By Jac St. Jean
About fifteen years ago, Dr. Daniel Zukergood, a professor of education at Springfield College, sent groups of students in his Multicultural Education course all over the campus with nothing but wheelchairs. Their task: to see where they could go, and where their “disability” prevented them from going. Before there were building codes, laws, and state legislation, it was not easy for people with a disability (PWD), or a person who uses a wheelchair to navigate all buildings. With the long history of Springfield College and the age of some of the buildings on campus today, it’s interesting to see how the college has come. Dr. Zukergood speaks about his experience teaching his highly acclaimed Multicultural Education class, and the idea of ableism, or discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.
“There was limited access to a lot of different places on campus,” Zukergood says. He went to Weiser Hall with one group of students, and attempted to get to a classroom in the basement with a student in the wheelchair.
“We had four people holding her wheelchair going down those first steps into the basement, and we couldn’t do it… it was a near catastrophe,” he explains. The students also discovered multiple dormitory halls and buildings that couldn’t be accessed in a wheelchair.
A few wrote letters to the president at the time, Richard B. Flynn, informing him of the issues on campus. “I’d love to say that we made a big difference. I’m sure that it helped [with] what we did,” Zukergood continues, “but I don’t think that we were the driving force.”
Two years ago, I was a student in EDUC-237 with Dr. Zukergood. In regards to sexism, classism, racism, ableism, and more, he asked our class to think about ourselves as individuals in relation to these -ism’s. I believe many professors and students at Springfield College are what one could consider “active anti-oppressors” in regards to many -ism’s. Dr. Zukergood sees himself as an active anti-oppressor when it comes to issues of gender, class and race. Yet in regards to ableism, Dr. Zukergood selflessly admits that he has been a “passive oppressor”. I think this applies to a lot of people. It’s not intended to make you feel bad, nor is the term “passive oppressor” meant to hurt anyone, but Zukergood makes a point in his class to his students that in many cases, “people aren’t interested in disability until it happens to them or someone in their family. Those who are privileged rarely see or acknowledge their privilege.”
Dr. Zukergood’s class has positively impacted many students to advocate and push for change on campus and in the world. While his activity on disability accessibility wasn’t necessarily an integral role in creating changes on campus, it is a prime example of his ability to bring attention to some of the issues.
To get a more personal and in-depth experience about accessibility on campus, I talked with Springfield alum and friend, Luie Gomes, who lived on campus for a total of six years in three different dorm buildings. Gomes, born with cerebral palsy, spent the majority of his time navigating the campus via electric wheelchair. Sometimes he would use a standard wheelchair, but as a person who regularly uses different kinds of wheelchairs on campus, Gomes has a unique experience.
“I have no complaints,” Gomes expresses. “If there wasn’t a perfect situation, Residence Life did a phenomenal job of accommodating as best they could.”
Gomes praises Springfield College for their help over the years. The school did make some things easier, like providing him with an access key for the elevator in the Senior Suites when it was shut off so that he could still have access to laundry and other facilities. But Gomes does want to remind his peers of the bigger picture.
“We all make mistakes, we’re all humans, we’re not perfect,” Gomes declares, “but definitely just take into consideration that just as much as it’s there to make our lives easier… while some people have alternate methods… others do not.”
Gomes doesn’t have a hateful bone in his body, and doesn’t point fingers at anyone who may indirectly limit his access on campus. Surprisingly, Gomes’ living experience had been a very positive one over the six years at Springfield. However, his access around the campus was slightly hindered by some architectural layouts in a few buildings.
“The biggest one is definitely going to be the administration building. That’s where the registrar’s office is, that is where billing and [payroll] is,” Gomes continues, “being in college, being someone who really took initiative and enjoyed being aware of the financial side of the college experience, that was the toughest building I encountered.”
Fortunately, Gomes is not bound to his wheelchair for life, as he has some ability to walk. But unlike an able-bodied person, Gomes is not entirely capable of navigating a building on his own two feet. He had to “take that extra stage of planning” and get assistance from some of his friends in order to access certain offices in the admin building. Gomes also noted that the steepness of some of the stairs in the building and many others played a role in his accessibility on campus, and there was always a chance of no railing that Gomes would need for support.
Gomes praises his professors and faculty for his academic accommodations. He did face some troubles in Weiser, as Zukergood explained the history of earlier. Now, there are some ramps that gave access to Gomes to get into the building, but he was limited to only the basement and first floors.
“When it came time to access office hours and things of that nature, I would always have to set up a conference with professors in the conference room,” he exclaims, once again having to take extra steps and precautions.
As many know, Gomes is a huge supporter of Springfield College athletics. Unfortunately, his experience was again hindered, as the Blake Arena bleachers and Stagg Field bleachers have no ramps or railings. Gomes was still able to watch some of his favorite sports teams compete, but he did not have an ideal view of the field, court, or mat when he was spectating.
“You don’t think about it until you take a few steps back,” Gomes comments, further saying that railings would be “helpful for the whole student body.”
I took everything I heard from Dr. Zukergood and Luie Gomes, and ventured around campuses to the buildings and places that were highlighted in their experiences. Weiser Hall is much more accessible than it was when Dr. Zukergood explored it with his students, but there are still some limitations to the top floor. Same applies for the Administration building. There is no ramp into the building. There is a lift mechanism on the Alumni Hall side of the building, but there is a key required to operate it. Blake Arena does not have handicap assistance on the bleachers, and neither does Stagg. Other dormitory buildings like Gulick and Abbey-Appleton Hall have a lift mechanism to access other places, but again, extra assistance from facilities is needed, there are floor limitations, and furthermore, Abbey has a step at its front entrance, making it extremely difficult for people who use wheelchairs to enter the building.
Both Zukergood and Gomes expressed that Springfield College has come a very long way, and done a great job at accommodating PWD respectively. But as stated, there is still more that can be done to provide equal accessibility across the entire campus. Small fixes and updates to some of these places could create a more welcoming environment for potential PWD looking to further their education, or become a member of the Springfield College community. After all, our philosophy is spirit, mind, and body.
Photo: Jac St. Jean