Accessibility Committee’s radar.

So, while Grinnell is constantly updating campus buildings to be more accessible, the College still has a long way to go before campus is truly accessible. In the meantime, the most important thing that students can do is to stay aware and be helpful.

Editor’s note: This article was edited to reflect the following correction.
October 9, 2011:
The video “Accessible Grinnell” was posted in 2007 and depicts the struggles of Leah Krandel ’09 attempting to navigate campus in a wheelchair, not Jamie Alper ’09. Alper was interviewed in the video.

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    Jacob SagransOct 7, 2011 at 6:49 am

    The woman in the wheelchair in the video is Leah Krandall ’09, not Jamie Alper ’09. The video does not depict Alper’s struggles, rather, she is interviewed to support the overall message of critique of Grinnell’s (then) deplorable inaccessibility. Also, Alper states that she broke her leg in the second semester of her freshman year, which would have been 2006, not 2007.