Columbia University neglects dealing with accessability hazards caused by pro-Palestine protest

Columbia University faces criticism for neglecting campus accessibility during protests. Advocates demand accountability and improved safety measures for students with disabilities.

A general view of the occupied building of the Sciences Po University by masked youths in support of Palestinians in Gaza, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Paris, France, France, April 26, 2024.  (photo credit: REUTERS/BENOIT TESSIER)
A general view of the occupied building of the Sciences Po University by masked youths in support of Palestinians in Gaza, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Paris, France, France, April 26, 2024.

I invest my limited energy into disability advocacy. Born with a neuromuscular disease that limits my mobility, my predicted lifespan was four years. Now, as the first person with Muscular Dystrophy to stand and walk on the New York Fashion Week runway (Feb 2023 with pictures reaching around the world), and the first person with Muscular Dystrophy to climb a mountain (Camelback in Arizona, 2022), my life’s mission is to ensure the voices of individuals with disabilities are heard.

My sister and I are two Jewish daughters promise-bound to our mother to forever protect each other. This promise was broken on October 12, 2023, due to Columbia University not maintaining campus

accessibility – and this inaccessible climate remains to this day, nearly seven months later. The behavior of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on campus continues to neglect Columbia’s code of conduct, disobey university policy and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Columbia failed to control protests once they became violent, which resulted in blockaded walkways, ramps and exits, thus endangering their students with disabilities, stripping them of accessibility.

 Protests continue at Columbia University in New York during the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, April 22, 2024 (credit: REUTERS/CAITLIN OCHS)
Protests continue at Columbia University in New York during the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, April 22, 2024 (credit: REUTERS/CAITLIN OCHS)

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that public and private universities must provide equal access to... students with disabilities. Title II of the American Disabilities ACT of 1990 covers publicly funded universities. Title III covers privately funded schools with similar obligations for students with disabilities.

Columbia’s inaction prior to and at the events allowed for a threatening day on campus for Jewish students with disabilities. In just 20 minutes, we witnessed the collapse of 32 years of Columbia’s accessibility standards.

No amount of our own preparation could have kept us safe. My sister and I have spent countless hours locating every accessibility entrance, exit, door, ramp, etc. The accessibility that was promised to me upon my acceptance was nowhere to be found on October 12, 2023.

Verbalized threats and calls for terror, outlined in the advanced SJP “toolkit” were overlooked by Columbia University, leading to the most horrific sight that many Jewish students have ever witnessed.

“A historic win” were the words used in SJP’s Toolkit to describe the Hamas terror attack on October 7. The Toolkit outlined one’s “unshakeable responsibility” to join the call for mass mobilization.” Neutralizing the threat of terror seemed obvious, yet despite the provided warnings, Columbia remained stagnant. Over 1,300 students cried out by signing a petition requesting advance protection. Columbia responded with reassurance that the protest events would be monitored; sadly, this was not the case.

Petition link.

Ignored threats and silent vigil

A silent vigil for 1,200 lost lives on October 7 and the call for 240 hostages to be released beckoned my sister and myself to the Columbia lawns that evening. Upon arriving, we were met by the blood-curdling justifications of our Jewish family’s murders as we heard chants of “resistance is justified.” Our worries about the unfolding terror were soon confirmed.

With no possible route of escape, my life was in imminent danger on Columbia University’s campus. As an American with a disability, never has my vulnerable body felt so paralyzed by the very institution that promised me accessible freedom.

My sister and I quickly scouted out ramps and exit routes, never expecting that one of us would be blocked on campus by storming mobs. Campus policy required SJP to remain in their designated area. Had we known that the SJP riots would spread throughout the entire College Walkway and that nobody would clear an accessible pathway, we would have never separated. We were relying on the university’s promise of safety and accessibility.

In the melee and turmoil that ensued, far too many familiar faces were seen on the side of terror. I have been traumatized by the thought of one of my classmates (or professors) invading the campus with complete disregard to the campus accessibility laws mandatory to my survival.

