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Rethinking accessibility at Bowdoin: a flexible and collective approach

May 3, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

“How can we improve Bowdoin’s accessibility?” my friend asks me, gesturing to Hubbard’s staircase entrance as we move past the building, which is completely wheelchair-inaccessible. I pause, picturing a wheelchair-accessible Hubbard with a beautiful stone ramp that makes the building even more majestic. I imagine zooming to office hours with Angela, my electric wheelchair that I use part-time or relaxing in a sunny spot in the Pickering Room. The epitome of accessibility … right?

As a collaboration between Facilities Management and Disabled Students’ Association (DSA), we met this year with Capital Projects Manager Sharon Ames to discuss the short- and long-term accessibility plans at Bowdoin. We advocated for future renovations of Hubbard: the building where the government department typically hosts events and office hours. We did not, however, end our conversation after discussing wheelchair accessibility. We also discussed adding features to Bowdoin’s infrastructure such as hearing loops, lighting controls with dimmers, flexibility of seating within classrooms, chairs with backs for lab classes and automatic door openers.

Accessibility is not defined just by “wheelchair-accessible” buildings; elevators and ramps do not equate to complete access. Accessibility—and disability—spans across sensory, intellectual, cognitive and physical aspects of life.

Beyond accessible infrastructure, we must also consider other ways we can improve accessibility on campus, from changing the format of digital platforms to making curriculums accessible for all learners—a concept known as universal design. At an Accessibility Task Force meeting this fall, led by Digital Accessibility Consultant Juli Haugen, we brainstormed ideas on how to create more accessible meetings and gatherings through universal design.

Accessibility, at its core, should not be a static goal to enact burdensome practices; instead, accessibility is about adapting. It’s a flexible approach to meet the needs of all students, faculty and visitors.

I recently listened to a presentation from Carolyn Lazard, a disabled artist and writer. They argue that “togetherness is the driving force of accessibility,” relating to the concept of access intimacy from activist Mia Mingus. Listening, I was reminded of DSA dinners: Every other week, as we share stories and eat arepas from Maiz, our small but mighty club comes together to brainstorm and advocate for change. Access comes in many forms.

For the future generations of students, both disabled and TAB (temporarily able-bodied), Bowdoin needs to make buildings like Hubbard accessible. We must, though, demand that all spaces—from the classroom to digital technologies—are accessible for all.

Libby Riggs is a member of the Class of 2026.


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