Questioning the Meaning of 'Equal Access' at Smith College

Gina Mantica '16 Contributing Writer

Freezing temperatures, grey skies and mounds of white have become synonymous with the weather throughout the Pioneer Valley. Smith has received its fair share of snowfall, despite the anticlimactic “blizzard” that was Juno. The day before the feared Juno hit Massachusetts, the college announced that it would be canceling all classes for the following day. I, probably like many other students, felt thrilled to have the day off and spent much of my free time watching Netflix and frolicking in the sparkling winter wonderland that was Northampton.

Despite the fact that the snow totals for Smith College campus did not nearly amount to what was predicted by forecasters, canceling classes was a thoughtful decision. The poor conditions of the local roads and sidewalks across campus on that day would have made it nearly impossible for teachers to travel safely and for those with disabilities to securely make their way to classes.

However, recently when many other local cities and colleges canceled classes or held delays due to the third snowstorm in the past three weeks, Smith College elected to remain open. While Northampton did not receive nearly as much snow on that day as it did from the storm during the previous week, the decision to hold classes during this snowstorm was not entirely appropriate. As a student without disabilities, I am not fully able to speak to the enormity of the impact on the student body when the college decided not to close during the snowstorm. However, I think that I am able to grasp an understanding of the difficulty of the situation and empathize with my peers.

The Office of Disability Services website states that it “works to ensure equal access and full participation for students, faculty, staff and visitors with disabilities in all programs and activities at Smith College.” However, on Feb. 9, Smith held classes without running ACCESS vans and with poorly cleared, if shoveled at all, pathways to buildings.

Walking across campus as a student without disabilities proved to be challenging. From the Quad all the way to the Ainsworth Gymnasium, most sidewalks and streets were covered in inches of slippery brown slush, and in a few places, there were even patches of ice beneath this covering of snow. Now, I grew up in New England. I have snow boots. I am used to the chaos and unpredictability that is Massachusetts weather. However, the road and sidewalk conditions were better suited for skis than they were for any sort of boot. I am not privy to the inner workings of the campus, but as a student I was somewhat appalled that classes were held despite the conditions of the roads and sidewalks. Students, faculty and staff could have been injured, whether it was from car accidents or simply falling.

On top of that, the staircases and ramps to many of the academic buildings appeared neglected. Some of the ramps had so much snow on them that I wanted to find a shovel myself to clear the path for those that may not be able to walk up the stairs.

The clearing of these ramps would have been somewhat fruitless, however, since students with disabilities were unable to use the college ACCESS vans to get to classes. The holding of classes without proper transportation for students with disabilities directly violates the Office of Disability Services’ promise to ensure students equal access and full participation at Smith. How could students with disabilities possibly be given equal access if they are not given the transportation they need in order to get to classes?

This inability of the college to provide sufficient transportation to students with disabilities reflects the lack of equal opportunity at Smith. The college sometimes talks up and even gloats about how diverse the student body is and how every Smithie is given a fair and equal opportunity to thrive and succeed. However, this incident, in which students with disabilities were denied equal access to classes, tarnishes that notion of equal opportunity at Smith.

As a student who has just returned to campus after three semesters at another institution, this incident has sparked much internal dialogue on what exactly the school means when it carelessly throws around the words “equal” and “equality.” What exactly does “equal” mean to Smith College as an institution?