OPINION: Let’s prioritize accessibility when designing buildings

exterior of a harvey mudd dormitory: a grey modern building with large windows
The layout of the Shanahan Center and other buildings at Harvey Mudd make them difficult to access for people with limited mobility. (TSL file photo)

For several weeks last semester, I relied on crutches to get around after injuring my foot in a bad fall during rock climbing practice. I had never been injured before, so it took me a while to get the hang of navigating my surroundings without one of my limbs. Since my crutches made movement so slow, I felt lucky to be attending a school as small as Harvey Mudd College.

But even when I had gotten used to traveling with crutches, the architectural designs and layouts of buildings at HMC and the rest of the 5Cs made getting around extremely difficult. 

For instance, when it rains, my dorm building, HMC’s Wayne and Julie Drinkward Residence Hall, does not drain well. For days after even the slightest rain, there can be gigantic puddles that can pose as dangers to people who are in wheelchairs or crutches.

When I was on crutches, I almost fell several times because of the puddles that would accumulate outside the door to my room. Similarly, curb cuts flood out, which is hazardous to people in wheelchairs or motorized scooters who need to use them to cross the street.

Additionally, Drinkward and HMC’s Shanahan Center, where many of my classes are located, are laid out so that there is a hole in the middle of each building, with rooms forming a square-like shape around a central courtyard. This layout makes it so that the elevators and staircases of the two buildings are located far from where most visitors might be coming from. 

When you’re someone with limited mobility, even a few feet can make a big difference. These hidden elevators are extremely unfriendly to people who experience difficulties while moving.

There are also very few doors around campus that are friendly to people with disabilities. Doors can be so incredibly heavy, making them difficult to open when you do not have four fit limbs. 

There were many times when I had to sandwich myself between the door frame and a rapidly closing door because I couldn’t get through fast enough on my crutches. On the HMC campus, the only door with an electric door-opening button that I’ve personally noticed so far is one of the doors to the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons.

Moving forward, in constructing buildings to be used by people with and without disabilities, we should be more aware of the potential problems that people may face in navigating these spaces. 

We should place elevators in central locations in buildings so that they are conveniently close to places where people need to be, design functioning draining systems for sidewalks, manufacture lighter doors and add more electric door-opening buttons.

And there are just so many staircases at the colleges. If possible, we should avoid constructing staircases, and instead, opt for ramps or gentle slopes when necessary.

Just because disabilities aren’t in your face doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Before I was injured, I knew that it was difficult for people with disabilities to get around, but I didn’t know just how difficult it could be. 

Now that I know, I think it’s important that people recognize that not everyone has an easy time moving around and that their needs should be accommodated as well.

As HMC constructs its new McGregor Computer Science Center and Scripps College and Pitzer College renovate the Keck Science Center, the colleges should focus on accessibility as a priority. I appreciate the aesthetics of the Shanahan Center and my dorm (trust me, without Shan and Drinkward, the HMC campus is much less easy on the eyes), but aesthetics don’t translate to practicality. 

To ensure that everyone can access buildings easily, we need to consider the perspectives of people who may not be as able-bodied as most of us are, and optimize design with the idea of ease of access in mind.

Michelle Lum HM ’23 is from San Jose, CA. She’s very happy to have recovered from her foot injury, but also appreciates the insight that being injured allowed her to gain. She’ll never take climbing, playing tennis, running or even walking for granted again.

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