 I was an eyewitness to the SJP protests morphing from free speech into physical intimidation. SJP students stormed the campus grounds chanting for the death of Israel and Jews while blocking any and all means of accessibility. While the vociferous crowd was ranting hateful antisemitic rhetoric, my humble life flashed before my eyes.

This terrorizing environment, which completely neglects the safety of Jewish students and those with disabilities, not only remains but has intensified on our Columbia University campus, nearly seven months later. The encampments have grown, imposing on several routes of accessibility including all access to our Columbia lawns.

“We have our demands; they have theirs”; a direct quote from the Columbia University president referencing their minimal efforts to remove the encampments and maintain a safe environment by attempting to negotiate with the students whose demands include, but are not limited to, “Intifada revolution” and “Complete divestment from Israel.”

Campus accessibility safety concerns

Rather than prioritize the safety and accessibility of their students and our right to attend classes, Columbia’s administration has sent several emails updating students on the negotiations and continues to push off the deadline. To this day, the encampments and terror remain on campus. To this day, I am unable to physically attend my classes. Accessibility on our Columbia University campus is gone.

What more is there to discuss with protesters who demand the annihilation of Israel and for Jews to “go back to Poland.” I would simply like to go back to class.

Courageous voices of our past can provide glimmers of inspiration as we fight for the protection of our human rights that were stripped from us on October 12.

A disability voice from a century ago passed by the same Columbia’s Gate on 116th Street. In 1910, Randolph Sillman Bourne wrote: “I know a young man so helplessly deformed that he has to be carried about... He does not cry for the moon.” A Columbia graduate, he left our world more enlightened for individuals living with disabilities.

Dear Columbia University, your inactions reach back over 100 years to tarnish Randolf Stillman Bourne.

A disability voice from 70 years later, Judith Heumann, who advocated for institution accessibility, stated: “Until institutions were forced to accommodate us, we would remain locked out and invisible.” Dear Columbia University, your inactions tarnish Judith Heumann.

Neglect of disability rights

I wonder what either one of these individuals would say regarding the disappointing conduct displayed (for the entire world to see) on campus that continues to neglect the lives of students with disabilities.

A disability voice from 2024, I, Lilian Brasch, write to ensure we are not dismissed once again. You failed to see me trapped as hundreds of students stormed past and to this day you remain blind to your inaction. For 20 minutes, I balanced on my scooter wishing for a single moment of possible escape; my prayers for safety remained unanswered. As the chants for the destruction of Israel and Jews continued, on October 12, I felt for a moment that perhaps this is what my ancestors meant when they warned: “It can happen again.”

Ultimately, you tarnished Columbia University. On October 12, 2023 and to this very day, your inactions reach around the world – a blemish on yourself. You are failing to support our institution as a true global light for decency, a worldwide beacon for those with disabilities. You continue to cover our entire institution in the age-old cloak of indifference and you continue to make our beloved Columbia University invisible to those who need her most.

In the final analysis, Columbia University’s inaction to stop this premeditated and volatile uprising on October 12, 2023, and onward is inexcusable – yet forgivable if ended immediately.

I ask that Columbia University remove the encampments that prevent accessibility, issue a global apology, and establish a committee to monitor the balance of free speech and violence. And when difficult topics are presented on campus, please remember to consider the safety of your students with disabilities.

Not able to physically stand on October 12 against the intimidation and blockades, now I stand up with my written words, as the campus antisemitic intimidation and campus inaccessibility continues. This approach is a civil way to peacefully face and ensure that the protection of so-called “free speech” does not act as a shield for violent intimidation or as justification to cease all campus accessibility.


“You can't shake hands with a clenched fist.”

Mahatma Gandhi.

 “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist,” said Mahatma Gandhi. We, from all walks of life and beliefs, must pursue resolutions with open palms, not clenched fists. Hopefully, this approach will lead to improved accessibility during intimidating campus protests.

Intimidation and blocking access should not be experienced by another student who may be weaker than me. Our beloved institution is tarnished but can be polished. When I rise from my wheelchair next time, I do not want to be ashamed to be a Columbia University student. Please let me be proud.

Lilian Brasch (Lily B,) Ability Activist Columbia University, Class of 2025

Abigail Brasch, Barnard College, Columbia University Class of 2024