I’ve walked with ease around Hiram’s campus at least a thousand times, occasionally interrupted by tripping over uneven pavement or catching my breath after walking up that (ungodly) hill. However, I recently got to explore campus from a different perspective with my Gimpy Geezers class—in wheelchairs. Hiram quickly became a very different place. Campus went from 100% accessible to about 85% inaccessible. Maneuvering around campus was slow and uncertain, and I couldn’t move more than a couple of feet before the small front wheel of my chair was stuck in hole of missing concrete. I couldn’t get past the main lounge in most of the residence halls (even my own room was out of my reach!), and buildings like the Writing House and Bonney Castle were impossible to get in. And when I could enter the building—in cases like Hinsdale and East—the bathrooms were beyond my use. Hiram suddenly felt a lot smaller.
I began my tour of campus on wheels at Koritansky Hall. Luckily, there is a ramp on the side of the building, however, that also meant persevering through that Quad parking lot. It was a bumpy ride to say the least. The sidewalk between Koritansky and the Quad wasn’t much better. My first task was to try to go inside the Quad. Well, every door with card access was paired with a staircase. When I finally got in through someone holding a non-card access door open for me, I was limited to one hallway and a small lounge. The Quad is the biggest residence hall on campus, yet I couldn’t get past a hallway. Leaving the Quad was no less of an adventure. Although there was a ramp on the side of the building, there was also a huge pothole. I was stuck…again.
My next stop was Booth Centennial—my dorm sweet dorm! Unlike the Quad, I was able to access the main lounge with ease. And to the left was a small elevator! With a key, I would have access to the first floor of Booth, the Co-Op Vegetarian Kitchen, and Fenton Lounge. Unfortunately, I did not have the key, so I could only imagine the freedom the elevator would allow, but hey, it was still pretty exciting. I left Booth Centennial from the front door, the only door I could use, and began my uphill battle (literally) to the dorms on the hill. I did not have the arm strength to push myself across the street and up the hill to Miller, so a classmate had to assist me. I was almost certain I was going to roll backwards. There was a small ledge I’d need to wheelie over before going through the front doors, but even then I’d only be welcome to the main lounge. All of my friends in the dorms upstairs were out of reach.
Whitcomb shared the same challenges, though by design of the main lounge, I could only move around the perimeter. Again, the front door was the only door for me. Bowler was especially challenging, as I couldn’t find a door to enter. Both the front and side door had stairs. After accepting defeat, I remembered the ramp in the back of the dorm, but I decided to take the easy way out and not attempt to maneuver through the gravel that surrounded it. East was the most accessible of all—it even had buttons to open the door for me! While there is an elevator in the dorm, apparently only one suite on the first floor is wheelchair accessible. So my excitement was fun while it lasted. I did not venture down to the Townhouses, but I know that only one is wheelchair accessible, and even then I am confined to the first floor.
Touring Hiram in a wheelchair did not only make Hiram feel a lot smaller, but for me, it actually was. I felt trapped and frustrated that I couldn’t go everywhere I needed to go—I couldn’t even see my residents on first Centennial! I suddenly understood the Social Model of Disability we talked about in class. The only thing disabling is the world around me. If potholes were filled, ramps were built, and elevators were installed, the majority of my challenges would disappear just like that. Plus, who would that be hurting? Having a ramp doesn’t exclude anyone the way staircases do, neither do wider hallways or broader door frames. Why aren’t we building things to be universally accessible? I’ve come to realize that disability is largely social in nature, and that we as a Hiram community should be working toward a universally accessible campus.
But without this experience, I honestly probably wouldn’t have noticed, which means most of my peers and mentors probably haven’t either. So next time you’re heading over to visit your friend on second Miller, walking to get your paper reviewed at the Writing House, or heaving as you endure the walk up the hill, open your eyes to our lack of accessibility. Think about how the design of campus creates innumerable obstacles for wheelchair users, injured athletes on crutches, or those who suffer from invisible disabilities like chronic pain or Crohn’s Disease. And realize that Hiram is a small place, but also realize it’s made even smaller by its inaccessibility.