Robert Kelly ’74 says it can be “really difficult” to navigate Reunions in a wheelchair.
Photo: Courtesy of Robert Kelly ’74

Crowds, construction, hills, and heat. When tens of thousands of alumni and their families convene on Princeton’s campus for Reunions, many accessibility barriers arise.

“Getting back to your assigned courtyard for your major reunion, or your off-year for that matter, can be really difficult, coming back up a rather steep hill and dodging construction and getting through a whole host of people,” says Robert Kelly ’74 about his experiences trying to exit the P-rade while using his wheelchair.

Kelly’s story is just one example of the additional considerations alumni with disabilities face during Reunions. 

Making the event accessible is a large endeavor that involves collaboration between many offices on campus and hundreds of alumni volunteers “to ensure that accommodations are in place for each attendee who needs them,” Mibs Southerland, director of Reunions, said via email. 

The University posts detailed information about accessibility on the Reunions website, and Southerland noted that staff from Facilities and the Office of Accessibility and Disability Services inspect all Reunions sites beforehand and continuously throughout the weekend to make adjustments for accessibility. As a wheelchair user, I personally noticed this when I could not safely access a Reunions check-in table, prompting facilities to add a ramp.

Alumni who drive can find accessible parking indicated on the Reunions map, and a limited number of golf carts are available for personal rental for older alumni with mobility impairments and alumni who have medical conditions or permanent disabilities. Students drive Reunions Rovers for all reuners along fixed routes. 

Even with these measures in place, many alumni describe challenges navigating campus during Reunions. 

“Most of the events are outdoors, which can be a challenge too, because it’s uneven ground and they put fences around, so it’s not like you can just walk in a direct path to any place — you kind of have to move around,” said Julie Ort ’90, who has a spinal cord injury and walks with a leg brace and canes. 

“Sometimes I did arrive someplace and everybody [was] gone by then because it can be hard to keep up with where everybody’s moving to,” she adds.

To help with campus navigation, Michael Barnes, director of campus accessibility, encourages alumni to download the University’s new interactive wayfinding app, which includes an option for step-free routes. 

Through a collaboration with AccessAble, a British company that specializes in compiling accessibility information, the app will soon include detailed accessibility guides — with photos and information such as door measurements and wheelchair turning radii — for more than 200 campus buildings. According to Karen Fanning, project communication manager in the Office of the Vice President for Facilities, the guides will be released in waves beginning this spring and will be fully implemented on the app by Reunions 2025. In the meantime, guides for relevant buildings will be available on the Reunions website this year, according to Barnes.

When it comes to housing, because not all dormitories are accessible, alumni with disabilities can note their accommodation requests during registration.

“When I got my assignment, it was on the third floor in Witherspoon, and I’m like, how am I gonna do this?” says Donnica Moore ’81, who uses a walker. “There was an elevator and they had me in a room right across from a bathroom and it was lovely.”

Mobility disabilities are not the only form of disability that alumni experience. 

When Elaine Wright ’21, who is deaf, attends Reunions, she purposefully looks for well-lit tents so she can lip-read and see facial cues, even while dancing and catching up with her friends. “Reunions weekend is packed, and the days are really long and tiring, resulting in listening fatigue for those with hearing loss. I pace myself a little bit and usually try to take a quiet break sometime during the day, but it’s hard when everything is scheduled back-to-back,” she wrote in an email to PAW.

Wright says if she attended daytime lectures, she would sit near the front of the room or request accommodations. Southerland explained that the University will provide ASL interpreters upon request, but “we do need notice by at least two weeks before Reunions, as it can be difficult to locate and hire ASL interpreters on very short notice.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Roberts ’70 has had progressive vision loss over the past decade. When he attends Reunions, he relies on his friends and classmates to help him navigate campus. “The vast majority of my classmates, when they see me with a white cane, they’re both solicitous and they’re very ready to help,” he says.

Matthew Weed *95, who is blind and diabetic and often relies on a sighted guide, says his disability has caused him to choose not to attend Reunions. “I hope Princeton would act to make Reunions more manageable for me … by [waiving] the cost of attendance for my guide/assistant, but as I am now so far away, the urge to make the trip to campus is overcome by uncertainty on accommodation and the logistics of unnecessary cross-country travel,” he wrote in an email.

Alumni with disabilities would like to see improvements to make Reunions more accessible.

“We need signage on the outside of buildings to tell us if the building is accessible,” says Moore, who has encountered inaccessible events at Reunions. “After you’ve killed yourself to get all the way across campus to go to a lecture there, it would be nice if they just had in the program what the accessibility is.”

“I think the organizers of the fireworks show could provide a list of songs and lyrics that will be featured in the program,” wrote Wright. “It’s special to sing along with all the other alumni in a full Princeton Stadium, but that isn’t possible without full access to the music.”

Even with the accessibility barriers they face, many alumni with disabilities have enjoyed their Reunions experience. 

Ort encourages other alumni with disabilities who are considering attending Reunions to advocate for their needs. When asked what advice she would give, Ort says: “Talking to your class chairs, making sure that your concerns are known, reaching out, asking lots of questions, advocating, and I think being strategic and practical about how much energy you want to spend on different activities.”

Barnes hopes that alumni with disabilities will contact him if they have feedback on accessibility during Reunions. 

“I realize that we’re not perfect, but we need to do everything we can to make sure that every year is more accessible than the year prior,” he says. 

Naomi Hess ’22 is a Young Alumni Trustee and a management and program analyst living in Washington, D.C.