Barriers to Entry

Students with physical disabilities sometimes struggle to navigate Harvard’s campus.
By William Y. Yao
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su

During Opening Days, eager freshmen flit between different dorms, rushing up and down flights of stairs to visit friends in their newly decorated rooms and to explore their home for the next four years.

Case McKinley ’21, who uses a wheelchair, quickly realized he would not be able to participate in this frenzy when he arrived on campus his freshman year.

“I had the realization that I wasn't going to be able to visit many of my friends here,” he said. “Because there would be Opening Days events in Grays [Hall]. And I couldn't go to those or an Opening Days event pretty much anywhere except the dorm that I was going to make my home.”

The only freshman dorms with elevators are Thayer Hall and Weld Hall. He was placed in the latter.

“It made me feel really undervalued that I come from a small town in Hawaii with no money and most of the buildings were accessible. And then I come here to the institution with the most money and resources, and so much of it is inaccessible,” McKinley said.

For a small group of students, Harvard’s historic campus — which is filled with errant steps, steep stairs, and heavy doors — poses many day-to-day challenges that most of their peers never notice. Their days are complicated by physical barriers, which oblige them to enter campus buildings through back or side entrances, take circuitous routes, and wait for others to help open doors.

The Harvard Accessible Education Office is responsible for supporting students with disabilities and working to provide appropriate accommodations. A student can register with the AEO by filling out a form online with questions about their disability, the challenges they’re experiencing, and any supporting medical documentation they possess.

Every year, the admissions office notifies the AEO with a list of incoming students who noted a disability in their college application. Other students must self-identify to receive AEO accommodations.

“Our job is to meet with the student, gather documentation that supports their needs, analyze that documentation, and then discover how there’s a disconnect between the environment that the student is in — whether it's a classroom, a club meeting, housing, dining — and the student’s disability,” AEO Director Grace L. Moskola said. “The problem exists between the two. So what is it that accommodations can do to help equal out that opportunity or level the playing field?”

In recent years, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has launched several initiatives to achieve this equity, its most ambitious being the House Renewal Project. Both the AEO and its parent office, University Disability Resources, have adopted a more student-centered accommodation process, and in fall of 2017, the Office of the Provost convened the first meeting of the University Accessibility Committee to promote campus accessibility.

But these initiatives are still in progress, and many students continue to struggle navigating Harvard’s campus.

“Even with any new changes, it would require a bit of time for them to be implemented,” said Lihn M. Nam ’20, who used crutches after surgery for osteosarcoma in her sophomore fall. “But I look forward to seeing more accessible classrooms and accessible dorms and common spaces, especially for students to have more enjoyable college experiences, even with their disabilities.”

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By William Y. Yao

The Academic Experience

Harvard at its core is an educational institution. But some students say it can be difficult to access all academic opportunities.

“I think a lot of what Harvard has to offer revolves around the academic experience,” Nam said. “The ability to take classes shouldn't be hindered by the fact that the class is held in a building that's accessible or not.”

The AEO selected Nam to receive the Peter Wilson Award — given to a student who displays “courage and determination in not letting the disability stand in the way,” according to the FAS Prize Office website. The office asked her to recommend potential infrastructural improvements as part of the award.

Nam suggested that Harvard make classroom buildings more accessible.

One major issue with some buildings is the lack of an automatic door to large lecture halls, according to Harvard College Disability Alliance President Elsie A. Tellier ’19.

“Main lecture halls and main classroom buildings should have an electric door because if you're late to class, you have to knock on the door and hope somebody will let you in,” she said.

Another difficulty for those with disabilities arises in moving between classes, and students often use vehicular transportation to cross campus. Though the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Harvard shuttle transit are all ADA accessible, many students with disabilities opt to use the Daytime Van Service, which provides rides personally tailored to their schedules.

