Since the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, colleges across the country have grappled with pulling their campuses to the 21st-century accessibility standards. Dartmouth, whose Georgian architecture has been seemingly preserved since the arrival of Robert Frost himself, was no exception. From creaky buildings with endless stairs to the harsh winter environment, the campus has provided numerous challenges to the roughly 10% of students who have disabilities, according to Secretary of Access Dartmouth Isaac Feldman ’23.
In 2017, Staci Manella ’18 brought the issue of accessibility at Dartmouth to national attention after suing the school for failing to comply with ADA standards. In a USA Today article, she recounted her disheartening experiences as a legally blind student on campus, where Manella allegedly received delayed access to resources she needed to succeed in class or was denied them altogether. For other students dealing with similar issues on campus during this time, these situations were not unfamiliar.
Maeve McBride ’20, a disability activist who is now attending George Washington Law School, recalls dealing with negative experiences when navigating accessibility at Dartmouth.
“I had a difficult time,” McBride said. “I could have really benefited from recorded lectures, but those were often very difficult to receive at the time. I also could have benefited from reduced academic attendance policies, which were usually never on the table for me. When I let my professors know about my accommodations, they would say something like, ‘Oh, you’re one of those kids,’” said McBride.
In an external report conducted in response to Manella’s suit, Dartmouth found that their accessibility efforts were lacking, leading the College to review disability services offered and coordinate new training programs for faculty and staff. The efforts, deemed “The Manella Protocol,” led to the College vowing to implement new policies and procedures to address the needs of students with disabilities at Dartmouth. While the suit propelled change within the administrative level, students were also emboldened to get involved.
“During the whole process, [Manella] spoke a lot at the College about accessibility and advocacy and really started a conversation about it on campus,” McBride said. “A couple of us got really interested in keeping the conversation going. That led to the start of Access Dartmouth.”
Formed to advocate for students with accessibility issues, Access Dartmouth has grown from an idea to a full fledged force advising both the Dartmouth administration and the local community.
Feldman said that Dartmouth still has more to accomplish.
“Dartmouth has its ups and downs,” Feldman said. “There are areas that I think it does quite well in with accessibility, and some that still need work. Luckily, so many people with the right attitudes are trying to improve the College, including students like us who are passionate about changing things.”
Access Dartmouth has helped provide insight on the College’s various renovation projects, such as the renovation of the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
“We did a walk-through of the Hop to help improve accessibility for the renovations,” Feldman said. “And recently, we’ve been working with a committee that works with the Hanover town planning commission to help renovate the area surrounding the Dartmouth Green. There is a difference we like to highlight between compliance and being proactive about accessibility — for example, putting it at the forefront of your design rather than just an afterthought.”
Another group that works with students, faculty, staff and administration to ensure the accessibility of campus is the Student Accessibility Services. Headed by Alison May ’97, who joined the team in the fall of 2019, SAS is primarily in charge of advising, accommodations and providing auxiliary services.
According to May, SAS has become a crucial resource for students navigating both their physical and mental health throughout the ongoing pandemic. As circumstances change, SAS must adapt to keep up with these changes.
“We are always recognizing that our student population is changing, and as our student population continues changing, sometimes that means we need to adjust and adapt,” May said.
One of the most formative changes the office made is removing one of the accessibility hurdles that McBride agonized over the most: having to tell a professor directly after class that they need accommodations.
“I would be standing in this long line with a bunch of students that had questions waiting to tell my professor about my accommodations and it was just… weird,” McBride said. “It was never something you could really do over email, and there was never a good time to do it in person. It was not a fun process to go through.”
Now, the system is virtual. Students can log in to schedule testing accommodations for a specific course and access note-taking software. During the pandemic, SAS also discussed how to provide accessible routes to class and how to make those paths more efficient.
Like Access Dartmouth, May has dealt with similar pushback when it comes to changing the status quo, especially when it comes to large scale projects like the renovation of Dartmouth Hall.
“You would be surprised; some alumni are so concerned about what an accessible entrance to Dartmouth Hall looks like,” May said. “But the folks we are consulting with to update the building are very attentive to making the Hall as accessible as possible while retaining the design.”
However, May feels that now, more than ever, people are on board making Dartmouth accessible.
“It was a wonderful outcome of the pandemic,” May said. “We started working together to figure out what the priorities are for the campus. Our end goal is to have a campus-wide accessibility audit and to have a specialized architect come here and figure out how to transform the space.”
With the help of Manella, student organizations and concerned administrators — five years after the original claims made national headlines — the College is slowly, but actively changing. While the buildings are still creaky and somewhat ancient, the culture of accommodations is becoming a normalized part of campus.
“In the minds of the students and the community, we need to continue to acknowledge the lived experience of people with disabilities here at Dartmouth,” Feldman said. “That’s the only way we can keep changing the culture. To say we’re satisfied right now would be a lie. We’re not done yet at all.”