Accessibility has been a buzzword on campus for a long time, but has the university addressed the issue adequately? Managing Editor Maddie Stearn spoke with Eun Oh (CC ’18), who would suggest that Columbia is not fulfilling its promises.
Eun Byoul Oh is a sophomore in Columbia College, New York Times Scholarship recipient, potential Political Science and East Asian Languages and Cultures major, and she’s learning both Japanese and Chinese. She’s a high-achieving student, and it’s safe to say that her plate is pretty full. However, due to the failures of her own school, she has missed five classes since last Thursday.
Taking into account Columbia’s stress culture and the fast pace of language classes, Eun is frustrated beyond belief. She is used to picking her battles with Columbia, but now she’s had it.
Eun uses a wheelchair to get around campus, and relies upon Columbia’s ramps and elevators to attend her classes. When one of those access points is out of commission, she’s in trouble.
That’s what happened last Thursday. Eun has class in Kent Hall four days a week, so when she discovered that the elevator was broken she immediately became worried. It didn’t help that no one in Kent knew when the elevator would be fixed. Eun emailed her ODS coordinator, and discovered that her coordinator didn’t know anything about the elevator either. She was, however able to let Eun’s professors know about the situation and get her absences excused.
The excused absences are fine in theory, but Eun was more concerned about the material she had to miss. On top of her regularly scheduled classes in Kent, she also had a make-up test in the building that day.
She had a feeling that the Kent elevator would not be fixed by Monday (the boys’ bathroom on the 5th floor had flooded and water had leaked into the elevator shaft), but she waited the entire weekend for news. She heard nothing.
Finally, on Monday morning Eun received an email, but it was not from ODS or the registrar; it was from one of her professors. She had planned to take her make-up exam (the one originally scheduled for Thursday) on Monday, but the professor saw that the elevator was still broken and knew that Eun would not be able to come to Kent.
Eun emailed her ODS coordinator again to find out what was going on, and was told that her classes had been relocated. Her coordinator did not know why Eun had not been notified, but all seemed to have been fixed. She now had classes in Hamilton, Pupin, and IAB.
On Monday afternoon Eun went to Hamilton for her 1:10 pm class. She got there early, but as class time drew nearer she started to worry. No one else was showing up. At 1:08 pm she received a text from a classmate saying that the professor wanted Eun to know that the elevator was still broken. As unhelpful as this message was, it made it abundantly clear to Eun that neither her professor nor her classmates were notified of the class relocation.
To say she was frustrated would be an understatement. Eun repeatedly asked me throughout our interview, “Is it my responsibility to email the professor when a class is relocated?” This was, of course, a rhetorical question, and the answer is a hard “No.” That’s exactly what she told the director of ODS in an email on Monday.
The fact that Eun even knew about the new class location was also only due to her own proactivity. She was not told about the room changes until she emailed ODS for an update on Monday morning.
After her 1:10 pm class, Eun called ODS. No one was available to speak with her, so she went to her advisor to seek help. The Dean’s office made a call (she wasn’t sure to whom), and she hoped that she would finally receive more information about her relocated classes. However, hours later she still had not heard anything more about the problem.
She had a feeling that history would repeat itself with her 4:10 pm class, but after hearing nothing she decided to go to IAB just to be safe. Finding a wheelchair-accessible route to IAB is no easy feat. After arriving at IAB to find that, once again, neither her professor nor her classmates knew about the room change, Eun was downright angry. By this time she had missed 3 classes, a make-up test, and she didn’t even know when she would be able to attend class again.
It was at this point that Eun decided to reach out to campus news outlets. In addition to Bwog, she has spoken with the Lion and Spectator. She deals with countless obstacles from the Columbia administration every day–and has to constantly fight for her own right to accessibility–but she has had enough. She will not let anyone prevent her from receiving an education.
It was not until 2:00 pm on Tuesday that Eun received an email from a professor (to all students) confirming that the registrar had relocated their class. Eun had missed 5 classes in total by this point. She was relieved to receive the email, but it all seems like too little too late. Columbia’s lack of accessibility has significantly interfered with her equal access to an education, and she is not about to let that slide.
She was quick to point out that she is not the only student affected by this situation (and other situations like it). She told me that a Barnard student with cerebral palsy, who uses a wheelchair the majority of the time, had climbed the stairs of Kent this week to attend a class. Eun told me that she herself has a deep phobia of stairs after taking a fall down three flights a few years ago. The Kent stairs are even more treacherous because the building is old, and railings are not available at every point in the staircases.
However, Eun should not even have to justify her decision to not climb the stairs. Columbia has a responsibility to provide equal access to education for all of its students. For this reason, Eun filed a grievance report with ODS and spoke with the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office. At this point it is still unclear which Columbia department is responsible for the breach in communication, but the matter is under investigation.
Eun described several other instances from this year where Columbia failed to keep accessibility in mind when performing maintenance or deciding to block off certain areas of campus. She calls these “minor” incidents, but they significantly affected her ability to get to a professor’s office hours, and even to get back to her own dorm. When asked about why she’s decided to speak out now, she responded, “If it’s interfering with my academics, I need to be vocal about it.”
Eun says that she is going to dedicate herself to this issue until she graduates. “I just needed the courage to know that no one is blaming me for speaking out.”
At the end of our interview, she added, “Don’t get me wrong, I love Columbia. But, I need to change them a little bit.” Yes, Columbia needs to change, and maybe more than a little bit.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Eun Byoul Oh emailed ODS after her 1:10pm class. She actually called ODS, and went to see her advisor after she was unable to connect with her ODS coordinator.
Kent Hall via Beyond My Ken/CC-SA-4.0-International