CHESTNUT HILL, MA – Conor McCormick, a junior at Boston College studying theology, is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair to navigate campus. He also has limited hand dexterity and must carefully plan out each specific move he makes to get around campus. Navigation can vary in its difficulty depending on the season, with the winter months proving to be especially difficult.
“As a wheelchair user, all the time you are looking at what’s the straightest path to get where I’m going, but then also what’s the easiest path. And it’s nice when they line up, but more often they don’t,” said McCormick.
Although most of campus is accessible, there are problematic pathways and entrances that can cause a disabled person to wind up stuck in place, literally.
“I've been stuck a couple times when it started snowing on me. I get to a point where, like, there's not a lot of people walking around, and it's fresh snow, and I can't really get through too well, so I'm struggling,” McCormick said. Usually, students or professors around will help him, but “if the people weren't as courteous I feel like it would have been a lot of trouble,” McCormick added.
Aside from snow and ice inhibiting mobility in the winter months, other more consistent accessibility issues include dangerously steep ramps, entrances that either lack automatic doors or proper width for wheelchairs, and both classrooms and lecture halls which lack desks for disabled students.
“Pretty much my entire time at BC I’ve never used a desk. I think the only time I ever used a desk was like when we had a quiz in class and I just dragged a desk over to me and was, kind of like, using the front of it to take the quiz,” said McCormick.
He explained that in most classrooms the desks are attached to each chair, which prevents him from reaching the surface from his wheelchair. He did note that BC always provides him with a table once he identifies the issue, but he has never entered a classroom that already had a surface available for him. Additionally, lecture halls are even worse as many do not even have a space for him to sit.
“I usually have to move the trash or recycling bin that is in the area in the front and then sit where the trash and the recycling would be,” he explained.
McCormick is not alone in his frustrations. He is one of 700 registered disabled students who depend on only one full-time BC employee to resolve their issues, both personal and general. Our investigation found that in many cases the BC administration has been slow and unresponsive to the complaints from students with disabilities and has a history of sidelining accessibility improvement projects.
Additionally, we found that despite years of criticism from both students and major news organizations, because of the COVID-19 pandemic BC has further delayed projects such as improving Eagle Escort, the car service on call for BC students to get around campus safely, and has frozen the hiring of more Disability Services Office (DSO) staff.
“The college does have an obligation to ensure that students with disabilities can participate,” said Sarah Hart, an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) information specialist at the New England ADA Center. The organization’s website defines the center as a “helpful resource supporting the ADA’s mission to ‘make it possible for everyone with a disability to live a life of freedom and equality.’”
Hart added that because BC receives federal funding, it is legally obligated to adhere to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act—even during a pandemic. “Several students have filed complaints regarding Boston College, but I never heard what happened with those students,” Hart said.
In 2015, the Boston Globe reported that BC was the only Massachusetts university under federal investigation for violations of accessibility law, and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights lists two open investigations on disability discrimination at BC. In a phone call, the Office of Civil Rights confirmed the cases have been open since 2014 and 2016 but declined to comment on why the investigations have taken so long.
In contrast to BC, some other Boston universities are getting media attention for prioritizing their efforts to provide assistance for their disabled students. For example, College Consensus and College Choice ranked Northeastern University as one the top three best universities for disabled students and praised the school for employing “collaborators that support the student’s self determination to find the tools they need to be successful.”
Meanwhile, when Conor McCormick asked BC’s administration to install an automatic door to Stokes North, one of the main academic buildings, a year passed before it was done. Prior to that, the only way McCormick could reach his classes would be to use the Stokes South automatic entrance, take the elevator up a level, traverse across a bridge connecting the buildings, and then take another elevator up or down to the floor where his classes were located.
“It takes forever,” said McCormick when referring to the alternative route he needed to access Stokes North.
Even though McCormick has had struggles getting around campus, he says he’s found the undergraduate student government’s Committee for Students with Disabilities (CSD) helpful in providing him the platform to address these issues directly with the administration. Through this committee, he also met Nick Claudio, another disabled third-year student who is fully blind.
It is “almost like pulling teeth, and you have to keep reminding [BC administration] several times before they start doing things,” said Claudio, who has served on the CSD committee for several semesters.
Claudio says he has struggled to receive help from both the administration and his professors. For example, he had to plan ahead and request accommodation three months prior to taking a calculus class because his screen reader could not process the graphs in the course’s curriculum. Both Claudio and Rory Stein, the current director of the Disability Services Office (DSO), reached out to Rennie Mirollo, professor and assistant chairperson of the math department, but he did not respond until January. After several emails on Claudio’s behalf in an attempt to explain the need for his accommodations, Mirollo still refused to meet. Claudio then brought the issue to Vice Provost of Faculty Akua Starr, who apologized and said the administrator’s behavior should not have happened. However, correcting Mirollo’s behavior, like providing Claudio’s accommodations, did not seem to be an urgent matter.
“And so there was like, a week later, and I emailed [Sarr] saying ‘Hey, how’d the meeting go?’ and she said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna meet with the administration at the end of the semester…’ so I ended up having to drop my calculus class,” said Claudio.
In 2014, BC students formed the Disability Awareness Committee (DAC), which documented accessibility issues around campus. After thoroughly assessing all of the campus' resources, areas of conflict, and state and federal ADA requirements, the DAC publicized the findings on its website.
In response, rather than admitting to any of the identified problems, BC issued a statement that solely focused on the limited resources the college offered at the time. The statement labeled the student advocacy group DAC as a misinformation campaign and concluded with, “Boston College is not insensitive to accessibility concerns. We ask you to reject the misinformation campaign and evaluate its compliance efforts based on the FACTS.”
Claudio remembers the tension between the DAC and BC’s administration. “Ever since then, whenever anybody brings up problems with accessibility, then they get really defensive. And I think it's because of that, and it's because they see it more like an attack,” said Claudio.
Claudio says the administration's failure to address the issues raised by advocates while attacking the groups raising those issues sends a very confusing message.
“Whereas, what I'm trying to tell them is, hey, you literally have these Jesuit Catholic values of being ‘men and women for others,’ and diversity and inclusion. And so you're literally teaching me to go to you about these things,” Claudio said.
But even efforts to get the administration to hire more staff for the college’s DSO have run into roadblocks, being delayed by an Administrative Program Review (APR). Rory Stein, the current director of the DSO, predicts the review could take up to a year and half for the office to justify hiring another employee or receiving additional funding.
“The process has been stalled a little bit with COVID happening last year. The APRs are expensive. It takes some resources to complete the process and that was sort of halted last spring,” Stein said.
Another issue disabled students have experienced since at least 2014 is the inaccessibility of upper campus. This year, the student body voted to support a referendum to make upper campus accessible, but Mark Lewis, a designer for capital projects at BC, told the group that doing so could cost about half a million dollars. Students don’t expect to see any actions on the matter any time soon.
“The entire reason that something like this is slow is not because of us not doing the work, it is because the Board of Trustees doesn’t meet until December. If there’s a resolution drafted up it won’t be looked at. It’s just how things are structured,” said Kevork Atinizian, vice president of UGBC, BC’s student government.
Nick Claudio believes BC financially prioritizes its landscaping over accessibility issues on campus. In 2014, BC estimated its total operating cost to be upwards of 980 million, according to O’Neill Library. We reached out to Jack Dunn, BC’s assistant vice president and university spokesman, for more recent annual operating costs, an explanation for the lack of wheelchair accessible desks and seats in classrooms, and BC’s future goals for ADA compliance; Dunn did not respond.
In comparison, the proposed Upper campus accessibility project would be about 0.0006% of that budget, and yet BC administration has stalled on moving forward with it. “Aesthetics are not required by law, accessibility is,” Claudio said.
Even online, disability services do not appear to be a priority at BC. While resources like the Women’s Center and the AHANA+ center are highlighted and given their own pages, the DSO is kept on a separate page under the vague title: “Student Outreach and Support” with LGBT+ resources and “students of concern.” On Boston College’s accessibility page of the main website, the link “Accessibility Liaison Initiative” does not lead to an active webpage.
For the time being, both Nick and Conor are at home because of the pandemic. Even without the physical challenges BC’s campus can present, the transition has not been easy.
“I mean, it already takes me a long time to do things. But like, bringing it online––everything takes even longer. Because it takes quite a while to do everything with screen readers,” Nick said. He is having trouble getting professors to assign work in forms other than PDFs, which his screen reader cannot read to him.
Conor McCormick, on the other hand, is frustrated with the administration’s delays.
“We've seen very little change for big issues,” McCormick said. “In general, [wheelchair users] all kind of feel that when it’s something that has to do with our living situation, the DSO and the administration really get it done pretty quickly. But then when we noticed that it’s something that would make life easier for us—and realistically, all other students, because, like universal accessibility, it creates advantages no matter if you have a disability or not—it’s taken a while.”
Editor's Note: Connolly and Deye originally wrote this report as part of Professor Bergantino’s Investigative Reporting class.