The “Women on Wheels” wonder if Mills College will continue to be diligent in the pursuit of accessibility on campus once they graduate in May.
The three graduating seniors who depend on wheelchairs and motorized scooters to get around, Eliza Riley, Gwen James and Holly Hall, said they are concerned about the state of the campus with its inaccessible buildings and crumpled sidewalks. During their time at Mills, the three women, who refer to themselves as women on wheels, have been visible and vocal about the need for accessibility to the college’s buildings.
“Who will carry the torch for other women on wheels once we are gone?” asked Riley. Riley said she has been frustrated with the inaccessibility of the campus, especially Lisser Hall.
“I thought a woman’s college would be the most supportive environment I could be in,” Riley said.
She said she knew the college had accommodation plans for women with disabilities but she had no idea that, at this stage, the campus would be so inaccessible. As a theatre arts major, Riley has had problems without automatic doors in Lisser Hall and with carpeting that has too much traction for her scooter.
To access Lisser Hall, Riley must maneuver her scooter on the cargo ramp, with it’s tight corners, and once she gets to the door she must knock loud enough for someone inside the
theatre to hear her. According to Riley, this is not an easy thing to do if you lack the strength to lean forward and bang on the door with enough power to be heard from anywhere inside the theatre.
Once inside the theatre, Riley has no way to access anything but a small section of the front of the stage where a ramp has been added. It is very limited, leaving a vast majority of the stage as well as the theatre as a whole inaccessible to her.
“There is still no public access, except on the cargo ramp, or wheelchair seating in the theatre,” she said.
James said she is forced to ride her electric wheelchair in the street because the sidewalks are buckled from the giant eucalyptus trees. The new education building’s playground uses gravel which makes it difficult for her to maneuver around when she is doing her student teaching. “It’s a new building, this should not be a problem,” James said.
Ruth Masayko, director of disabled student services, said she understands the frustration of the women on wheels but noted that Mills College is compliant with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits the discrimination of the disabled and entitles those with documented disabilities to modifications.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandates the accessibility of public buildings. Private institutions like the college are not exempt from compliance. However, renovations and construction are costly, and in some cases prohibitively so.
Every effort is made to accommodate the students including changing the location of a class if it is inaccessible to the women on wheels, Masayko said.
“I blame the vendors,” Masayko said of the high cost of renovating buildings for accessibility. There are few choices or places to go for equipment so the disabled are at the mercy of the vendors and whatever they charge.
This year Mills College has seen the renovation of Orchard Meadow, the Student Union,
the Music Building, and Haas Pavilion to accommodate the disabled and wheelchair users. It has also seen the emergence of the on again off again Mills Disability Alliance, and organization on campus for the disabled and their families and friends.
Masayko, who is the advisor for the organization said she has seen it wax and wane over the years and attributes it to the frail health of the women.
“Who will pick up the torch and carry it for the women on wheels once they are gone?” Masayko asked. “I will.”