As Naomi Hess ’22 moves through Princeton’s campus in her electric wheelchair, she zips by buildings she can enter and those she cannot. There’s Frist Campus Center, which she reaches from a path that runs along Washington Road. She loves to grab cookies with friends at Murray-Dodge Café, and Chancellor Green is “pretty much my favorite place,” says Hess. And there’s Nassau Hall. In August, 266 years after the first students stepped inside the University’s most iconic building, Hess became the first person in a wheelchair to access the building without assistance when she took a ride in its newly installed elevator.


Hess cruises from the upper campus to First College (formerly Wilson College) and stops in front of the four steps leading to Gauss Hall, where several of her good friends lived freshman year. “If I wanted to spend time with them, I knew it couldn’t be there,” Hess says. She uses a built-in joystick to steer her 300-pound wheelchair along Elm Drive to Butler College, where she lives in a first-floor room in Bloomberg Hall equipped with grab bars in the bathroom, a fold-down shower bench, and enough room for two backup wheelchairs. The door to her room opens with a remote-control device supplied by the University, which Hess has been known to hide in her purse so she can tell friends who are visiting that “a Harry Potter spell” opens the door. Her room has become a gathering place for her social circle, since she can’t get into many of her friends’ rooms. 

From her dorm, she heads to her journalism class, which meets on Joseph Henry House’s first floor, the only level of the building she can reach. The trip takes her just 10 minutes: “I’m fast in my wheelchair.” Her days are packed. A typical day starts with a morning class, then a meeting at The Daily Princetonian, where she was an associate news editor for two years, and then a meeting at the University’s AccessAbility Center, where she is a student fellow. For dinner she heads to Tower Club, which she must enter through the kitchen. 

Hess is soft-spoken, but since arriving at Princeton, she has made herself heard. On a campus with few students who use a wheelchair, she serves as an unofficial disability ambassador to the administration. Her advocacy has led to changes big and small on campus. Students, administrators, and others now find themselves eyeing a staircase or a blocked hallway with a new perspective.

Speaking up is something Hess has been doing since her childhood. “It’s what I’ve had to do my whole life,” she says. “The world isn’t exactly set up for disabled people.”

Hess was diagnosed when she was 6 months old with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects her muscle strength. She grew up on a quiet street in Clarksville, Maryland, with her parents — Steve, a deputy fire chief, and Lisa, an admissions officer at a community college — and younger brother, Colin. In kindergarten, she and her physical therapist held a question-and-answer session with her classmates to explain why she used a wheelchair.

“You had kids who would stare at her, and Naomi would wave to them,” recalls her dad. “Kids would ask us what was wrong with Naomi, and Naomi would say, ‘Ask me. I’ll tell you what you need to know.’ ”

She participated in adaptive ballet and soccer. She learned to ride a horse. At 10, she was chosen as Maryland’s ambassador to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and visited local stores to thank the managers for their donations. In middle school, she met with Maryland’s state legislators about issues related to muscular dystrophy. 

“She always looks at the big picture,” her mom says. “She says, ‘This isn’t going to only help me.’ She wants to leave a legacy.” 

She has done three half-marathons in Miami, with a friend pushing her in a racing stroller. On a 2019 trip to Israel designed for young people with disabilities, she dangled from a zipline in a specially designed hammock, explored the tunnels in the ancient city of Acre, floated in the Dead Sea, and used a hand bike for the first time. “It’s important to live life to the fullest,” Hess says. “I enjoy doing things that people might not expect me to do.” 

As she deliberated about where to go to college, Princeton’s generous financial aid and disability accommodations put it at the top of her list, even though the University’s centuries-old campus makes it difficult for wheelchair users. She was impressed that Princeton’s Office of Disability Services was centrally located in Frist, while other schools tucked their offices in remote spots. Still, Hess estimates there are fewer than five current undergraduates who use a wheelchair. (Liz Erickson, the University’s director for disability services, says she cannot provide an exact number.) Says Hess, “I pushed myself in coming to Princeton,” which is a three-hour drive from her home. She arrived planning to be an English major, but found herself drawn to advocacy work and switched to the School of Public and International Affairs, with certificates in journalism as well as gender and sexuality studies. 

“She very much does not allow the paternalistic attitude of, ‘You use a wheelchair, that’s so sad,’ ” says her friend Katie Heinzer ’22. “She never laments, ‘I’m the problem.’ No. ‘The people putting up barriers to access are the issue, and I’m going to forcibly remove those.’ Which she does.”

Hess appreciates that the administration is usually responsive when she raises concerns, often making changes in just a few days. But “it’s definitely frustrating that I’m the one who has to point out accessibility flaws,” she says. “It shouldn’t be on me.”

