A rocky relationship with accessibility

Natalie Comerford, Opinion Columnist

Outdoor appreciation is fully endemic in Whitman’s culture. Physical ability is something that many students at Whitman take great pride in and, in many ways, it dominates social culture. Love of the outdoors at Whitman is a great thing, but it often centers Whitties’ conversations and activities around able bodies and able bodies only. For a campus so dedicated to going outside, we have left an entire group out of that experience.

Whitman’s history with accessibility has been rocky (quite literally, some of the on-campus paths are too rocky to be accessible at all). Physically, Whitman is very inaccessible—particularly some of the dormitories and buildings like Cordiner Hall or the Memorial Building. I noticed one of Whitman’s blatant ADA violations soon after I got on campus; Lyman House doesn’t have an elevator. Not only that, but there is only one accessible door to the entire building. Basic needs like living spaces are ignored for students with disabilities at Whitman.

But honestly, while Whitman’s physical accessibility undoubtedly needs massive improvement, one of the main barriers to access is cultural. Sophomore Dorothea Orth-Smith sums up Whitman’s attitude toward students with disabilities as blissfully and problematically ignorant.

“I think it’s kind of like Whitman was not necessarily built or conceived with disabled people in mind, and you can really tell that in the events at Whitman,” Orth-Smith said.

Junior Súeli Gwiazdowski agrees.

“The social atmosphere for students with physical disabilities on Whitman’s campus is really toxic. There are a lot of intensely athletic and outdoorsy kinds of social scenes on Whitman’s campus that kind of dominate conversations and of what’s happening,” Gwiazdowski said.

This culture puts immense physical and social pressure on students with disabilities to, as Gwiazdowski describes, “consistently choose between my safety, my comfort and my pain levels.”

The choice between physical comfort and social isolation is never one that a student should have to make, especially for a campus that prides itself on being so ahead in things like diversity and inclusion. But for all of the DEIA conversations every Whittie is a part of, disability is rarely, if ever, included in the conversation.

That is not to say that outdoorsy culture at Whitman should cease to exist, or even fade into the background. Appreciation of nature is integral to this school’s culture and for good reason, but the activities the school runs don’t all have to center completely around able bodies. DISCO, the affinity group for students with disabilities on campus, has worked with the OP to create accessible outdoor trips for their club. This is a great first step to make nature more accessible, and, in my research, I couldn’t find another school that does this. But a lot more can be done—for most of us, it is about awareness of the massive amount of privilege that living in an able-body gives you. Beyond awareness, it’s mostly up to the institution because access to the outdoors—especially as it’s so important to the campus culture—needs to be made accessible to all students. That responsibility starts with Whitman as a school.

We all push our bodies to the limits of what it can do—but that limit looks different for every one of us. While we have programs like the OP, it is the responsibility of the institution to make sure that nature is accessible to everyone. It is just one more slap in the face for students with disabilities that they often can’t access nature and the OP in the same way other students can, and Whitman has a responsibility to close that gap.