• Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Physical accessibility update: what you need to know

Students, administrators, alumni, and the rest of the Hamilton community continue to turn their attention to accessibility this semester following a widely-publicized student withdrawal from the College due to the campus’s physical inaccessibility. However, perspectives and understandings of the issues may at times diverge between the groups. Here’s what’s been happening since we last checked in.


The players


The bulk of discussions about institutional decisions regarding physical accessibility have been between some members of the Student Assembly (SA), particularly SA President Emily Jiang ‘25 and Class President Felix Tager ‘23, and Facilities Management, with occasional closer involvement from the Dean of Students Office, Accessibility Resources Department, and Office of the President. On the outside, the recently-launched Hamilton Alumni Student Coalition (HASC) and Disabled Students Network (DSN) have collaborated on a set of demands for College action. Communication between those “inside” institutional discussions and those “outside” of them have been limited. Elsewhere, some students have pursued smaller accessibility projects within different departments and divisions of the College. Overall, there are a variety of accessibility efforts on campus with varying degrees of coordination.


Ongoing College projects


Most notably, Hamilton has committed $500,000 annually to accessibility improvements on campus. College representatives have not said publicly or answered exactly when this commitment was made, but this and other accessibility commitments were not on the College website until sometime after October 4th, 2022, according to an archived version of the Accessibility page on Hamilton’s site. Associate Vice President for Facilities and Planning Michael Klapmeyer, who took on the role in August, publicized this major financial commitment at the October 17th SA meeting (minutes have yet to be posted on the SA site). Jiang and Tager in particular have been in conversations with administrators with regard to accessibility, meeting regularly and keeping an open line of communication about physical accessibility issues on campus.


“I’ll say I am thrilled to hear about the $500,000 commitment,” DSN founder and president Elian (Ele) Sorensen ‘23 told Monitor via email. “Though progress has been slow, and we’re continually surprised by the College not jumping on easy (and inexpensive) improvements including many of the ones we’ve suggested through HASC, we are thrilled about what the above commitment signals about the College’s shifting priorities.” They have previously investigated accessibility issues on campus for Spectator.


In relative terms, the last time a Hamilton official made such a major public financial commitment in response to student concerns on an issue was in summer 2020 when President Wippman announced he would add $200,000 from his discretionary fund every year for five years to equity and inclusion efforts following widespread condemnation of the College’s initial response to the Black Lives Matter uprising. However, like then, many student leaders feel commitments in the hundreds of thousands pale in comparison to the College’s overall budgetary priorities with an endowment of nearly $1.5 billion and annual expenses around $200 million, and a profit of about $20 million for 2020.


According to the the Accessibility page at publishing time, the College has incorporated accessibility improvements into its Root Hall renovations, which is due to become a new centralized location for many humanities courses, and has also, “recently invested in accessibility upgrades at Morris House, Wallace Johnson Hall, 20 College Hill Road, and List, to name a few.” By the end of the fall 2023 semester, Hamilton plans to complete further renovations to Commons Dining Hall, McEwen Dining Hall, Burke Library, and the Wellin Museum. Many of the renovations relate to doors, stairs, and signage. One of the more costly renovations will be the addition of an elevator to McEwen.


During the SA meeting, Klapmeyer also committed to repairing many of the potholes on the Martin’s Way bridge this semester before the winter sets in, an oft-identified area of concern by advocates.


While attention on issues of accessibility has increased over the last year, Klapmeyer told the Assembly that many of these plans have been in the works for years. Hamilton initially contracted an architectural firm based in Ithaca, NY, in 2019 to study its facilities’ accessibility. Chiang & O’Brien Architects surveyed 52 buildings and identified approximately $15 million worth of potential accessibility renovations; Klapmeyer declined to share the report with Monitor, saying it was a working document for internal purposes.


Historically, the College has added accessibility improvements during other renovations “time and time again without, really, a lot of fanfare.” Klapmeyer acknowledged that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires many inaccessible buildings to be made accessible during the course of renovations, but that that is not enough to make the campus truly accessible. Indeed, many advocates have often pointed out that ADA compliance is a low threshold and have in the past been critical of the College’s previous insistence that it is compliant in response to students’ concerns.


“Hamilton is technically ADA compliant. The issue is that ADA does not go far enough,” pointed out Tager, Chair of the SA Residential Life & Safety Committee, which has spearheaded many accessibility discussions with administration.


Advocacy, partnership, and communication


On October 24th, the newly-formed Hamilton Alumni Student Coalition (HASC) released a set of demands with the support of DSN on Instagram and in a Google doc. They encouraged alumni to pledge to withhold donations of any kind to Hamilton until three demands are met: “1) quick fixes, clean curb cuts, flatten sidewalk curbs, install ramps and railings 2) hamilton college hire an ADA Coordinator 3) Hamilton, in collaboration with disabled students, draft a 5-10 year plan for further steps they will take to increase accessibility on campus (renovations, elevators, trainings for professors).”


