Conan Gillis ’21 pictured in March 2019.

Courtesy of Conan Gillis

Conan Gillis ’21 pictured in March 2019.

November 22, 2019

Any Body, Any Study?: Accessibility Challenges at Cornell

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Conan Gillis ’21 is one of many math majors in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is also one of many residents in the Flora Rose House on West Campus. What distinguishes him from most of his peers, however, is that he is one of fewer than 20 Cornell students who require a wheelchair for their daily life.

Gillis was born with Larsen’s syndrome, a disorder of the development of the bones that put him on a motorized wheelchair. Gillis said he can navigate Libe Slope using his wheelchair, although if he descends the slope on one of the steeper paths, “I pop wheelies.”

When Gillis came to campus, a ceiling lift was installed for him in a dorm room in the Flora Rose House, where he has lived and will continue to live for the rest of his undergraduate education. This lift allows him to safely transfer from his wheelchair to his bed and other places in his room.

However, according to Gillis, his room is the only dorm room on campus that has such a lift installed.

During an interview, Gillis demonstrated the many ways he uses his 300-pound motorized wheelchair to push open doors and move obstacles. “There is very little I can’t make work,” he said.

One of the places that Gillis can’t make work, however, is Willard Straight Hall, which has historically been the “student center” for Cornell undergraduates.

Beyond difficulty in seeing movies and using a meal swipe on central campus, Willard Straight Hall’s inaccessibility has limited Gillis’s access to healthcare and in meeting with administrators.

“Recently, I have been looking at going to EARS. I have been looking into it, and I can’t get there in person. I would prefer to get there in person. I would like to go to the Dean of Students’ office, or be able to go there,” he said. “There is also the fraternity office, a lot of administrative things I have reason to interface with I can’t get to.”

Gillis is not alone in his struggle to navigate a campus that wasn’t originally designed with people like him in mind.

Gillis uses CULift to move around the campus, a service that is open to both students with disabilities and those with injuries, temporary constraints, and other mobility barriers like severe asthma and chronic pain. To use CULift, students register with SDS and meet with an SDS counselor.

On the other hand, CULift is not without limitations, particularly timing: Transportation requires 24-hour notice of any planned rides, and CULift service ends at 10 p.m.

Although Cornell is making progress towards ADA accessibility in more buildings, including upcoming renovations in Olin and Uris libraries, access to campus for students in wheelchairs requires more than ramps, elevators and buses.

“There are things the ADA will never talk about, like if a student requires a personal nurse, the ADA is not going to speak to that. How do we make it available so that a student who needs a nurse has a room that is connected [to the nurse’s room],” said Zebadiah Hall, director of Student Disability Services.

According to Hall, the visible physical challenges and storied winter weather of Cornell’s hilly Ithaca campus may discourage students with disabilities from coming or even applying.

“I think student wheelchair users are used to doing their homework when they want to go to a new program, a new school … Cornell’s geographic and physical barriers are pretty apparent,” Hall said.

Recruiting physically disabled students also relies on these students getting the opportunities in high school to be prepared for highly selective institutions like Cornell.

“I had to prove myself beyond what other people had to … Students with visible physical disabilities, in my experience, are more likely to be [academically] tracked downward and not get a chance at elite universities,” Gillis said.

Hall suggested Cornell do more outreach work to inform disabled students about the opportunities they would have at Cornell.

“We can do a better job connecting with local schools in the community to help people understand how to transition their accommodations from K-12 to post-secondary education.”

Gillis is president of the Cornell Union for Disability Awareness and is pursuing a future in academia, especially math research. Through CUDA and through everyday life interactions, advocacy and outreach is particularly important to Gillis.

“People don’t expect ‘math major at Cornell’ to be how I introduce myself. I use that “oh” moment,” said Gillis. “That alone is advocacy.”