On opening night for the play “Alice in Wonderland” a large crowd of students competing for tickets formed at Lisser Hall – but one student wasn’t allowed a chance in line. She was turned away due to the upper floor’s inaccessibility for students with wheelchairs.
The Mills players performed on the second floor of Lisser Hall on Thursday, Nov. 3, and the only way up is via two narrow passages of stairs.
“Someone could carry us but it’s dangerous because they might not be strong enough,” said junior Lauren Steinberg, a disabled student. “Besides, we couldn’t have our wheelchairs and that takes away our independence.”
Though the theater on the lower level of Lisser Hall-the one free performance space for students on campus-is fully accessible to all students, Mills Players use the top floor for productions due to a smaller stage and audience capacity. Players have used Lisser Hall for productions since 1972, before the Disability Act was passed in 1990. The act states that all new buildings must comply with ADA standards for students with disabilities. Mills’ Web site for Service for Students with Disabilities states that the college has developed a compliance plan with ADA standards to make all existing facilities accessible to students with disabilities so that access is readily achievable and not a burden. However, older buildings like Lisser Hall must be renovated to meet these standards.
“It would cost hundreds to millions of dollars to renovate these buildings. They aren’t built that way anymore,” said Associate Dean of Students and International Student Advisor Kennedy Golden, the former coordinator for SSD.
She said that the issue of inaccessibility on campus is on the ongoing list for the “master plan” of changes on campus, but she isn’t sure when it will be discussed.
Jess Miller, the new coordinator of SSD, plans to discuss the topic of inaccessibility this week with Vice President of Finance Elizabeth Burwell. The college will then address the issue with James Graham, director of the audio-visual learning center, who is in charge of construction for the building.
Golden said that a lift for the stairs in Lisser Hall was once used to accommodate a drama major who used a wheelchair, but that the lift stopped before the last three or four steps and the student had to be carried the rest of the way. The lift is no longer used, as it was hazardous to students, according to Golden.
Golden also said that retired English professor Elizabeth Pope, who is physically disabled, was once carried up the steps for performances. Mills once put a lift on a back lot ramp for access to the makeup room, and a lift for the main theater’s stage to accommodate a drama major with a wheelchair. Golden said that the lift still exists somewhere on campus, but that it’s not big enough for the current theater.
“Before now, I was never faced with someone who I had to turn away,” Golden said.
Students who are part of the SSD alliance met with Miller last week and discussed inaccessibility. In addition to Lisser Hall, students don’t have access to most of the music building, areas in CPM, Mary Morse and Ethel Moore and the upper classrooms of the Life Sciences building.
“Mills tries to be reactive to the needs of the current student,” Golden said. “We can’t put things in before we know who they are.”
While Steinberg and Mary Taloff, a sophomore, agreed that SSD meets their needs for the most part by moving classes to accessible rooms, they said that they still miss out on some Mills opportunities.
Taloff said she wanted to participate in the Baroque Vocal Ensemble this semester but was denied access because the class couldn’t be moved to a different part of the building. Steinberg, a Bio Psych major, said that she couldn’t take some classes held on the second floor of the life sciences building.
“They just apologize and say, ‘sorry, that’s the way it is.’ They don’t do anything to make it possible,” said Steinberg.
Miller said, “In my efforts to advocate for students, it helps to have their concerns in writing. It carries more weight.”
Miller started three weeks ago and said she is currently getting to know each student in the disability alliance on a personal basis.