Solomon Center Addresses Accessibility and Aesthetics at Yale and Beyond

On February 17, 2021, the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy hosted its final event in a yearlong retrospective on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “ADA @ Yale: The Intersection of Accessibility and Aesthetics on Campus,” was hosted in conjunction with disabled student organizations across the Yale community. The event highlighted both the challenges and positive changes in disability access in the Yale community and concluded by exploring potential actions needed to create greater accessibility. The panel featured past and present Yale College students who have navigated accessibility at Yale, Adam Jed ’03 YC and Arya Singh ’22 YC, as well as Professor Aimi Hamraie of Vanderbilt University, an expert on accessible architecture and design.

In discussing his experience with accessibility at Yale, Jed recounted that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ADA was still somewhat new. While schools were required to be accessible, they were struggling to attain that goal. He said he appreciated the efforts that Yale made to accommodate him, but found many issues still required attention. These issues only came to light when they were identified by someone with a disability. Jed experienced missing curbs that prevented his wheelchair from making it to the sidewalk. When one of his friends tried out his wheelchair at Yale, the friend reached a dawning realization: “I never realized there was a hill here until trying a wheelchair.” The shower seats Yale installed to accommodate Jed couldn’t hold sufficient weight. 

Singh echoed Jed’s sentiments regarding her own experience with accessibility at Yale nearly 20 years later. She discussed Yale’s efforts to accommodate her disability needs while also recognizing that challenges remain in the Yale community today. Upon admission to Yale, Singh said she was told that she would be a “guinea pig”— Yale never previously had a student who used a power wheelchair who also required 24/7 care. Although the school worked to accommodate her needs, she said she encountered extreme avoidance when she matriculated. “I think people weren’t ready to talk about it,” she said. “It was socially difficult at times. I felt isolated, like disability was a closeted conversation.”

Nevertheless, Singh said that she has been able to make her three years at Yale some of the most rewarding in her life. The Yale junior urged the audience to remember that “these situations are complicated and multidimensional” and disability concerns will “probably be a conversation in another 20 years.” She also called on members of the Yale community to do their individual part. “Each of us is responsible to make the idea of inclusion a reality every day,” she said.

Hamraie concluded the panel by giving an overview of ways other universities have worked to realize the idea of inclusion and equal access. For example, they recounted their work with the Critical Design Lab on a project known as Mapping Access. The mapping project sent Vanderbilt students, faculty, and staff on “map-a-thons” to check the ADA compliance of Vanderbilt’s buildings. The result was twofold. First, mapping project participants realized that Vanderbilt was not 100 percent ADA compliant. And second, people without disabilities began to understand the access needs of individuals with disabilities on the Vanderbilt campus that they were unaware of before conducting the mapping project.  

Hamraie urged the audience to think beyond the ADA’s legal requirements — for example, the panel noted that physical access does not necessarily guarantee mental or cognitive access. Hamraie reminded the audience that true inclusion is only achieved by considering all the intersecting factors that make a space feel accessible, inclusive, and welcoming. Although a wheelchair ramp is good for accessibility, its location in the back of a building on a college or university campus can be demoralizing and make statements about who is valued by an institution. Alternatively, Hamraie suggested such a ramp be “put it in the center atrium and make it a bright color to welcome disability in that space. That’s an example of beauty and aesthetics as opposed to function.”

The audience responded by sharing their own experiences with disability and accessibility. One student thanked the organizers before explaining her “tough journey to navigate disabilities at Yale.” She called for greater support for students with neurological and invisible disabilities. Richard Kayne ’76 M.D. seconded this and called for Yale to adopt the interventions found in Hamraie’s work through the mapping project with Vanderbilt. According to the panelists, the discussions that emerged from the final event in the ADA @ 30 series will benefit the Yale community and beyond regarding accessibility and inclusion in the future.

This event was co-sponsored by student disability organizations from across the university, including ThinkDifferent at Yale Law School, DivineAbilities at the Yale Divinity School, the Graduate Student Disability Alliance, and Disability Empowerment for Yale (DEFY).