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Thing of the Week: Ankles, The Tufts Hill, and Accessibility

Columns | October 11, 2016

A few weeks ago I sprained my ankle while wearing a pair of orange Crocs to a party. The days that followed were an inconvenience. It took me way longer than usual to hobble from my house on Boston Avenue to the Campus Center. Not only was I physically slowed down, but I spent time devising new routes that didn’t go up and over the hill. I only did this for two days, and compared to my typical daily experience as an able-bodied person, the toll was noticeable.

My experience was incredibly minimal compared to Tufts students who are not able-bodied. So, this week I chatted with junior Ray Bernoff to hear about his experience as someone with a physical disability.

Ray: “There are as many kinds of physical disabilities as there are people. For me specifically, I have a lot of, basically anything below the waist that has a tendon in it, is kinda messed up. I have a herniated spinal disk, which means going uphill is painful…Any kind of incline is not pleasant, which as I’m sure you can imagine on the Tufts campus is not my favorite.”

Along with a herniated spinal disk, Ray experiences chronic pain and has developed chondromalacia patella (“shitty kneecap” in his words) since coming to Tufts. Ray echoes that the accessibility of campus as of now is not sufficient. He knows where the few elevators we have on campus are (Tisch, Olin, Campus Center, South Hall, Dowling), and even though he has a physical disability, he says he still feels embarrassed using them.

Ray: “It’s such a short distance that people can be very judgmental about the fact that you’re using [elevators]. I think it’s generally considered silly to take an elevator one floor if you don’t need to, and I think to a lot of people I don’t look like I need to, but I really do.”

Ray thinks the idea of the entire Tufts campus ever being wheelchair or mobility-accessible is unlikely. Although the physicality of the hill poses a challenge, there are actionable steps Tufts could take to make routes around campus more accessible. Ray likes to use his bicycle as a way to gauge what accessibility might look like for someone in a wheelchair.

Ray: “There’s a lot of things that Tufts could do. I was noticing for a lot of buildings the route to getting there is really circuitous. You know you can’t take a bike upstairs or over a very steep and curvy path. So there’s a bunch of similarities in that it’s a wheel that goes on things. And I was realizing, so it’s like really fast to walk, if you can walk, from Olin to Tisch. But if you want to bike from Olin to Tisch, you have to go down the hill and then along the street and it’s like four times as long and if you were wheeling along instead of rolling down the hill it would take forever.”

Although Tufts Admissions enjoys advertising our campus as diverse, in reality it’s fairly homogenous and mostly comprised of white individuals who identify as cis-gendered (with myself being no exception). Ray echoes that non-able-bodied students are largely underrepresented on our campus identity, and that the lack of perspective in our student body is a conversation we as a campus are not having.

Ray: “So it’s [physical disability] definitely like A) something people don’t like to talk about and B) there’s not that many people who have a disability, which makes it that much harder to talk about.”

I’ve spoken to countless individuals whose mental health was affected by using crutches or a wheelchair for a brief period of time. As someone who likes to run most days, I was unable to focus and felt down from devising new routes to navigate the hill when my ankle was sprained. The negative effects of Tufts inaccessibility are more permanent for Ray.

Ray: “I think I have to spend a lot more time planning than most people. Like I Google Calendar my entire day by the half-hour because that’s the only way I can figure out where I’m going and try to get there on time. The physicality of this space doesn’t do me any favors. And people, in general, don’t assume that if you’re late or if you seem grumpy that that’s the problem. And depending who it is if you bring it up and say ‘you have chronic pain and that’s why I’m late or pissy,’ sometimes they’ll try and be really understanding. But generally they don’t understand that it’s going to be around all the time for you. So they’re like ‘are you better now?’ and you’re like ‘no it’s going to always be like this—or similar to this at least.’”

The resources that the Tufts Administration provides for students with physical disabilities are minimal. Any Tufts student will recognize that the Joey just doesn’t cut it, and for students with a physical disability the only other options are TUPD and Saferide—two services that are accommodating but not specifically allocated for individuals who are disabled.

Ray: “I think a lot of the disability resources are hugely under-publicized and very hard to get at.”

When I spoke with sophomore tour guide Alison McGurk, she mentioned that Tufts Admissions does not adequately prepare guides for leading tours with disabled people.

Alison: “You get a handout, and [Tufts Admissions] says, ‘this is the route that you could take.’ But there’s no training on the resources you could talk about, or what the resources we have are.”

On top of having a campus that is often inaccessible for disabled individuals, it seems as if Tufts may not be preparing tour guides with the right tools for attracting these students at all. But for Ray, who identifies as trans, the lack of resources, conversation, and community of individuals who aren’t able bodied can be a tougher space to navigate.

Ray: “I’m trans, and when people realize this they are like, ‘Oh my god, did I say anything bad? Teach me everything about gender so I never mess up’ and you get that a little bit too with the chronic pain/disability stuff but I also think it’s a lot more challenging because I think the variety of opinion within the disability community is much greater. Whereas I feel like most trans people can say, ‘yeah, correctly gender people, gender neutral pronouns are real…’  there’s no agreement at all in the disability community about what terms we should use for ourselves.’”

Tufts fails on many fronts when it comes to creating a diverse and inclusive space, but after talking to Ray, I feel as if the administration has completely overlooked an important group of individuals. The hilly nature of our campus may not be conducive to supporting the needs of individuals who aren’t able-bodied, but at the very the least the administration could try. This could be by putting more elevators in buildings, adding more wheelchair ramps around campus, offering more transportation options, and creating on-campus spaces where disabled students can converse and congregate.