• Basil Brown

Hamilton's Physical Inaccessibility Forced Me to Withdraw

Updated: Aug 26

Hamilton College is inaccessible in so many ways. I am physically disabled, and because of the inaccessibility of this campus, I am withdrawing from Hamilton.

I caught COVID at the end of February 2022, and my health declined rapidly afterwards, which made it necessary for me to use a mobility aid by mid-April. I have severe joint pain, I'm far weaker in strength than I used to be, I have chronic fatigue, and I have to sit and rest every 15 feet or so while walking, among other latent issues. I'm midway through the diagnostic process, but the current tests point to an autoimmune disease. The mobility aid I use is called a rollator, which is like a walker with four wheels and a seat.

I've been made painfully aware of the physical inaccessibility of Hamilton College. There are too many examples to list, but some of the most prevalent issues were stairs everywhere without enough ramps or elevators, tall curbs and cracks in the pavement, and too few power-operated doors on campus. The last time I tried to climb stairs, I started crying from the pain; most major buildings have ramps, but the campus needs to be retrofitted as thoroughly as possible for the sake of accessibility. When getting around campus with my rollator, I notice so many curbs that are too tall for me to move over smoothly. When I run over these, like the potholes on the Martin's Way bridge, I frequently either trip and hit my shins on my rollator or I have to lift the rollator up however many inches to get over it.

It would be a trivial task if I was able-bodied, but my failing strength and joint pain affects my arms as well, and over-exerting in this way leads to deep flare-ups of pain which sometimes are so severe that the limb goes numb from pain. There aren't enough power-operated doors on campus, and facing a non-powered door means that I have to maneuver my rollator while holding open the door with my shoulder or leg, which is frustrating, difficult, and can be painful. I was a docent at the Wellin Museum during my time at Hamilton, and although it is a building constructed within the last ten years, there was no power-operated door. My employers were exceptionally considerate and supportive, and the safety staff were willing to come open the doors for me, but that doesn't erase the fact that I did not have independent access into my workplace. Facilitating maximum independence is so critical for disabled people, and I am robbed of that disabled independence at Hamilton.

Hamilton College has failed to adequately address the direct consequences of its inaccessibility. I spoke with the Assistant Dean of Accessibility about a week after I got my rollator, because I wanted to start a conversation about accessibility at the college. He opened by telling me that he knew that the college was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that it likely wouldn't be within my time here. The ADA was passed in 1990.

When faced with immediate concerns from a disabled student about issues that were legally and morally present for over three decades by now, he chose to present me with defeatist resignation rather than naming any specific steps that Hamilton College would take to meet disabled needs. I immediately replied with suggestions for ramps that would be easy to implement and would make a tremendous difference for me. To his credit, the Dean of Accessibility told me that some ramps would likely be possible to implement, and if there were any other "quick fixes" I noticed that I should let him know and that he would pass the information along. I brought up something that I knew wouldn't be a "quick fix”: power-operated doors at my workplace, the Wellin. He said that he could pass that recommendation along as well. The Dean of Accessibility responded to my specific requests attentively and optimistically, but I still see the lack of proactivity as a total failure from his department. Listening to individual disabled students is critical, but that will never be a replacement for an institutional failure to fix inaccessibility.

Hamilton College should have been prepared for me to become disabled. I deserve that much as a student. Being asked to do unpaid labor for the college in terms of identifying every individual area where it fails me is not only insulting, but it is also a task that would inherently tax my body more than my body could take.

It was insulting when I informed the Assistant Director of Housing of my anticipated problems moving out of my room and was not taken seriously. I was moving from Root Hall to summer housing in Babbitt, and I knew that I did not have the strength to pack up my room on my own and get the boxes out to the curb for the jitney to pick up. I don't have family nearby and I was honest with this administrator about needing help packing my room if they expected me to move out in a 24-hour time-frame.

She replied that they don't assist students in that way. She told me that an area director had volunteered to move already-packed boxes out of my room, but that "this is outside of what [they] were offering to any other student."

I'm lucky that I have friends that were willing to help me out through the packing process, and I was later able to access the same box-moving services through help from the Transportation Department, but the way this administrator responded to my concerns didn’t address my struggle to pack my room and it made me feel like a burden. I felt like she was guilt tripping me for being disabled.

I am not the only student that would benefit from the college fixing its physical inaccessibility. There are friends I know that have rollators of their own, that choose not to bring them to campus because the inaccessibility would make it more taxing than it would be worth. The existence of the Disabled Students Network shows that there is a present and immediate need for a commitment to accessibility. Even able-bodied students who get injured during athletics would benefit from practical accessibility on campus.

Hamilton College does not need a 20-year-old disabled student to tell them how to make their campus accessible. Hamilton College, an institution with a billion-dollar endowment, does not need to rely on the unpaid labor of a disabled impoverished student to tell them how to do what they are legally and morally obligated to do. It would be excellent for them to listen to concerns of individual disabled students, but I am unqualified to do large-scale consulting on the inaccessibility and ADA-noncompliance of this campus.

There are accessible college campuses in America! In New England! There are no excuses for this campus to be as inaccessible as it is. There are professional consultants and lawyers that specialize in disability advocacy and compliance with the ADA, and it is long overdue for Hamilton to commit to accessibility on campus.

I am calling for radical accessibility, and that means that I want to be able to go everywhere on campus that an able-bodied student can go. I need a way to get to any second floor, third floor, fourth floor on campus. I need to be able to go to anywhere classes are held, any room my friends are in. Figure it out, Hamilton. You can do it out of any institution, you rich, special little NESCAC, you.

I know Hamilton could choose to fix its problems at any time. I also know this administration's track record. I'm choosing not to personally fight the Hamilton accessibility battle; I refuse to drain my energy for this institution. It's not too much to ask the College to be proactive and enthusiastic about accessibility, but I am realistic about the prospects for meaningful change in real time. I'm a QuestBridge scholar, I made the Dean's List last semester, I declared a double major in Art and Anthropology, and I won't graduate from Hamilton College. I know it in my heart that two more years at this institution will harm my body far more than any degree is worth. Hamilton College absolutely could invest the time and energy in making this place accessible not only for me, but for all disabled students, faculty, and visitors. It is negligence every day that they don't.

I would have loved to have had more time with you all. I really, really wish that Hamilton would be an institution where a guy doesn't have to drop out just because they become disabled, but I am systematically excluded and harmed here. I am worth the effort, and Hamilton has failed me. I'm leaving.

Correction 8/26: Initially, this article said an RA was the one to assist Basil move from their room. It was an area director.

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