By HYUN JO KIM ’16
D uring the Fall Term of her Fifth Form year, Isabella Pirozzolo ’16 suffered an injury and tore her ACL. For the next three months, Pirozzolo was faced with the challenge of navigating the campus on crutches. “Obviously, the campus is large, which doesn’t help, but it is really the little things that make accessibility especially difficult. For example, I realized that you can’t get into Schoolhouse or Chapel without going up stairs unless you want to walk all the way around the building. You also can’t get to the drawing studios.”
Like Pirozzolo, many students who suffer injuries on campus find themselves struggling to get around campus. Indeed, it is no secret to the School that accessibility is an issue on campus, and the challenge is far greater for those in wheelchairs. As many student tour guides know, the wheelchair routes on campus are full of side doors and detours, and transportation within a dorm “To say this is a challenging campus to navigate in a wheelchair would be an understatement,” comments Mr. Ben Jorgensen, Director of Facilities Operations & Engineering.
Mr. Jorgensen explains that the geographic layout of the campus is a major contributor to the challenges of wheelchair navigation. “Not only are the buildings spread over a large area …but for a good part of the year, [the campus] is frequently covered with snow.” Another major obstacle for accessibility is the steep hills that form a major part of the campus terrain. “Regulations state that you can drop 1 inch for every 20 inches of run when constructing wheelchair ramps,” says Mr. Paul Lachance, who helps oversee the renovation of School buildings. Mr. Lachance says that under these regulations, it is next to impossible to construct wheelchair ramps in certain sloped areas on campus.
Complicating matters is the sheer age of many SPS buildings. Most major facilities were completed before the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which included several building codes about wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms. As a result, newer buildings such as the Lindsay Center or the Athletic and Fitness Center have a much higher standard of wheelchair accessibility. A large number of older buildings have also been renovated since the nineties to fit ADA standards. The Chapel, for instance, underwent construction in 2003 to add a wheelchair-accessible ramp. Unfortunately, other buildings – such as Memorial Hall – have yet to be significantly renovated to increase accessibility.
In fact, the area around Memorial Hall – which includes Moore, Freeman, and the Music and Dance Buildings – is arguably the most problematic in terms of wheelchair accessibility today. None of these buildings have been significantly renovated in recent years, and as a result are lacking in terms of ramps and accessible bathrooms when compared to the rest of campus. Furthermore, the steep, sloping geographic structure of the area means that the construction of proper ramps is difficult if not physically impossible. However, recent years have seen a number of positive changes for campus wheelchair accessibility. For example, one of the most common wheelchair obstacles found in SPS buildings are front steps. These steps, which can be seen in buildings such as the Schoolhouse and Moore, were first conceived as a simple way to prevent snow from getting into doorways. However, this feature came with side effect of hampering the free entry of wheelchairs into these buildings. In the past two years, underground heating systems have been implemented as an alternative to front steps. These systems – which were installed in the Athletic and Fitness Center in 2014 and in Clark House last summer – are found underneath the entryway to buildings and address the issue of snow accumulation without creating steps.
In addition, when the Coit Dining Hall was renovated, a new entryway and bathrooms were added next to the common room for increased accessibility. Furthermore, thanks to recent changes in the School’s master plan, the “problem zone” surrounding Memorial Hall will also see significant improvement in the coming years. Hargate, Moore, and Freeman will all go under construction this year, and will have ramps and other aids installed to increase accessibility. The Music and Dance Buildings will also go through bathroom renovation.
“We’re in pretty good shape when it comes to buildings,” says Mr. Lachance. He explains that the majority of school buildings have been renovated since the passing of ADA, and that once the constructions of Hargate, Moore and Freeman are completed virtually all major buildings will have accessibility ramps and adequate wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.
Of course, there will always be some problems that will remain due to the sheer size and age of our campus; Memorial Hall, for instance, does not have planned renovations in coming years and still does not have accessible bathrooms, and the lack of elevators in some dorms is still a potential issue. However, what is clear is that the School has been vigilant in working to bring accessibility throughout campus and considerate of the challenges faced by wheelchair users at SPS. “We’ve made accommodations in the past for [students and faculty] on wheelchairs,” says Mr. Lachance. “And we’ll continue to do so.”