Located in the Smith Center, the Education Accessibility Office works to make Harvard's campus more physically accessible to students.
Located in the Smith Center, the Education Accessibility Office works to make Harvard's campus more physically accessible to students. By Awnit Singh Marta

Beyond discouraging students from enrolling in specific classes, inaccessibility issues can even influence a student’s concentration choice or broader academic plans.

Wonik Son ’19, who uses a wheelchair, said that encountering academic inaccessibility as early as his freshman year was a “defining moment” during his time at Harvard.

“So I'm going in, and I'm figuring out what I'm going to concentrate in freshman year,” said Son, who is a former Crimson editorial editor. “I’m going in knowing that I have an interest in History, yet at the same time knowing that if I do concentrate in that field, the main building — where professors and different administrators are — will not necessarily be accessible.”

The History department is housed in Robinson Hall, which was not made accessible until early this year. As a concentrator without full access to his department’s building, he realized the onus would be on him to make sure his needs were met.

Son — who characterized himself as an improviser — arranged meetings with his professors in accessible locations. Yet, he said that this obstacle could discourage people from pursuing certain academic paths.

Overcoming that obstacle may lie in legislation. The Americans with Disabilities Act, established in 1990, requires both public and private universities to make their educational opportunities accessible to students with disabilities.

“That doesn't necessarily mean that every building has to be completely accessible,” said Kathy Gips, the director of training at the New England ADA Center. “But it means that there needs to be enough access so that people can access all of the programs, services, and activities.”

To facilitate students’ academic experiences, Moskola said the AEO works with the Registrar’s Office and Building Operations to assign or relocate courses that students identify as physically inaccessible.

Moskola also said that the AEO has installed automatic doors along individual students’ paths.

“That didn't mean that we put a button on every single door in Harvard,” she said. “We were looking at their needs individually.”

Harvard College Disability Alliance is currently working on introducing accessibility to classrooms in more ways than one. Tellier said the group submitted a proposal — in collaboration with other University advocacy groups — to John S. Wilson, senior advisor and strategist to the President, to create a disability studies certificate program.

The group’s biggest push, however, has been asking administrators to add on-ground signage and map accessible features within facilities. Harvard currently maintains an online map that indicates accessible entrances and paths between buildings, but not within them, according to Tellier.

“You learn it pretty quick, but it shouldn't be a hurdle for people who are new,” Tellier said.

Choosing Between Friends and Medical Necessities

Physical barriers can also extend beyond the classroom into social and residential spaces.

Though the AEO places students in fully accessible rooms and provides conjoining Personal Care Assistant suites if necessary, these students often cannot access their friends’ dorms or House common spaces.

“In the housing lottery this time around, I was sort of put in the position of choosing between my friends and my medical necessities,” McKinley said. “My accessible single that I'm in right now — I've decided to remain in for the next couple years — is incredible and super nice, but when I wanted to live with some friends that presented logistical challenges.”

Several students said they would benefit from more widespread accessibility across campus, especially when it comes to extracurricular events and club meetings — many of which are held in inaccessible upperclassman common rooms, according to Tellier.

Accessible social spaces are integral to student experiences, according to Jennifer K. Cloutier ’13, who uses a wheelchair and serves as a tutor and disability liaison in Quincy House.

“The ability to be with your class and to not have a barrier to socializing with your class — or just using the same bathroom as your classmates — were just taken as a trivial thing,” she said. “But I think just having that moment to make eye contact in the hallway and to recognize each other as being part of the same class and community is really important.”

Some student organization leaders inadvertently bar participation to students with physical disabilities by choosing inaccessible locations to host events.

“I don't think anyone wants to leave anyone out,” Cloutier said. “But it's more like thinking — just even realizing — that you should be thoughtful about these things.”

UDR Associate Director Shelby Acteson said her office is educating student leaders about making their organizations and events accessible to all.

“It's important that [student organizations] make sure that they have a statement saying if you need an accommodation, let us know,” Acteson said. “They need to have it in their budget to be able to pay for accommodations if somebody requests one.”

