Making up the distance

Along for the Ride

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The other day, I got trapped in Davis Hall.

Well, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Some friends and I were trying to leave the building after an evening speaker event, and I couldn’t use the stairs. After taking the elevator to multiple floors and walking in circles to look for accessible exits (the entrance I had used previously was locked), we finally came out behind Terrace Café.

Like the other buildings on the northeast side of campus, Davis is built on an uneven incline. This means that all the direct entrances (and indeed, all the ones I saw when I arrived) require a flight of stairs, and I was able to go in and out of the building only by way of Sutardja Dai Hall. 

Physical accessibility is something that this campus continuously grapples with because of its hilly terrain, which affects students, faculty, and staff with all kinds of mobility disabilities. My main issue lies with stairs and steps, but those who walk with difficulty or use manual wheelchairs also struggle with slopes. 

The campus does what it can to help out, providing transportation for all students as well as those specifically registered with the Disabled Students’ Program. The Office of Disability Access and Compliance, or DAC, website lists the resources that are available and contains maps of wheelchair entrances, slopes and shuttle stops.

A quick glance at the DAC wheelchair access map would have told me that, unlike all the other buildings I’ve been to on campus, Davis does not have a straightforward accessible entrance. That’s my fault for not scoping it out earlier — part of my journey into “adulting” is learning not to take accessibility for granted and making sure that I actively check these things before going anywhere.

I did this for my classes, driving through all five days of my schedule during Golden Bear Orientation. But it’s exhausting, and I can only imagine what the situation was like for the Rolling Quads as they traversed the campus in the 1960s and ‘70s. This group of students with mobility disabilities was responsible for the installation of Berkeley’s first official curb cut in 1972, just a few short years after Davis Hall’s construction.

Bancroft Library’s oral history archive details the difficulties these students faced, from nearly falling out of their chairs as they navigated over steps to driving all the way around sidewalks to find ramps for cars. Some are still around to tell the tale.

To be fair, UC Berkeley has improved a lot since those days. I’ve yet to encounter a building that I literally cannot get into, and there are now departments like DAC, whose primary purpose is to ensure accessibility. I shudder to think about having to be lifted up flights of stairs in my 300-pound wheelchair, and I’m so glad that almost every intersection has a curb cut on both sides.

The struggle, however, is far from over. While I find the lack of physical accessibility around campus to be a minor problem, the real difficulties manifest elsewhere. So far, my biggest barrier has been time.

Simple tasks like going to the bathroom take so much longer for me compared to others, and I can only do them at certain times because I need the help of attendants. These preplanned breaks of at least half an hour always eat into my schedule and hinder my ability to be flexible. I often can’t go to events and meetings since the timing doesn’t work for me, or else I have to plan for them days in advance.

When I was heading to class a couple of weeks ago, a truck was blocking the sidewalk near the Campanile. While other pedestrians just stepped into the road and walked around it, I had to do a U-turn and drive all the way back to the curb cut on South Drive to get to an unobstructed path. This problem could have easily been avoided if whoever parked the truck had prioritized the access of people who can only exit sidewalks using curb cuts. 

This ignorance, forgetfulness, negligence, whatever you want to call it, is symptomatic of the inherent problem faced by disabled people today: We’re never front and center in decision-making, so we’ll always be at a disadvantage when plans are executed.

There’s not much that can be done to fix this problem at the moment (except maybe a robot caregiver — help me out, Berkeley Engineering!). I’m disabled for a reason. The world is slowly getting better at adjusting to people like me but it will never be equally easy. The only thing people can do is be cognizant of how their actions may affect people with different capabilities.

In a way, that’s the roadblock of our life. We’ll always have to take the long way around and put in more time and effort, whether accessing buildings, going to class, getting a job or achieving other “normal” milestones. When you see me zipping around campus and planning my routes to the meter, just know that I’m trying to make up the distance I’ve already lost.

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