Writing about the history of disability at Georgetown is hard because for most of the university’s history, nobody reported on the issue. Documents are scarce any time before the last decade. And yet disabled students, faculty, staff and visitors doubtlessly arrived at the Hilltop before coverage of the difficulties they faced existed.
Primary sources pick up their story around 2002, 10 years after the initial implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That year, a group of students — mostly students with mobility impairments — met with administrators to express concern that the university was failing to meet its requirements under the act. Constant elevator malfunctions, obstructed paths and other obstacles frustrated these students’ ability to participate as full members in our community.
Our labyrinthine and underequipped campus inflicted regular humiliation on these students. When Jen Howitt (SFS ’05) entered Georgetown’s then-dining hall in New South, a set of stairs required her to enter through an emergency exit. Each time she went to eat, she triggered the door’s alarm, announcing her disability to the entire building.
Sometimes, these humiliations metamorphosed into dangers. In 2005, a gas leak forced the evacuation of White Gravenor Hall. As students began to evacuate, they discovered the elevator was malfunctioning. Most students diverted to the stairs, but one student, who relied on a wheelchair for mobility, was trapped.
Ultimately, nearby students carried her from the building. But she should have been able to rely on the elevator. She and other students with mobility impairments had by then regularly agitated for more regular elevator maintenance. But, as it often does, the university dragged its feet.
This story didn’t end in 2005 any more than it began in 2002. In 2008, students voiced identical complaints in campus media. And all disabled students — not just students with mobility impairments — continue to struggle for an accessible Georgetown.
Despite the university’s ongoing insistence that it adheres to the minimum legal standard set forward in the ADA, obvious accessibility problems persist. Tight corners on6 Leavey 5 restrict wheelchairs. Many of the university’s spaces lack braille signage or have braille signage, but place it above doorframes — well out of many students’ reach.
On Lau 2, only a stairwell, single bathroom, and two “staff only” signs include braille. For blind students seeking a group study room, Midnight Mug, a carrel, the Writing Center, most bathrooms or an elevator, not even raised lettering signals their destination.
Disabled students have become more organized and vocal in recent years. In 2011, students and faculty hosted a large-scale forum, DiversABILITY. As part of the forum, students with disabilities, including 14 Georgetown students and three from Gallaudet, wrote and performed a play about their experiences with disability —“Visible Impact”— that compiled vignettes of self-reflection and moments of public ridicule.
In the same year, the University revised its Medical Leave of Absence (MLOA) policy in the wake of a formal complaint filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint came from a student who, for reasons related to a disability, took a voluntary medical leave of absence.
Both the university and CAPS identify certain advantages to a voluntary MLOA. MLOAs can allow students to focus on their health or well-being, without the burden of schoolwork; they can allow students to leave the university without disrupting their continued eligibility for scholarship and financial aid. Some students, however, have alleged they were tricked or coerced into taking MLOAs. Others allege they were prevented from returning to campus after taking them.
When the student prepared to return to campus, Georgetown began to set requirements — requirements unclear at the time the student agreed to take an MLOA. As the student began to attempt to meet requirements, the university stalled. Leave voluntarily initiated became leave involuntarily extended.
Solutions to these problems have been slow in arriving. But in the fall of 2012, dozens of students and faculty came together to plan a proposal for a disability cultural center. Spearheaded by Lydia Brown (COL ’15), the proposal gained the endorsement of the GUSA executive last week.
Lydia Brown has become something of a public face at Georgetown for issues related to disability and neurodiversity.
But Lydia will graduate. A disability cultural center, however, offers an opportunity to institutionalize and extend the work of disabled organizers. For a community that has only recently gained the attention of our campus community, such a resource would be essential.
Matthew Quallen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.
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