Most academic buildings that Hess needs to visit are accessible, though her freshman seminar — titled “Disability and the Making of the Modern Subject: From Wordsworth to X-Men” — was in an area of McCormick Hall reached by a gravel path that was difficult for her wheelchair. She raised the issue, and the class got moved, she says. To try to prevent problems like this, Erickson reviews Hess’ schedule ahead of time and vets each classroom’s accessibility.

The biggest hurdle is that many of the buildings where a Princeton student’s social life plays out are not accessible for a wheelchair user. While Butler and Whitman colleges are nearly fully accessible, some buildings in First, Forbes, Mathey, and Rockefeller are either fully or partially out of reach for Hess. She has many friends whose rooms she cannot visit, which has sometimes meant being left out of gatherings, though Hess says her friends are “really good about coming to me. If they want to have a social interaction with me, it usually ends up being in my room.” There have been times when Hess headed to an eating club with friends only to have the bouncers tell her that there was no way for her to get inside. “I would go and find out I couldn’t get in, and I would go back to my room alone,” she says. “That was really hurtful.” 

Four of the 11 eating clubs have elevators. Tower, where Hess is a member, does not, though club president Savannah Hampton ’22 says an elevator will be installed this summer. To access the dining room, Hess takes the driveway down to a side door and goes through the kitchen. “It’s not ideal, but I wanted to be where my friends were,” says Hess. 

Another problem is bad weather. David Loughran ’20, who also uses an electric wheelchair, recalls the day he was in a three-hour seminar in East Pyne Hall when snow began to fall. By the time the class was over, the path to his dorm at Bloomberg Hall was treacherous. Maintenance crews were out, and eventually a plow cleared the snow along his route and escorted him back to his room. Last year, Hess spent four days stuck in her room because of a major snowstorm. “I literally could not leave my building,” Hess says. “I shouldn’t be trapped like that.” The doorway was blocked by snow and ice. Every year, the University asks Hess and other students which paths they regularly use and plows those first, but a different crew clears doorways. The issue has been rectified, Erickson says. 

Loughran made it a practice to scout out his classrooms ahead of the first day of the semester to make sure he could get to them. Like Hess, Loughran found that socializing posed the most difficulties with access. Friends lived in dorms he couldn’t enter. “A big part of having fun with your friends is spontaneity. ‘Hey, let’s go do this,’ ” says Loughran, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. “But I have to plan it all out. I can’t be spur-of-the-moment.” He was grateful to have friends “who wanted to stick with me rather than necessarily going to a certain event.” He had to go around the back to enter Cannon Club, where he was a member. 

Gabby Graves-Wake ’25, who uses a manual wheelchair, was surprised when she realized that reaching her physics class in McCosh 28 required her to enter the building at its only accessible entrance, near McCosh 50; take the elevator; and go through McCosh 46. “I had to ask students to move some big fans out of the way so I had a path,” recalls Graves-Wake, who served in the Marines for five years as an intelligence analyst before enrolling at Princeton. She had not realized that going to class would be so disruptive, she says. 

Loughran had a class in McCosh 10, which required going through two auditoriums, 46 and 28. Like Graves-Wake, he is used to circuitous routes. “I’ve gone through countless kitchens,” he says. “If we could just go in the front door, that would be great.” He wishes others could “just think of us as people who can’t open a door. We’re regular people who just need physical help. Independence is what we appreciate and want.”

This is a photo of Naomi Hess ’22 in her motorized wheelchair in front of a Princeton campus building. Stone plaques in the wall behind her read "Class of 1970" and "Class of 1968."
In August, Hess became the first person in a wheelchair to use a new elevator in 266-year-old Nassau Hall.
Photo: Frank Wojciechowski

In her freshman year, Hess began advocating for changes on campus. She now is a central player in a growing disability movement at Princeton, and earlier this year she received the A. James Fisher Memorial Award from the Pace Center for her civic-engagement work. Her friend Emma Treadway ’22 says Hess has “really changed this campus. Living with a disability is talked about much more because of her.” 

After struggling to find out which eating clubs were accessible, Hess emailed a contact at the website to ask whether information could be added and to offer to help with the language. A few months later, the website posted a page that explains, for each club, which floors are accessible, where ramps and accessible bathrooms are located, and other information. 

In 2020, Hess launched the Undergraduate Student Government’s Disability Task Force to advocate for disabled students. It successfully lobbied to add more information about disability services to the University’s first-year orientation and led training sessions for officers at eating clubs, with tips on issues such as placing refreshments at a height where those with disabilities can reach them. 

