Many people who chose to attend school in New York first describe a sense of convenience. They point to the subways, the various modes of public transportation, the idea that everything is just so accessible. But for people with disabilities, despite the perceived general convenience of public transportation, New York is not exactly the epitome of accessibility.
New York’s subway system is, by far, the least wheelchair accessible public transit system in any major city in the U.S., with less than one in four stations offering elevators. Even when stations offer elevators, they are often out of service, posing a barrier for the 535, 839 people living in New York with ambulatory disabilities.
Even with laws and regulations, the needs and voices of the disabled are often spoken over and sidelined. Even though 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have a disability, 1 in 3 disabled adults said they had unmet healthcare needs. Even when they are able to receive healthcare, there is the risk of provider bias--despite anti-descrimination laws for Covid triage, this past July, a physician was recorded denying a man life-saving Covid-19 treatment on the basis that the patient was paralyzed with a brain injury, saying that due to those disabilities, the patient already lacked quality of life and treatment was for those who “are walking and talking.” On a day-to-day basis, people with disabilities face a myriad of barriers in entering buildings, using public transportation, finding safe sidewalks with curb cuts, and affording home modifications. In police confrontations, having a disability may, especially for people of color, spell out a death sentence. Within prisons, those with disabilities often find their rights ignored.
This past month in April, Barnard hosted a series of discussions for their Accessibility Week 2021: Disabilities and Social Justice. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Selise Bourla (BC ‘23) to continue a discussion she had started through her workshop on ableism in the classroom and to learn more about her personal experiences.
Note: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity and concision.
Why is accessibility important to you?
Accessibility and universal design is very important to me, and I think the world, because disability and universal design is not something exclusively for the disabled. It's actually for everyone. Everyone benefits from a more accessible and more universally designed world. And that's actually in the name of universal design--it is universal. I think what's really important about greater accessibility or universal design is that, as a world, we have to get away from this narrative that if we invest in universal design it’s just for the disabled.
A great example is a ramp. A ramp isn't just for your wheelchair user or your mobility-impaired person--it's for caregivers with baby strollers or delivery people who carry boxes. And I think that is like one example of how accessibility is. It serves multiple purposes and it is really for everyone. So when we talk about disability justice and when we talk about universal design, we were really talking about a world that functions better for the collective.
In your experience, how has being in a wheelchair affected your experience going to school in New York? How accessible do you think New York is, from your experiences?
I wouldn't characterize it as accessible at all. One of the things that plays a really big part in my life is that the subway system, in particular, is very inaccessible. Very few subway stations have elevators to begin with and of the subway stations that do have elevators, in my experience at least, they can be broken or malfunctioning or out of service for a good deal of the time. And so if we think about how that impacts my life as a student, it's a really enormous impact because that's how students get around. And that is not an option for me. And while other public transportation like buses are more likely to be accessible, taking the train or the bus, from personal experience, is that it's really dependent on, “Is the bus driver going to be nice and pull down the ramp, and find a conductor to get the ramp?” because there’s been situations where I haven't found a conductor and the train has literally left without me and I was literally in front of it.
It also creates a sense of insecurity. Because when you don’t know if it’s going to be accessible, you're less inclined to go out because it feels unsafe. I don't know if I'm going to be stranded, I don't know if I'm going to be able to get to where I need to go. Inaccessibility really lies at the heart of lack of participation because if you don't feel comfortable in navigating your environment, you don't feel like you have access to your environment as a whole. And so I would say, no, New York City is very inaccessible. And I have done very little exploring of New York City as a student. That has been one of my greatest regrets.
What are some of the barriers you’ve come across trying to get around on a day-to-day basis?
The first thing that comes to mind is a lack of curb cuts. I think curbs are not that bad around Columbia, but there's often times where I haven't found curb cuts or where people park in front of cuts. And that is a big issue for me as a wheelchair user and as a person.
And also in general, the lack of push buttons for doors. They’re really important for me as a wheelchair user and I'd say they're very severely lacking. What that does for me is I always feel unsafe in a building where I know that there's no push button because then I always have to think about, “Will there be someone there to open the door?” That creates this feeling of dependency, which I don't like, because I'm a very independent person. There’s a feeling of having to constantly be like, “Will there be someone there? Will I be safe? Will I be trapped in a building?” Because there actually have been (not a Columbia specifically), situations where I have been trapped in some buildings and unable to get out because people weren't there. Eventually someone came, but it does feel kind of really unsafe at the time.
There's often also different entrances for people with disabilities and usually the entrances are far apart. Accessible entrances are usually at the back of the building or, I don't know why this is, but in my experience, a lot of accessible entrances are near the dumpster. Not all, but it's actually a pattern that I've noticed that it's a very peculiar thing, they tend to be near sewage or the dumpster or like, it’s just it's really random. It's something that has happened enough times that I've taken note of it, even if it doesn't happen all the time. And I think this also has a key impact socially, because whenever I'm out with a group of friends, we may have to separate and that can feel really socially isolating.
And that can also stop me from exploring new places, because “is it accessible?” is always always a consideration when I’m going out with my friends. “Will this be accessible and will we need to change our plans?” And then if it isn’t, and we need to change our plans, it always makes me feel a little insecure and it sort of makes me kind of feel like a burden. It often makes me fear that the next time we want to do something as a group, I won't be invited, which has happened before many times. And so aside from the physical feeling of exclusion is also really socially isolating itself. Physical universal design and physical access is often the most basic level of access, and I am shocked to see that we often very much forget about it. I think there's a lot of other types of access that are very absent as well. The physical environment really determines how we feel and how we fit in and how we socialize.
