Equal Access: From Railcars to Websites

Radcliffe fellows using the schlesinger library
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
By Jonathan Lazar

When I first arrived at the Radcliffe Institute, I attended a luncheon where I sat with a few librarians from the Schlesinger Library. When they heard that I was a professor of computer and information sciences, they said, “Sorry, we probably won’t be able to assist you much—you may have more luck finding technology-related books at the Cabot Science Library.” Then I told them more about my fellowship project, about the societal discrimination that occurs when people with disabilities don’t have equal access to websites, and the librarians perked up. When I said that I wanted help learning more about the history of civil rights movements and how separate accommodations were often unequal, the librarians said, “We can definitely help with that.”

The librarians at the Schlesinger connected me with reference material and introduced me to a faculty member with expertise on the topic. For example, I learned that there were often separate railroad cars for women in the United States in the late 1800s. These cars were generally cleaner and were considered to be “safer” for women, although there was no legal or policy requirement for segregated railroad cars for them. Often, black women were excluded from the women’s railcar. And black women often legally challenged the fact that they were required to pay the same train fare as white women but received inferior accommodations. This historical fact directly connects with my work on how people with disabilities, when they cannot access websites, receive unequal treatment or pay higher prices.

A Pullman car en route to Boston on the Burlington Route stopped at Main Street in Keene, New Hampshire, 1883, by J.A. French, Keene NH. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryA Pullman car en route to Boston on the Burlington Route stopped at Main Street in Keene, New Hampshire, 1883, by J.A. French, Keene NH. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library


Jonathan Lazar, the 2012–2013 Shutzer Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, is a professor of computer and information sciences and the founder and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory at Towson University.

Search Year: 
2013