Hess frequently points out access issues to administrators, sometimes bypassing higher-ups and contacting staff in the facilities department directly. Following her requests — or requests by others on her behalf — wheelchair-accessibility buttons that automatically open doors have been installed at Whitman College, the Center for Jewish Life, and 48 University Place, where The Daily Princetonian is located. 

Hess is active in a student club called the Princeton Disability Collective, which was co-founded by Ellen Li ’22. Before its founding, says Li, “it was such an isolating experience to be disabled, and interacting with the institution was stressful when you were just one student trying to make it through. It became a space for a lot of solidarity and for formulating our thoughts on what the University should be doing better.” The club is working on a guidebook for students with disabilities. 

Li, who has a chronic illness, became disabled after her freshman year. She took a leave, then returned to campus with an electric wheelchair. “Relearning how to navigate the University was intensely stressful,” she says. “I’d get lost all the time because in the places where I used to walk there would be stairs.” That experience gave her a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding access. “Becoming disabled — suddenly having so much pain — I remember my past self as ignorant,” she says. “I literally had no idea what this kind of pain was like, so oftentimes I will understand where the ignorance comes from. I will feel misunderstood or unable to communicate the stress of living in a completely different physical body.”

Hess appreciates that the administration is usually responsive when she raises concerns, often making changes in just a few days. But “it’s definitely frustrating that I’m the one who has to point out accessibility flaws,” she says. “It shouldn’t be on me.”

Li agrees. “The onus is really on you to realize that there is an issue that is solvable and to reach out to find those solutions,” she says. “It’s kind of a lot to expect. And it feels like you’re asking so much, because you’re asking the University to spend thousands of dollars for you and your friend to enter a building. But I don’t think Princeton can ever use cost as an excuse.” 

Those who have come to know Hess and other student activists say they have not only helped spur physical changes to the campus. They have also changed mindsets. 

Princeton trustee Paul Haaga ’70 met Hess when he was a guest teacher in her journalism class and asked the students if they had any issues they wanted to discuss with him. Hess brought up accessibility, and Haaga, who is chair of the trustees’ grounds and buildings committee, took her to lunch, walked around campus with her, and invited her to speak at two trustee meetings. 

“At a remarkably young age, she’s figured out how to be effective,” Haaga says. “She’s making a huge difference. Whenever I walk around campus, I think about this stuff, so that’s part of what she’s done.” He considers, for example, Hess’ experience walking to class with friends. “If she has to take a circuitous route to get to an entrance, she loses a pretty significant aspect of being with her friends,” he says. “While we can’t fix that everywhere, it’s certainly something of which we are mindful.” For all new buildings, the University is committed to making every entrance accessible, exceeding what the law requires, he says. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, requires buildings to be accessible for people with disabilities, but those constructed before 1993 are exempt.

In addition to the age of many of its buildings, Princeton’s campus slopes 76 feet from Nassau Hall to Poe Field. “Trying to render our campus fully accessible is a huge challenge,” says KyuJung Whang, who is vice president for facilities. “That said, we are constantly improving, and we are more accessible today than we even were a year ago.” The administration wants “to work toward making every campus building accessible as early as it is feasible,” he says.

Several projects currently underway will improve accessibility. Dillon Gym is getting new elevators and new accessible entrances. Construction of Princeton’s seventh and eighth residential colleges will enable the renovation of older dorms to improve accessibility, Whang says. A redesign of the plaza outside Firestone Library will provide smoother surfaces for wheelchair users and improve access to Washington Road.

The University recently introduced a van service for those with mobility issues. TigerAccess, which works like Uber, allows anyone on campus to book a door-to-door ride on a cellphone app, preferably 24 hours ahead of time, though the service can sometimes accommodate last-minute requests. Hess likes using the service in bad weather. And in 2017, the University opened the AccessAbility Center in Frist as a student gathering place and a vehicle for raising awareness of disability issues. It is equipped with Braille labels, ergonomic computer equipment, a seasonal affective disorder light box (used in treating a type of depression), and other features. 

After many years of consideration, the University launched a renovation project at Nassau Hall, which was built in 1756, to install an elevator, making most of the building accessible for the first time. (Temporary ramps for wheelchair users have been installed on occasion in the past.) Whang invited Hess to be the first person in a wheelchair to use the elevator. Last August, she entered the building through a new entrance on the southwest corner and visited each floor, including the Memorial Atrium, where the names of Princetonians killed in U.S. conflicts since the Revolutionary War are inscribed. 

“She got access to a history that people like her have not been able to enter before,” Haaga says. “It’s symbolic, and I think it’s really important. Symbols are important.”  

Jennifer Altmann is a freelance writer and editor.

Click to expand this map of accessibility on Princeton’s campus: