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Adding ramps, embracing diversity

In 1990, the year the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, I was taking my mobility for granted as I traipsed across Smith College from seminars to dance classes.

Then I returned from a school break to our old, four-story dorm, and something was different. A friend and housemate - a tall woman known for her intellect and wit and Alabama accent - was sitting in a wheelchair.

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With crutches she could still move slowly up the stairs, but none of us who knew her would ever see the campus in the same way again. We'd drive to the library with her and discover that, inevitably, someone was illegally parked in the handicapped space. And why didn't more places have ramps or accessible bathrooms?

It wasn't just the campus deficits I started to see, of course. I also learned from the strength of my friend, who naturally expected to pursue her studies and every other facet of life despite the obstacles. With friends who shared her "differently abled" experience, she called for changes on campus - both physical and attitudinal.

My classmate, who would become a lawyer, was fortunate in having the law to back her up. Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the ADA. It wasn't the first law that pushed schools to accommodate disabled students, but it was a "kick start," says Laura Rauscher, Smith's disability-services director. In 1990, the college was about 40 percent accessible. Now it's 80 percent; impressive considering how old and hilly it is.

By making her job part of the office of institutional diversity, she says, Smith sent a key message: Accessibility isn't just about what services a school gives, but what it gains by embracing students who need them

*E-mail teichers@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society