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Walking with William: Disability Access on Campus

All PostsOpinionWalking with William: Disability Access on Campus

story | William Hoo, Staff Writer

photo | Cai Lize


To walk, to run, to dance—most of us take these joys for granted. But what happens when these seemingly unassailable banalities are taken away from us? What does it mean to be disabled? On a more practical level, what does it mean to be disabled while continuing to attend classes at Yale-NUS College? Having torn my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) earlier in October 2018, I had to have reconstruction surgery in early January 2019, just a few days before the start of AY 2018–2019 Semester 2.

While the rest of the freshman batch bounded into the new graded semester, I found myself attached to a knee brace, imprisoned in a wheelchair, and faced with the challenge of getting to class. The limitations placed on my autonomy were felt most acutely in the initial weeks of school during which I was mostly wheelchair-bound. Although I had tried to be as independent as possible in navigating the school, the layout of our campus made it simply impossible for me to have full autonomy.  

It must be acknowledged that the Yale-NUS campus can be generally thought of as disability-access friendly. Lift access is present in every building on campus and ramps provide alternative wheelchair-friendly pathways for getting to different parts of the school. Then how is it that I still faced difficulty in getting around?

The problem lies in the many idiosyncrasies of campus architecture. Spaces outside lifts on campus are generally rather narrow; for someone like me who had never been in a wheelchair, maneuvering myself into the lift required quite a bit of practice to get right. Perhaps this would not have been as much of a challenge for someone who was used to a wheelchair. Nevertheless, I feel that it would still require quite a significant effort on anyone’s part to even make it into the lift. Thankfully, my suite was in Cendana Tower B, the smallest residential building on campus—imagine the arduous wait and numerous delays in waiting for lifts I would have caused at Cendana Tower A or any of the other towers in the other residential colleges.

In many of the doors around campus that lead into faculty offices, or from the walkway onin the mezzanine leading to the Performance Hall, there is a small bump that makes it difficult for wheelchairs to pass. I was often forced to stand up for my wheelchair to get past that obstacle. For someone who could not get up, a caregiver would have to constantly wheel them past such obstacles.

While many of the ramps on campus are well intended, they are not functional. Many of them are rather steep. A particular rampway that really annoyed me was the one on the second floor of the Performance Hall, leading to Cendana Tower B. Not only is it steep, but winds incessantly as well. The external pathway leading from Cendana Tower B to the Oculus is also steep at certain lengths. What boggles me the most is the rampway leading from the Centre for Teaching and Learning to the Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Theatre, which can hardly be called disability-friendly. The slope is so steep that one must maintain a firm grip on one’s wheelchair or so run the risk of crashing straight into a pillar. Friends who wheeled me around often commented in jest that it was a substitute for them going to the gym.

I am very grateful and happy that I did not have to endure my recovery alone. Many of my friends around campus rallied around me and offered help—not once did I have to struggle to wheel myself up slopes. Strangers around campus enquired after my health and even the school staff asked for updates about my leg.

Of the support that I received, I am perhaps most grateful to a particular friend who in the first weeks of school offered to wheel me around campus to and from classes, without me having even asked. It was during this period that I was emotionally and physically struggling with my disability the most, and for that, I say thank you to him and to everyone else who has seen me through my recovery. My reliance on my friends begs the question: for students who are not as lucky to have such supportive friends, is navigating the Yale-NUS campus while disabled a manageable task?

While I am now free from my wheelchair, and thus free to walk amongst the rest of my cohort, my experience casts a looming shadow over disability access on campus. If someone with a limited and temporary disability has already faced so much difficulty in navigating the campus, what then would the corollary be for someone who is permanently wheelchair bound?

A simple answer to that may be that students with more serious injuries that severely limit their mobility can apply for a leave of absence (LOA). In a meeting with Janelle Rahyns, my Assistant Dean, it was suggested that I could apply for an LOA, like those who had similar injuries in the past. This solution, however, masks the larger question of whether Yale-NUS College can be deemed a truly inclusive campus.

Given that it might be unreasonable to expect existing architecture to be modified to enhance disability access, how can the Yale-NUS community support students with disabilities? I hope the school can come together and find solutions to this problem. Individuals with disabilities should not be afraid to ask for help in getting around campus.

They should feel empowered.

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