University News

Severe snow challenges campus accessibility

Student, SEAS communication ‘lost in translation’ amidst back-to-back storms

University News Editor
Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Despite great efforts by Student and Employee Accessibility Services and Facilities Management to make campus accessible, intense winter conditions still present challenges to students with mobility concerns, and many University efforts have been thwarted by unforeseen circumstances.

Though SEAS is “incredible” in creating a plan for snow accessibility and being in frequent communication with students, the implementation of their strategy this winter has proved more difficult, said Ruben Graml ’17.

Graml, who uses a motorized scooter to navigate campus, said, “Theoretically, everything should work,” but often, even three or four days after snow has fallen, not everything is cleared. Plans are “lost in translation.”

When University operations were canceled Jan. 27, Graml said he had to stay inside all day. The next morning, his plan was to get a ride with the SEAS shuttle from his dorm to his class, but when he tried to leave the building, Graml found the sidewalk outside of Barbour Hall was “not even cleared enough to get to the shuttle.” After calling Catherine Axe, director of SEAS, and Patrick Vetere, grounds superintendent, the two administrators came to the dorm and evaluated the conditions. Because of the snow, Graml did not go to class that day.

The following Thursday through Sunday, Graml said he had limited mobility around campus, using the SEAS shuttle and getting help from friends. But after more snowfall on Monday, Feb. 2, he said he was “stuck inside” for days.

After that same storm, Callum Nelson ’17 also had difficulty getting outside. Nelson wears a full-leg brace, as part of recovery from ACL surgery, and just stopped using crutches. While attempting to attend classes Feb. 2, Nelson slipped and fell on the steps outside Olney House. Walking around campus was “too risky,” he said, adding that ACLs can re-tear under certain circumstances. Though Nelson can walk through a few inches of snow, ice is too dangerous, he said. After his fall, Nelson did not attend classes that day.

When there is intense snow, Graml said he spends the majority of his days in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, because it is one of the only “truly accessible” buildings at Brown.

In the winter months, “I am always having to plan ahead,” Graml said. When the University cancels classes and operations, Dining Services centralizes food services in the Sharpe Refectory, often the only dining hall available to students. In the week and a half between Jan. 26 and Feb. 4, Graml said he only went to the Ratty once. “The hills are pretty much impossible because of the snow.”

Knowing that the paths on Wriston Quad to the Ratty get slick with ice, Dining Services staff will sometimes give extra meals to students who may not be able to get to the Ratty after snow hits, Axe said. “We’re open to being creative” in figuring out plans that students feel comfortable with, she added.

The SEAS Shuttle aids accessibility, Axe said, adding that it can help make trips around campus easier and faster for students. But the shuttle does run into wintry issues: Narrow New England streets become even slimmer when snow falls, making navigating roads less efficient. And with storms like the three that Providence has endured this semester, Brown has “snow with nowhere to put it,” Axe said.

The SEAS shuttle always has the same two drivers, and Graml said he always talks to the same person on the phone. “They know my needs,” he said, so the process is faster and easier.

While the SEAS shuttle is “useful,” it does not run late at night or over the weekends, Graml said. During its off hours, Graml must use OnCall, which takes much longer. OnCall also has different drivers and phone operators, making transportation around campus “frustrating,” he said.

In preparation for rough winter weather, SEAS meets with students who have known mobility concerns and makes a map of individual students’ daily routes by mid-fall, Axe said. This includes entrances and exits to residence halls, locations of classes and activities, outdoor pathways, parking spaces and shuttle stops, she added. The map is then revised at the beginning of spring semester.

Custodial services and facilities management have access to the map, Axe said, adding that when snow falls, procedures for clearing pathways are based on these maps.

“We estimate as best as we can and prioritize,” she said, adding that every student’s needs are different: Some students need a completely cleared path, while others are okay with a few inches of snow.

There are both “light and heavy artilleries” for snow clearing, Vetere said. Facilities workers have “pre-positioned routes” that are specified based on the day. While shuttle stops and crosswalks are always cleared, selected buildings, parking lots and loading docks are put on lower priority based on the day and the current state of University operations, he said.

Custodial staff members work in four shifts, regardless of whether school is open or closed, said Donna Butler, director of custodial services. There are different zones of campus, and by “assessing what works best for the community,” snow clearing is focused on certain regions, such as residential areas or academic buildings.

While walking to class Jan. 28, when all Providence Public Schools and all other colleges and universities in the city cancelled operations, Nelson said the sidewalks on College Street near the Van Wickle Gates were not plowed, forcing him to walk in the street, while other students could manage the buildup on the sidewalk.

The timing of the storm, as well as its intensity and duration, are crucial to the extent to which facilities can respond, Axe said. When snow falls over a weekend or University operations are closed for the day, facilities has more time to clear snow in an accessible manner. But when snow falls fast, as it has over the past two weeks, clearing it becomes an “overwhelming process,” due to the finite amount of manpower available.

When the University remains open during snowstorms, making campus accessible becomes harder and the “icy barrier” that forms underneath recently fallen snow creates a problem for many community members with mobility concerns.

When senior adminstrators are deciding whether to shut down University operations, Axe said she communicates SEAS’s concerns and feedback to them.

Facilities contributes to this decision in reporting “what we think we’ll be able to do in the allotted time,” said Stephen Maiorisi, vice president for Facilities Management. Safety and the ability to clean the campus are the two biggest concerns, he added. When the University is closed, facilities will then reevaluate and refocus its efforts in order to be most efficient, Maiorisi said.

“Because the University is residential, there is a bias toward keeping it open,” said Mark Nickel, acting director of news and communications. A large range of issues is taken into account, including staff who must be on campus regardless of University closure — such as facilities management, dining services and emergency medical services — as well as animals that must be kept alive in science buildings, he said.

Even with snow clearing plans made ahead of time, it is the “situations that no one anticipates” that make campus inaccessible for some students, Axe said. For example, both the city and Brown plow the streets on College Hill. Sidewalks are cleared by Brown facilities, but city plows may come through and effectively undo their work, she said.

“The inadvertent things are the hardest to manage,” Axe said, adding that accessibility of certain campus areas frequently changes.

Students have cell phone numbers of both SEAS and facilities staff members in the event that they need assistance, Axe said.

As community members saw in the wake of Winter Storms Juno and Linus, not all snow is cleared immediately. Certain ramps, stairs and paths often remain untouched due to the difficulty of removing the residual snow and ice, as well as the challenge of addressing all spots immediately. After gathering feedback from students, SEAS puts “pressure on the system in an effective way,” Axe said.

Many students have voiced concerns of maintaining accessibility on campus with the snowfall. On “WTF*Brown,” a new online Undergraduate Council of Students initiative to collect student feedback on University operations, Emma Hall ’16 posted, “Prioritize snow removal on all paths and sidewalks around campus. Failure to do so is ableist.” The suggestion has received 845 votes from other students so far, making it the fourth-most popular post on the site.

  • Guset

    How insightful, record amounts of snow make it difficult for people with mobility issues to begin with get around.

    • Andrew Brown ’15

      Yeah. It does. And it doesn’t get said enough. Thank you to Ruben and Callum for your decision to speak out, and thank you to the BDH and Emma for writing this article.

  • ’15

    Should have gotten into Stanford!
    Actually that applies to more than snow removal…