I was furiously crutching up the Frist hill last Tuesday. My crutches had no traction on the wet pavement—I was slipping. What an undignified way to go out. Alone, temporarily carippled, weighed down by hundreds of pages of articles I had yet to read. And then the doors of Frist opened. I heard the voices of hundreds of girls. Their footsteps got closer and closer as they easily overtook me. It was like one of those dreams when you’re trying to run from a monster… but you’re running in place. Except I was crutching in place. Within seconds, they had swarmed me. A wave of sophomore girls in nametags shepherded by impossibly peppy upperclassmen. It was rush night, and the sororities were afoot.
Earlier that day, a doctor at McCosh told me that my foot was fractured, apparently from falling while giving out candy to Appalachian Trail hikers. So they put me in a brace, threw me some crutches, and released me into the wilds of Princeton. When one leg isn’t working, you’re handed two poor replacements. The sorority mob was only one of the mishaps in my three-day saga of attempting to navigate campus on crutches. I say “attempting” because Princeton is impossible to get around when your mobility is hindered in any way.
Within a few minutes of leaving McCosh, I came to my first roadblock: a flight of stairs. I tried to hop down on one foot, crutches in one hand, but I almost fell and dropped a crutch down the stairs. Stripped of my pride and dignity, I resigned myself to scooting down on my butt. Sure, there are tons of ramps around campus, but most are incredibly steep; who and what are they meant for? I felt like a downhill skier whenever I used one. As I careened down one particularly dangerous ramp between Firestone and the chapel, I almost decked an elderly professor. No physical impact resulted, but he nearly had a heart attack from the shock of seeing an out-of-control sophomore girl in a tie-dye Ben and Jerry’s T-shirt careening right at him.
Besides that ramp of death, my normal paths to class were not possible. When you’ve been at Princeton for a little while, certain routes become automatic. You walk, lost in your thoughts or Facebook, until you reach your destination. I was meandering up to Rocky one day last week and ended up at the foot of Blair Arch. The stairs of Blair are so numerous that entire classes fit on them for step sings every year. But I’m a stubborn bastard, and I was getting up those steps. And so I did. The mob of tourists clustered at the top most likely has a few pictures of me hobbling up that endless staircase, crutches in hand, out of breath, suffering. There are so many random steps on campus that you don’t notice until they become a barrier. It’s hard to explain the dread that washes over you when you’re trying to crutch from Schultz to Friend in ten minutes and encounter a flight of stairs. I cut my losses and skipped class that day.
In between bouts of self-pity, I began to think beyond my own experience to the lives of people who have long-term or permanent mobility issues here. If it’s so hard to get around Princeton on crutches for only three days, it must be a herculean effort to just exist with a more serious injury or while in a wheelchair. At least stairs are an option, albeit a poor one, while on crutches. If you’re wheeling or scootering around campus, you have to rely on elevators, which are horribly marked and sometimes don’t exist, or safe ramps, which are even more rare. In Edwards, Spelman, Pyne, all of Wilson College, there are practically no elevators, no way for anyone bound to a wheelchair to get upstairs, save being litter-carried. And Feinberg—I’m pretty sure there’s an elevator shaft in there, but no elevator. Going to pregames, hanging out, or living there are all out of the picture when you don’t have two capable legs. You’re cut off from a huge chunk of campus. You feel unwelcome.
I’m a history major because, according to my parents, I don’t want to have a job after graduation, so I’m probably not qualified to make suggestions about structural improvements on campus. I’m going to anyway: more ramps. Not more ramps like the cobblestone one outside Walker that rises at a 45-degree angle, but actual ramps that people can wheel or crutch or just walk down without falling. What a concept! Ramps would make it possible for people with mobility issues or even elderly relatives to get around campus without massive, inconvenient detours. Princeton emphasizes inclusiveness and making our school welcoming to people of all backgrounds; better ramps, and better accessibility in general, would advance this mission. Throw together an engineer, an architect, and someone who would benefit from better long-term accessibility, and the three parties would generate far better ideas than I ever could.
Oh, and my foot? I got a call from McCosh three days into my ordeal telling me that it wasn’t fractured; they’d read the X-ray wrong. I threw the crutches on the ground in Frist and walked away. I hope the people there thought they witnessed a miracle.