I recently read a tweet from the Kenyon Twitter account quoting journalist Geri Coleman ’74: “Words matter, and their power—when harnessed well—can change hearts and minds.” This tweet is remarkably topical, given Kenyon’s current state of transition and development. By 2020, Kenyon will have a new mission statement, one that will explicitly articulate the College’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. I want to believe that the new statement and its commitments will be more than just words, and that the College itself will live, teach and enact plans and policies in its light. With that in mind, I need to stress an obvious point: our “diversity and inclusion” must apply to and involve the physically disabled, or—by our own purported standards—we will not be diverse or inclusive.
This campus has many accessibility issues right now, all of which negatively affect even the temporarily disabled. For example, there are almost no fully wheelchair-accessible housing options, and few older academic buildings have elevators. We can, however, adapt to these challenges: as I experienced last year when I broke my leg, classes can be moved, doors can be propped open and ramps can be added to aid the injured. Middle Path, though, is a problem we cannot fix with small efforts. The path is slippery when it rains, treacherous when it snows (especially since its renovation in 2017) and no matter the weather,it is totally non-traversable for wheelchairs.
As it stands, Middle Path is a huge barrier in the way of our commitment to inclusion. I understand that people in wheelchairs can take separate, more accessible routes. I understand that Campus Safety readily gives rides. I am grateful for that, but these are examples of accommodation, not inclusion. Inclusivity means equal access to that which we consider normal, like the centralized pathway to classes used by every student, faculty and community staff member. Inclusivity means accessibility and, in this case, accessibility means paving.
Paving doesn’t have to mean asphalt; in fact, it probably shouldn’t. While it would temporarily fix our wheelchair accessibility problem, asphalt is extremely environmentally unfriendly, and not at all weather-resistant. In addition, although covering the Path in asphalt would be less expensive than the past few unsuccessful Middle Path renovations, the cost of upkeep would be more than the asphalt is worth. It’s also ugly.
Instead of asphalt, we could renovate Middle Path with an innovative material like Flexi-Pave, a porous, slip-resistant, freeze-resistant, flexible paving product made from recycled tires. That said, although Flexi-Pave claims to be accessible, we have experienced with the current Path material that some products advertised as wheelchair-friendly simply are not—on top of being extremely difficult to roll across, our current “wheelchair-friendly” material eats away at rubber wheels, which decreases their traction and makes them likely to cause serious hand lacerations. The gravel also gets into gears and can cause wheels to straight-up fall off, as I experienced myself one afternoon. Unless we are going to wheelchair-test materials ourselves, a safer and more practical choice would be to renovate the Path with sidewalk slabs similar or identical to the ones that have lined other segments of the College for decades. We can use the rest of the campus as evidence that these slabs hold up just fine over harsh Ohio winters, and would be relatively easy to maintain. Sidewalks might not come with a satisfying crunch, but I hope we can all agree that this option is much better than the alternative: a school that seems to care more about gravel than it does about inclusion.
Current and former students say that Middle Path is the identity of the school, a symbol of connection and unity on this campus. Guides are trained to talk about the Path at length during campus tours, not only because it is the fastest route to every class and event, but also because it is the “central artery” of the Kenyon community. The thing that makes Middle Path so valuable is not the nostalgic crunch of its gravel, but the vibrant life that happens on it, from the Community Feast to live music to everyday nods and smiles. What does it say about us if we decide to largely exclude disabled people from that vibrancy? It is unfair and goes against our mission. Our path forward needs to be everyone’s path forward. So pave it.