Beyond campus facilities and residential halls, McKinley said he wants the University to actively encourage businesses they own in the Square to become more accessible.

“Outside of just purely student spaces, there are a lot of businesses in the Square that get most of their business from students, and they're a big part of student life,” McKinley said.

Harvard is currently facing a lawsuit due to alleged ADA violations by its tenant Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, which has a step at the entrance, inaccessible counters, and inaccessible restrooms. The plaintiff, a local man who often vets places with purported barriers to access, requested that the court issue a permanent injunction ordering Harvard and Bartley’s to alter the building in compliance with ADA regulations.

Harvard spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke wrote in an emailed statement that the University “is pleased” to have recently renewed the Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage lease.

“Over the years Bartley’s has served a number of guests who use wheelchairs, some of whom have been regular patrons,” she wrote. “Harvard would like to make it easier for all individuals with mobility impairments to access the space. It is widely recognized that historic buildings, particularly those in urban environments such as this one, can present unique challenges for accessibility, but Harvard anticipates that with the assistance of appropriate experts, some readily achievable improvements may be identified.”

Adams House C Entryway.
Adams House C Entryway. By Kai R. McNamee

Reconciling History with Accessibility

Arguably FAS’s most complicated accessibility initiative, the House Renewal Project seeks to make all upperclassman houses fully accessible.

“Before renewal, these houses were 100 years old — some are even older than that,” said Merle Bicknell, assistant dean for the FAS Office of Physical Resources and Planning. “There weren't things like elevators that existed.”

The more than $1 billion project launched in 2006 and finished its first renovation in 2013, with the opening of Quincy House’s Stone Hall. Since then, FAS has renovated Leverett House’s McKinlock Hall, Dunster House, Winthrop House, and Lowell House. Construction on Adams House is slated to begin this summer.

Architects have created hallways as one major accessibility improvement, according to Bicknell. Floors were formerly partitioned into vertical, discrete entryways, and students would have to descend to the ground floor, go outside, enter a different entryway, and reascend — all to visit the room next door. Now students in wheelchairs can easily exit their rooms and roll down the hallway to visit their friends.

Bicknell said the house renewal team has also had to completely raise or lower floors to even out ground surfaces. For example, the first floor of McKinlock Hall formerly had several level changes — some as large as nine feet — because of small steps or stairs.

The renewal team also eliminated stairs outside the entrance of Stone Hall with a gently sloping walk rather than aesthetically displeasing “big ramps with railings,” according to Bicknell.

“It takes good care of the courtyard and makes everything kind of hidden in that way,” she said. “It's very tastefully done — a lot of really thoughtful, clever ways about how to take these buildings that are national historic landmarks and make them accessible.”

Some of the houses along the Charles River are national register buildings and subject to regulations that complicate the renovation process, Bicknell said. The Cambridge Historical Commission must review any alterations to the buildings.

For example, making every floor elevator-accessible in Lowell House would have entailed penetrating the roof, which is not something the Historical Commission would allow, Bicknell said.

The architects’ solution was to convert the top floor of suites into duplexes. Though the second floor bedrooms can only be reached via a set of stairs, the first floor common rooms are accessible so that those with physical disabilities can visit friends who live in these suites.

Throughout the process, administrators have solicited feedback from students about their needs and experiences. Cloutier — who was consulted as an undergraduate on the Stone Hall renovations, and returned years later to live there as a tutor — said she found the process to be a “rare opportunity” and a “really cool outcome.”

Bicknell said she still remembers presenting the final design for Stone Hall to Cloutier while she was still an undergraduate in Quincy.

“You could just see it on her face,” Bicknell said. “And I said, ‘What's up?’ She goes, ‘My life would have been completely different here at Harvard if this had been renewed before.’”

—Staff Writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at

—Staff Writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

CollegeHouse LifeHouse RenewalCommencement 2019