AU's disabled obstacles

Students face hills, ramps, narrow aisles on campus

It is well-known that many AU buildings and offices, such as Gray, Hurst, Roper, McCabe, Watkins, Kreeger, Asbury, Hamilton and the School of International Service are not accessible to physically disabled students. Though this problem is expected to be reduced over the next decade or so as various buildings undergo renovation, it seems that the most frustrating obstacles the disabled or physically challenged have to surmount are less obvious and yet probably easier to fix.

"Hills are a big thing, or the degree of the ramp, but Battelle, Mary Graydon Center and Kogod are doable," said Amrith Fernandes-Prabhu, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences who transferred to AU a year ago. "Heavy doors. You gotta push with one hand and wheel with the other. Why do doors have to be so heavy?"

Fernandes-Prabhu doesn't have a lot of complaints, though. She's usually with a group of a few friends who make things easier, often by pushing her wheelchair, which she can get out of if she needs to.

"AU's fine," she said. "Nothing's holding me back. But I do feel lucky because I do have a strong support system on campus that other people might not have."

She said she has called Disability Support Services, the office that acts as a liaison between the approximately 120 disabled or physically challenged students at AU and the University, with a problem only once or twice this year, and that it usually gets problems solved pretty quickly. Anything she complains about now can't be blamed AU for, she said; she usually has friends around to help her and doesn't want to be a pest, anyhow.

"I really haven't heard very much in the last few years in the way of complaints," said Jerry Gager, director of the Office of Facilities, Planning and Development. "What I've really heard is compliments from people in the community about how accessible AU is."

Fernandes-Prabhu said AU is generally pretty handicap accessible, but it's usually just the small stuff that can be frustrating.

"The Centennial parking lot: The ramp goes up to the parking lot but then there's a step ... some of the bookstore aisles are so narrow that you can't get a wheelchair in there," she said.

It doesn't make sense, she said, that the school would build a ramp to the garage and end it with a step or make a handicap-accessible bookstore but have too-narrow aisles. But since she hasn't submitted a formal request for the University to do something about the aisles, it's not fair for her to blame it, she said.

Disclosing a disability and requesting an accommodation is a necessary step before the school is required to see what can be done, said Joanne Benica, director of Disability Support Services, who has been at AU since October.

"If you are a student with a disability, you're not protected under the law unless you disclose, unless you come in to our office and say, 'I have a disability and here are the accommodations that I need,'" she said.

Generally, she said, the University is receptive to student, staff and faculty needs and is able to make reasonable accommodations.

"What we do before the semester begins is we get a list of students who need accessible classrooms and we work with our scheduler, so if there's a class in a building like SIS then we find another place for that class to be held," Benica said. "In the case of an office like Student Accounts, we would make arrangements to meet elsewhere ... whether it would be my office or someplace else on campus that would be accessible."

"We make accommodations," Gager said.

One such accommodation occurred last year when a student complained that he could not access the Hair City salon in the Butler Pavilion Tunnel. Because there was not enough room on the sidewalk to install a wheelchair elevator, a University paid for an interconnecting door to be installed between the ground-level U.P.S. Store and the salon to provide access, Gager said. Now, though, the door is blocked by displays on both sides, which Benica said she will look into.

Sometimes problems are much easier and cheaper to fix.

"We have rooms that are wheelchair accessible in the residence halls," Benica said. "We will either retrofit the room if need be or place them in a room already retrofitted. Maybe their accommodation is just to be on the first floor."

Still, some problems remain.

"The shuttle buses are a huge pain," Fernandes said. "The No. 6 bus is the only one that usually works. Is it a maintenance issue? I don't know. But the other busses almost never work. Most of the drivers are great, but some aren't. If I can't get on a bus, usually I'll just wait for one I can get on. It's usually OK, but why should I get to be 15-minutes late to work just because I'm in a chair?"

Benica said that at least one other student had raised concern about the shuttle fleet's accessibility and said she was unsure where it stands now.

Thomas Leathers, manager for transportation services for Public Safety, did not return a call for comment.

Most major buildings at AU, and all of the new ones under development, are handicap accessible, Benica and Gager said, but they need to know whenever there are problems.

"Katzen is a barrier-free building," Gager said. "That's pretty much the requirement in our direction since we've been renovating and building new. The Sports Center was probably one of the first buildings that was designed in that way - but that's not to say that mistakes aren't made in design"

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle