Navigating upper school obstacle course

By Alice Phillips

Every level (except for one) of every building (but one) on the upper school campus is, somehow, wheelchair accessible. Key word: somehow.

Ponder the possibilities. How would you get from math class to the language lab?

If you think about it long enough, you will come to the conclusion that by going far enough out of your way, everything becomes wheelchair accessible. Except for the History department.

As a school, we have an embarrassment of riches (both financial and otherwise). We boast to prospective students about all of the opportunities that await them at Harvard-Westlake, then boast to their parents about our college matriculation and how far a Harvard-Westlake education will take their children.

But before we get to college (and reap the benefits of those elusive opportunities), we must first survive for three years at the Upper School (hiking boots and altitude sickness medication in tow).

I’ve been on crutches for two and a half weeks because I broke my foot and subsequently had to have surgery.

Daily, my passing periods take me 15 and a half stories (not counting the initial climb to first period or any superfluous trips to the cafeteria).

Currently, with my crutches in hand, I conquer 11 of the 15 stories via elevator and 3 via a ramp or slope (that is, when I’m willing to crutch the extra quarter mile to get to the elevator or the ramp). That leaves the insurmountable summit, the pinnacle of inaccessibility: my daily trek to third floor Seaver for history.

Needless to say, I lack the stamina, composure, and temperament that would be necessary to deal with these torturously roundabout routes if I were permanently impaired.

Somewhere in the 121,701-word long California Access Compliance Reference Manual, disabled persons are guaranteed the right to accessibility at private schools. It’s an excellent concept which, theoretically, ensures that disabled students have the opportunity to take advantage of the same aforementioned cornucopia of opportunities as ambulatory students.

Theoretically, that is. At this school, a wheelchair-bound student would have to go to extraordinary lengths (literally and figuratively) to manage.

(By the way, the answer to my question: Exit the third floor of Chalmers through the eastern door; proceed right then left towards the Rugby lobby; pass straight through the lobby; turn right at the bottom of the tower and proceed past the lockers below the drama department office; make a hairpin turn down the ramp by the Rugby service entrance; wheel your way through the quad, past Ahmanson, and through the double-doors into the Munger hallway; board the elevator and take it to the third floor, which is also the first floor of Seaver; roll yourself up the road past Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra’s parking place; turn left at onto the handicap-accessible sidewalk; enter the second floor of Seaver by the receptionist’s desk; make a right once you exit the reception area and proceed past Attendance Supervisor Gabe Preciado’s office; exit the second floor of Seaver and wheel yourself past the library lockers; turn right into the library but immediately turn left; push the elevator button to begin your final summit to the language lab where your class is, in all likelihood, nearly five minutes into the lesson).

Oh, and I forgot to mention the doors. That’s six double doors, all of which are attached to auto-closing mechanisms and none of which have handicap-accessibility buttons (where you push the button so the door opens).

If you read all of that, you are a better person than I and a far more patient one. If you skipped to this paragraph after the second directional clause, just imagine having to take that arduous journey day after day (after day after day).

Imagine being five minutes late to every class every day (minimum).

That’s one ninth of every class (and one ninth of your Harvard-Westlake education, or approximately $4,000 of your tuition per year) that you would spend wheeling yourself from elevator to elevator.

So why, when we have so many resources at our disposal, do we have such an inaccessible campus?

How can we respect ourselves when we claim to be a top college preparatory school if we cannot accommodate the physically disabled?

Don’t mistake me; I’m not saying that the administration makes a conscious effort to maintain an inaccessible campus (most of the upper school campus is undoubtedly exempt from these codes because of grandfathering laws).

There is simply no remedy for the geography of 3700 Coldwater Canyon (although leveling our portion of the Santa Monica Mountains has crossed my mind) , but surely there are some other options to accommodate disabled students.

Surely, while we spend millions on new athletic facilities (which I take no issue with), we can afford to install doors that could open on command. Surely, we can afford to do at least that much.

Someday, if it hasn’t happened already, a supremely qualified student who was an extraordinary addition to the community will be forced to leave because they cannot stand having to go to Uzbekistan and back just to get to class.