Ups and downs of elevators

Along for the Ride

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The Ed Roberts Campus by the Ashby BART station is the most thoughtfully accessible building that I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The doors inside and outside open automatically, there’s plenty of handicap parking and the accessible restrooms can actually fit wheelchairs. But the crown jewel of the building has to be the majestic, cardinal-red ramp that goes from the first floor to the second, eliminating the need for the one technology I despise the most: elevators.

My complicated relationship with elevators started in elementary school. While I had used them countless times before, second grade was when I began to face problems. At Naubuc Elementary, all second-grade classrooms are located in the same hallway. That hallway is located in a separate wing. That wing is located at the far side of the school, connecting to the main building through a flight of stairs, or in my case, a decades-old lift.

For those who don’t know, here’s a quick rundown of the differences between elevators and lifts: elevators have shafts (surrounding walls) and are designed to carry multiple people up or down a substantial height. Lifts, which are often classified as elevators, are open-air and have significant height and weight constraints. Lifts are also typically installed in really old buildings and are really old themselves, hence their tendency to break down.

I witnessed this phenomenon all too frequently throughout my second-grade year, and it would happen the same way each time. My teacher and I would be halfway up (or down) in the lift, when, without any warning, all the mechanisms would come to a groaning halt. Depending on how close we were to the second floor, we might have gotten out through the open top, but more likely than not, we were stuck in the crevice until an elevator technician could come and fix the problem.

Seven-year-old me used to get nightmares about being trapped in the tiny enclosure the entire day or night. To this day, I refuse to get into a lift if I cannot be taken out easily in an emergency.

But even working elevators come with their own set of problems. At Smith Middle School, I would wait for my attendant to meet me after lunch each day and then rush to the elevator. Since I can’t push elevator buttons myself if they’re on certain parts of the wall, I needed her help to go up and down every time. Smith’s elevator was extremely slow, and sometimes we would wait anxiously for up to three minutes for it to come down to the first floor. I had to run to Spanish every single day to make it before the bell rang.

When I moved to the Bay Area just before high school, my family and I spent weeks scouring the local school districts for single-story schools to avoid exactly that. While visiting every campus was a lot of work, we were able to make a much better decision on where to move, and my plight from elementary and middle school became a distant memory over the next four years.

At UC Berkeley, there’s no way to avoid elevators, but the ones that I use regularly seem to work pretty well. Physical access has rarely been an issue here, although the hilly campus can sometimes be hard to navigate.

As I drive from class to class, I’m reminded of the incredible transformation that took place on this campus and in this city, when the Rolling Quads, a group of disabled UC Berkeley students who had to live in Cowell Hospital, started creating change in the 1960s. These students poured curb cuts in the streets and advocated for accommodations in classes, eventually going on to found the disability rights movement.

Thanks to their efforts, I can now live with my fellow classmates in a fully accessible dorm facility. Elevators are certainly part of what makes this possible: the ones in my building are new and fast, and their buttons are easy to reach, solving the main problems with elevators from my past.

If given the option, however, I would rather not use any elevators at all. In my opinion, elevators are just a band-aid for a much larger problem. When it comes to design — architectural, entrepreneurial or even systemic — people with disabilities are too often left out. We become another burdensome factor to cram into the vision somehow, rather than an integral part of the experience. That’s the difference between access and inclusion: being able to do something through a specific mechanism makes it accessible, but if the entire process is created considering all the groups involved, it becomes inclusive.

This contrast is most apparent as I sit underneath the mural of disability rights protests by the Ed Roberts Campus’s bright, curved ramp. The building’s namesake was a founding member of the Rolling Quads, whose push for inclusion over mere accessibility is reflected in the design of the Adeline Street edifice — ramp, elevator and all.

Vyoma Raman writes the Monday column on how mobility disabilities affect college life. Contact her at [email protected].