“Though we would desperately like the College to renovate dorms for accessibility, that isn’t what we’re asking for here. In short, we have many requests for the College, but these are demands that we thought fit well within the strategies of HASC,” Sorensen told Monitor. They further emphasized that other disabled students may disagree with the approach, though they’re not directly aware of any, and that while HASC and DSN have collaborated, they are separate entities.


The founder of HASC, recent graduate Charlie Guterman ‘22, told Monitor, “Movement building takes time and HASC offers more of it. What could it look like if student activists graduated and became alumni activists rather than distancing themselves as they venture into careers and new homes?”


Asked of their position on the demands and proposed method of action, SA President Emily Jiang ‘25 and Tager told Monitor they supported them. “You choose where your money goes. And in some capacity, the College relies on these donations. And so if you think that there is stuff in here that you don't want to necessarily support with your donations, it is sending a message when you withhold those donations,” said Jiang.


Klapmeyer responded to the demands in an email to Monitor saying, “I was aware the HASC had posted demands on social media; however, no one has reached out to me to discuss their concerns. In my experience, direct communication is the best way to solve problems and would have paid dividends in this instance, as many HASC demands are underway or, in some cases, have already been attained.”


“1) Will the admin involve disabled students, faculty & staff in the decision-making process of how to spend this money? 2) Will they publish a detailed action plan (which clearly they have for Associate VP Kalpmeyer to be reporting) publicly on their website so it is available for not only the Hamilton community but also for prospective students? and 3) None of these solutions address cultural problems, only physical ones. How will Hamilton's accessibility plan incorporate the attitudinal challenges among admin, faculty, and students (I'm referencing Ele's longform article in the Spec),” Guterman wrote to Monitor in response to Klapmeyer’s statements in the SA meeting minutes, while praising the existing commitments.


Asked about their collaboration with students outside of the Assembly, particularly DSN, Jiang and Tager said they had initial communication with DSN earlier in the semester, but due to the busyness of the semester those conversations have not continued, though they hope to continue them in the future. Both expressed interest in ensuring disabled students are party to institutional planning on accessibility. DSN’s executive board did not respond to comment about its relationship to the Assembly by publishing time, though Sorensen answered other questions. Guterman said HASC has not been working with the Assembly but that “HASC's goal is to support student activism, and we would hope to aid whoever is doing accessibility advocacy on campus, DSN, SA etc.”


Jiang and Tager credit the current progress, and especially the additional transparency, to the significant staff turnover on campus. “[Klapmeyer] is willing to step into the role with everything he's got, and take the resources that've been given to him and do stuff,” said Jiang. Both also praised the new Dean of Students, Chris Card, for his commitment to moving this issue forward.


Moving forward


Other areas of engagement around physical accessibility include SA’s initiative to place QR codes near electric doors for users to identify if they aren’t working, DSN’s recently approved funding for merchandise and food for events, efforts by student employees in the Admissions Office to make tours more accessible, and much more. Accessibility, by its nature, is a broad field that will take significant time to address campuswide. While progress is being made, and that progress has been more well documented for the public to see, many advocates still wish the speed were faster. “If the college cared about enrolling disabled students, and understood disability as a part of the college’s diversity, we would be seeing far greater strides in improving accessibility,” said Sorensen.


Editor’s note: It would be difficult to discuss the relationship (or potential relationship) between the Assembly and DSN, which is relevant to discussions of disabled students’ own involvement in accessibility decisions on campus, without mentioning that Jiang and Tager have recently posted stories on Instagram highly critical of Sorensen’s reporting for Spectator regarding recent SA impeachments, describing it as factually inaccurate and questioning the article's focus on Tager and why Spectator has not reported on other Assembly work. Jiang later took down their post which posited an agenda in the article. Both emphasized respect for Spectator and Sorensen. Neither Sorensen, who is an Investigative Reporting Editor, nor Spectator, have publicly responded to the criticisms to date. Due to my own proximity to the situation given I served as SA VP and then President last year and faced both resignations and criticism, including from Sorensen, I leave this note solely to acknowledge these ongoing issues as relevant to considerations of the future accessibility advocacy given the three individuals are intimately involved with it. But because of my proximity to the subject being reported, it is inappropriate for me to claim to be a neutral reporter on the issue and include a recount without note in the course of this article. Ideally I would leave this information out altogether and let someone else share it, but in a situation where no party can be fully neutral I am left only with the option of being open about my connection while sharing information important to the public interest, I hope as even-handedly as possible. As always, we welcome letters to the editor and private requests for corrections.


Additional note and correction: Originally, Monitor was unaware that Jiang later took down their posts; Jiang informed Monitor of this following seeing this article. Tager has reached out to Monitor to further clarify that he did not intend to imply an ulterior motive. Both Jiang and Tager have informed Monitor that they do not have negative feelings toward Sorensen. Both reiterate their interest in a collaborative relationship. Please also allow this correction to serve as a notice that social media posts when shared to a broad audience, especially when shared by public figures on matters of public discourse, are not private.

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