The Quest for Accessible Housing

Greetings, internet! Here I am to shake my fist at the entity that is the Princeton Housing Office (or whatever they go by; quite frankly I am too annoyed with them to spare the minute it would take to look up their official name).

For the past two years, I have lived in university housing that is inadequate for a wheelchair-user. The kitchen in my supposedly ADA-compliant apartment has the completely wrong stovetop/oven. I cannot open the oven safely, cannot reach the stove light, and have a hard time using the stove anyway because the oven is in the way. In a wheelchair-friendly kitchen, there is no stove-oven unit. There is a stovetop with a space underneath it, and a separate oven.

For context, here is what my kitchen looked like at Murray Edwards, my college at the University of Cambridge (MEDWARDS <3).

Accessible Stove
Look at that! Space! Under the stovetop! Guess who cooked herself a bunch of meals while she was in England!
Accessible Oven
Wall oven units are ideal for wheelchair users. Sure, I prefer French doors or a door that opens to the side over a door that comes straight down, but I was perfectly capable of taking hot muffins out of the oven, and that is all that matters here.

My attempts to have the Princeton kitchen renovated have been met with the sort of stalling that one would expect from an administration that does not wish to address the problem at all. Meaning, I was told that the renovations would have to be approved by Princeton (the town), and then by the time that happened, the next semester would have begun. Renovations would have to occur, then, while I was living in the apartment (and, you know, taking classes/teaching/researching/doing scholarly things). When I brought up to the disability office that renovating an apartment would be useful for any future wheelchair-using student, I was told (unsurprisingly) that Princeton really doesn’t renovate anything until the student is actually there.

Let’s get this straight. Kitchen renovations don’t happen unless the student is enrolled and needs the renovations. Once the student is enrolled, however, then renovations can’t start and finish before the student is living in the apartment and starting class because Princeton (the town) needs to approve the paperwork and it’ll take too long. How convenient. If we go by this timeline, then nothing will get done. If I had the willpower to stay in Princeton, I would go the “fight the power” route and tell Princeton to renovate the kitchen in my apartment, even if I was living there during renovations (which, again, should have been renovated before I moved in two years ago). At this point, I’d rather just leave.

It’s not that Princeton completely botched my apartment. They renovated the bathroom before I got here, but the shower is a bit of a squeeze for my shower chair. The space where the sink sits is also a bit tight (as can be attested by the number of times I’ve hit my elbows while trying to wash my face). I can use everything in my bathroom, but it is certainly a tight fit.

The most shocking thing is that there really wasn’t a wheelchair apartment to start with. I mean, sure, this is the ADA room, but what does that even mean? The doorway to my bedroom is definitely too narrow for anyone with a larger wheelchair/scooter. I measured, and it’s 32” wide, which could suit an average wheelchair, but nothing larger. According to a company that designs doors, 32 inches is the legal minimum requirement for ADA compliance, so the doorway is technically compliant, but you better hope that your chair isn’t above average width.

The trash disposal area is outside my building and up an incline. The building management office and I worked out another arrangement, but it’s a bit annoying that I can’t take out my own trash. And again, I couldn’t really use my kitchen. I mean, I could use the two front burners of my stove, but I couldn’t reach the two back burners and see how things were cooking. The sink is also far enough from the stove that it would be very difficult (and probably dangerous) to drain pasta after boiling it.

When I brought up the fact that I could not safely open my oven and take things out of it, I was given the option of removing a bunch of drawers that were next to my oven to create more space. This would take away drawer space that I needed, because, side note, drawer space here is quite limited. Pretty much all of my plates are sitting in the dishwasher, which means that I do not use my dishwasher for anything except storage. The housing office/disability office worked out a compromise where I was given a countertop convection oven. It won’t bake the volume of cookies I’d like to bake, but it can heat up food at least.

It’s not that hard to create a wheelchair-accessible apartment. When I was at HGSE, Harvard’s housing had floorplans for accessible units available. In any given floorplan, you could see where the stove, oven, and sink were. I was able to boil water for pasta and then drain said pasta quite often. Most of the doorways were a generous width. Well, one of the doorways in the apartment wasn’t technically a compliant width (it was for a second bedroom not meant for a wheelchair user anyway), and so I lived in a two-bedroom unit and was allowed to pay the one-bedroom monthly rent. In comparison, I pay the full one-bedroom rate for my unit at Princeton, despite my complaints about the kitchen.

Honestly, I should’ve noticed a red flag when I was applying to PhD programs. Brown and Columbia both were willing to show me floorplans of their wheelchair-accessible rooms or give me a tour of their graduate housing. Princeton was a bit shifty about it. I got to see floorplans of regular 1-BR apartments, but wasn’t allowed to see what the apartment complex or any apartment unit in particular looked like. It matters to me whether an apartment is large enough for my FES cycle and standing frame, and whether the kitchen and bathroom are both wheelchair-friendly. And I say “friendly” instead of accessible because things can be legally or technically accessible, while also being unrealistically difficult (e.g. my current shower). Wheelchair-friendly implies that there is a good amount of space to work with (e.g. all of my Harvard and Cambridge housing (shout-out to you again, Murray Edwards!)).

Had I made my PhD program decision based on housing, I would have gone with Columbia. But then I would have had to deal with outdoor elevators (which were broken three out of the four times I visited the campus, but that’s an issue for another post). Princeton said they had wheelchair-accessible housing, and I believed them without hard proof. Full disclosure: I have been looping Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” album, and I am resisting the urge to break out into a Taylor-Swift-inspired song about how I was too trusting of the housing office and my misplaced optimism has bitten me in the ass, and now there’s drama where there shouldn’t be.

It’s a shame, because I really did like the building management here (which is separate from the housing office). They’re great. One of the building managers and I have had half-hour conversations about varieties of Oreos and giant spherical stuffed animals. The maintenance staff here fixes things within a day, and have found several of my packages that got delivered to the wrong building within the grad complex. In many ways, it’s nice university housing.

But Princeton didn’t seem to have a wheelchair-accessible unit available before I got here. I know there’s a wheelchair user at another complex (and I don’t know him well enough to ask how his living situation is), but I’ve yet to meet another wheelchair user at this particular complex. Were there no units set aside for wheelchair users when this housing was first constructed? This complex was built about ten years ago, so there should have been ADA guidelines in mind. Did it never cross anyone’s mind that a wheelchair user could attend this university and live in university housing? My wheelchair isn’t even that big. I can’t imagine what my situation would have been if my chair was larger.

I suppose Princeton thought they could get away with ad hoc renovations.

I’m not devastated to move out of Princeton. I mean, sure, my advisor would prefer that I stay near campus, but this housing situation is less than ideal. I’m also not sure I want to deal with living in such a quiet town for the duration of my dissertation anyway. I think one of the grad students here put it best. He described Princeton as a Connecticut town that happens to be in New Jersey. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Princeton’s cute. But cute is not how you want your long-term living situation to be described. No offense, Princeton, but ya basic.

And with that, I’m off to NYC after my current lease runs out. I hate to admit it, but the best solution for housing when you’re a wheelchair user is to get your own place and renovate it (which, lol, money). It’s ridiculous, because wheelchair-accessible components of apartments are quite well liked. But I digress. I can’t wait to be in an apartment with a kitchen I should be able to use. I foresee many cookies in the future.

Thanks so much for reading! If you’d like the ramblings of a doctoral student living with paralysis in your inbox more regularly, feel free to subscribe!

Val

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