When he first toured Cornell as a high school junior, Conan Gillis ’21 thought that the University was a perfectly fine place. But on the drive back home to Rochester, New York, Gillis — who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around — and his dad agreed on two things: While Cornell seemed like a good school in all other aspects, the physical landscape might not work for him.
“My dad and I were just like, ‘Yeah, no, too many hills,’” Gillis recalled. “[Accessibility] was a big issue.”
While most Cornellians agree that the University’s campus is uneven at best, all the hills are more than just a nuisance for Gillis. The steep slopes, in addition to the buildings constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act — built with long flights of stairs and narrow corridors — can turn students’ mobility impairments into complete disabilities, Gillis said.
“Differences, specifically impairments, only become disabilities when faced with a society [not] appropriately configured to their specific situations,” Gillis said, noting that Cornell’s natural and built environment can often pose unique challenges to those who are physically impaired.
For instance, while the doors to Willard Straight Hall’s Memorial Room — which are not automatic — typically stay open, they are often closed for “events that are public access but, for whatever reason, need to cut out noise,” Gillis said, pointing out that the lack of an automated button can pose a major obstacle for students who use wheelchairs or crutches arrive late or need to leave and come back.
Tai Penn ’19, on the other hand, highlighted issues with accessing Okenshields, noting that the elevator to descend to the dining hall is in a location that’s difficult to get to.
“For someone who can’t use the stairs to get down there, they have to go in an elevator, but it’s the same freight elevator that they bring food in, and once you get there, you get off the elevator and you’re in Okenshields’ kitchen,” Penn said. “So someone has to guide you out of the kitchen and then into the dining hall. Then, once you’re ready to leave, you have to go back through the kitchen and then up that elevator again.”
“Can Conan and I get to Okenshields? Yes,” Penn said. “Is that really the best way of going about it? No.”
Gillis currently serves as co-president of the Cornell Union for Disability Awareness with Penn. Along with five other executive board members, Gillis and Penn make it their job to advocate for accessible spaces and to raise cultural awareness on campus for people with disabilities.
Among a number of planned proposals, the group’s latest initiative pushes to found a student resource center specifically tailored to Cornellians with disabilities.
CUDA envisions a program similar to the Women’s Resource Center or LGBTQ Resource Center, which could “be a place where people with disabilities can come and there’s a staff member there who can help you navigate life,” Gillis said.
“[While] the SDS [Student Disability Services] does a great job … they have a very specific mandate from the federal government under the [ADA], and a resource center is nowhere in that mandate,” Gillis said.
Despite these problems, Gillis hopes that improvements could take place to help ensure that incoming students do not feel the same way he did when he first arrived at Cornell.
“Hopefully, in 10 years there will be more people with disabilities, with wheelchairs even, who want to and can come to Cornell, and that will make the administration step up its game,” Gillis said.