You mentioned a lot of ways that structures are not very physically accessible. Have there been other ways in which accessibility is an issue?
In the classroom as specifically, there's a lot of inaccessibility when it comes to readings. What does that mean for me as a person, that means that I have to spend a lot more time finding other ways through which I can learn the same information. Every time I get a reading and some academic article that is not properly remediated for a screen reader, I will try to remediate it, but that will take time. So I have to really be efficient with the planning and that and then maybe it won't work quite as well. Maybe the screen reader will take nine hours to read something because for a screen reader, there's no skimming function. In most cases, the text can't be remediated properly. It’s not a text or a physical book in a copy that I can put through like a computer screen reader. And I'll go looking for other sources. Is there a podcast? Is there video? Is there something else that is more auditory or even is there a popular news article that's usually shorter and has a bigger font? That takes so much time for someone to do for every class, for every lecture.
I've begged publishers to publish something in accessible formats. I've scavenged all corners of the Internet. I have worked with the fabulous librarians, CARDS, the Center for Accessibility Resources and Disability Services. They're really fabulous. We work together every semester and we sit with all my syllabi and ask, “Okay, what can we get?” And there's never been a situation, despite the absolutely amazing efforts of the people that support me at Barnard, where everything has been able to be found in a convenient, accessible format.
And has that impacted your class choices at all?
What happens in every registration period, my dean and a couple other people look at my class schedule and we think about, “OK, this is a back to back class, but this class might be in a location that is on the other side of campus. This might be really far. And so I might not be able to make it in a time that's feasible because it's really, really far.” And before this semester, there were not really options for disabled students or really anyone to Zoom in or video chat into a lecture. You kind of have to be there, which was a huge barrier for all disabled students. Maybe we can't get to them. Maybe we have a flare up of our conditions. There might be a few days where we need to take classes in a different way. That has never been heard of and that was really not an option for disabled students before the pandemic. But all of a sudden, in the span of a week, Columbia and institutions around the world were able to figure it out. But we were told no for decades.
Now that we know that school can be done online, do you think it will become an option for you and others with disabilities?
I would love for Zoom, even if we go back to being completely in-person, which I would endorse, to be made available to students who can't be there in person for a lecture. We've done it for more than a year. I'm sure we can keep it around, but I bet you we won't.
Moving forward, what do you hope will happen on the topic of accessibility?
So I think the first thing that I think I've learned is that disability is really left out of most of the initiatives or talks or just discussions and underrepresented in society as a whole. But they're also underrepresented in talks about greater representation for underrepresented groups, and it compounds. And I think I see the disability justice movement as so behind other movements, at least personally. So I think the first thing that we have to do is we have to talk about it more. We have to make a conscious effort to include it.
I'd say the first thing we need to do is really to engage in more conversations around ableism and disability, justice and just engaging with this country's very sordid history with the institutionalisation and the complete shunning of people with disabilities. Up to fairly recently individuals with disabilities were completely institutionalized or just completely not part of society. They were warehoused. They were imprisoned essentially in these institutions where they were shunned and not allowed to even remotely participate in society. We don't confront that history.
I've been asked by many people about why there's been an increase in the amount of students seeking accommodation or access in their school work, academics, and in the world in general and why there are so many students with disabilities. And I think there's a lot of answers to this question. But I think one that is often ignored is that there aren't more students with disabilities now. It’s just now they're part of society. You now know them. They're your neighbors. They are engaging with you in a society. A very short while ago, those same students would have been warehoused in some state-run institution where you wouldn't even be aware of their existence as people. So it's not that there's an increase in students with disabilities. It’s that we're finally here. We're finally sort of allowed to exist in the same spaces.
And so we also need to think about how to implement universal design. Conversations are great, but if at the end of the conversation, we don’t do anything, we really haven't accomplished their goal. I think I would really appreciate it if people were to look at their lives, and look at their world, and realize like, “Oh, there's like this is not accessible for x and x person,” and to make a conscious effort to be more aware of it and participate in disability justice. We need more able-bodied allies, we just need more allies in general. We just need more activism.
I would say I'm encouraged because Barnard has accommodated me better than I'd say pretty much any other institution I've ever been a part of, particularly in an educational sense. A big, kind of the most fundamental factor for me in the college search process, was physical accessibility and meeting with accessibility services teams. Many of the colleges that I was deciding between, their accessibility services team would refuse to meet with me until I committed to the institution and sent in my documentation. They would not meet with me to discuss accommodations, nothing. And I mean, generally speaking, the thing that popped into my head, you know, well, why? Because the only thing I could think of is they don't want to talk to me about my needs because they know they can't meet my needs. They know they can't be accessible. But Barnard was the only accessible resources team that I met with once before I officially committed. Just being able to meet with someone and being able to have the discussion of like, “What are some of the accommodations that you could offer potentially? Starting to have those discussions made me fundamentally more comfortable and it made me feel more supported and welcome. It gave me some peace of mind.
Another thing that happened to me at Barnard that never happened at the other schools I had applied to, was I was actually able to tour with a group of people. At every other school, I was given a separate, “accessible” campus tour. Barnard was one of the only schools, if not the only school where I could where I like like, oh, I can make this work, you know, in a way that would work for me. And I'm glad it worked out, but I think there's other things that we could talk about with that, because obviously Barnard is a really, really selective school. And I mean, obviously, I have not toured every school. I haven't researched every school. But if Barnard was one of the few that was accessible, you have to be fairly high-achieving to get into Barnard. So it’s like, do you really have to be one of the best in your class and be exceptional to be deserving of access? No one should have to be exceptional or good at something to be deserving of accessibility.