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Princeton closes tours of Nassau Hall amid campaign for more accessibility on campus

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Nassau Hall is no longer a part of Orange Key tours.

The University’s oldest building was removed from the route on March 25 because handicapped visitors are not easily able to enter. The change comes at a time when the University is actively engaging in a campaign to improve accessibility on campus.

“It’s a wonderful, historic, fascinating building to visit,” said Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity and Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator Michele Minter. “But we can’t have a situation where someone signs up for an Orange Key tour, where the whole point is to be able to see the campus, and then leave them standing on the steps of the building while everyone else goes inside.”
She cited the uneven flooring and stairs at every entrance as obstacles to the disabled and explained that administrators wanted to ensure equal access.

Office of Disability Services Director Eve Woodman expressed approval of the change.

“To me, it’s giving the right face for Princeton,” she said. “It’s not saying some people can come in here and some people can’t.”

Minter said administrators will likely renovate Nassau Hall to make it accessible as part of the next capital campaign. They expect to build a ramp that will drop down to the basement in the back of the building, probably on Cannon Green, and to install an elevator in the building. She added that this renovation would cost tens of millions of dollars.

The University’s efforts to improve accessibility on campus encompass both new construction and renovation, Minter said.

“We have a really good plan for new construction, making sure that all new construction will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and then we have a process of going back and looking at older buildings to try and figure out how they can be gradually upgraded,” she explained.

Office of Design and Construction Program Manager for Standards and Special Projects David Howell noted that although most accessibility projects start out as part of another capital or major maintenance project, the University has also independently upgraded close to 71 campus facilities since 2007.

Associate Dean of the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students Maria Flores-Mills said she often retrofits rooms to accommodate the special housing needs of particular students.

“Usually I probably would start with an in-depth conversation with the student themselves to help me understand what it is they really need, and to try to think about it really holistically, in very detailed form. Then I’d go to the shops,” Flores-Mills said. She described an ideal room as one on the ground floor with a wide doorway and a few additional square feet for space to move in.

On a larger scale, Howell noted that the Gothic architecture of many inaccessible residential buildings makes them difficult to renovate.

“In our dorms, most of them, you just have a set of steps, and that only gets you to some rooms, so the difficulty we had in choosing to renovate those was, ‘Which rooms do you make accessible, and which ones do you not?’ ” he said. The University worked out an agreement with the state so that at least one of each room type, such as a double or quad, would be elevator-accessible in each dormitory.

But some of the greatest challenges lie in increasing the accessibility of academic buildings, Howell said.

Wheelchair-bound Mike Zhang ’17 noted that although he can enter most buildings, he once had to delegate a friend to hand in a paper for him at Dickinson Hall, the history department building whose stairs barred him from entering. He added that buttons to open doors to campus buildings are sometimes placed in inconvenient locations that he cannot reach.

Beyond building modifications, accessibility improvements will extend to transportation. Woodman said that she is now spearheading a point-to-point van service that will run in addition to wheelchair-accessible Tiger Transit buses, golf carts for temporarily handicapped students through University Health Services and scooter rentals through the Office of Disability Services already offered through the University. She explained that the van service is necessary because the bus service does not get faculty members close to where they need to teach and that conveniently located parking spaces are hard to find.

Aside from physical construction, Minter said administrators have just updated all of their policies for employee accommodations and are launching a big project to upgrade technology.

“All of our websites would be accessible to people with visual or hearing, or other sensory impairments. It’ll affect classroom technology, so making sure that classrooms will be accessible to people with sensory impairments, that library materials are accessible, that bank machines are accessible — anything that’s technology-based,” she explained.

The Office of Design and Construction plans to improve communication regarding accessible pathways around campus. “We met as recently as last week about updating the accessibility map, making it more accurate and leading towards … an interactive accessibility map that would help students or anyone who needs to find a route to this place or that place,” Howell said.

The Office of Disability Services also posted a new job offering last Tuesday for an access coordinator, whose job will include addressing physical accessibility, according to Woodman.

Woodman said the University has grown more proactive about including handicapped people in the last couple of years.

“In the past, people would say, ‘Oh? Disability? Well, send them to Eve [Woodman].’ But now people are realizing that they’re not all my students, they’re not all my visitors. Everyone takes ownership and realizes that we just need to make sure that they have equal access to whatever program or services there are on campus,” she said.

Minter noted that increasing accessibility requires daily attention.

“Responding well to the changing needs of our campus community and to the changing requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act is a constant process,” she said. “We will never get to a place where we can say, ‘We’re victorious. We have done it all, and now we’re perfect.’ It’s something that we’re always going to be working on.”

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