(March 12, 2013)
Many students grumble about walking long distances across the campus in the cold, but for others at this university, it’s hard just to get up the stairs.
History professor Gay Gullickson had polio as a child and now travels in a wheelchair. Little things students often take for granted — such as walking to the second floor, using the restroom or trudging up a hill to class — aren’t so easy for her.
“I can’t go, say, from here [Francis Scott Key Hall] to Tawes by myself — it’s just too steep a hill,” Gullickson said. “I have to ask somebody to give me a push.”
But Gullickson, the chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Disability Issues, said campus accessibility has improved significantly since she first came here in the 1980s. As a new sorority, Alpha Xi Delta, renovates its house this semester with handicapped-accessible amenities, university officials said handicapped accessibility in housing and academic buildings has become the norm rather than the exception.
In the early 2000s, the university had a shortage of housing, but now there is a surplus, said Scott Young, Department of Resident Life assistant director. With a push from the Residence Hall Association, 52 handicapped-accessible rooms were added in Oakland Hall in fall 2011. Now, there are 222 accessible rooms, many of them in North Campus high-rises.
Handicapped-accessible rooms are available in apartments and suites, but many of the older South Campus dorms don’t include them, Scott said.
“It doesn’t mean every single building has to be accessible, but we can’t discriminate for a student with a disability,” he said. “If someone was installed in College Park Scholars or an academic program, we couldn’t say ‘I’m sorry; you can’t live in Scholars because we don’t have accessible spaces.’”
To accommodate students with various conditions, rooms include features such as window air conditioners for students with asthma, door peepholes, wider doors, lower counters and roll-in showers with shower chairs or walkers, Young said. Some rooms have bed shakers and flashing lights in addition to traditional fire alarms, so visual- or hearing-impaired students know to exit the building.
“We know every student’s needs aren’t the same,” he said. “A prospective student could say ‘I need a roll-in shower and a higher toilet — those are my two needs.’ It’s important for us to have these dialogues, so they’re treated as an individual and not just a number with a code with ‘this student has asthma.’”
The RHA hasn’t received any complaints about housing options, RHA president Sasha Azar said.
“If your needs are not being met, that’s really when we step in,” she said.
Off the campus, fraternity and sorority houses are also slowly improving their amenities. For example, Alpha Xi Delta plans to install a handicapped suite on the first floor and a handicapped-accessible entrance, basement and first-floor common rooms in its Knox Road house.
Though the sorority doesn’t have any members with disabilities, AXiD members anticipate injured students and older alumnae making use of the accessible areas, said the sorority’s president, Christina Barrett, a junior communication and government and politics major.
“If a girl breaks her leg at the beginning of the semester, she can sleep in the handicapped suite,” Barrett said. “We have a lot of alumni who were here in the ’90s, and they’re slowly getting up there … so [it’s] just kind of to make it so if anyone does need that.”
AXiD modeled its renovations on other university fraternity and sorority houses, Barrett said.
But not every house has similar amenities. Bob Nichols, facilities and operations associate director in the Department of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said before the passage of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, changes didn’t have to follow handicapped-accessible guidelines. Since 1990, however, 13 houses on Fraternity Row and the Graham Cracker have been renovated, including seven in the past five years, Nichols said.
Since ADA passed, eight houses still haven’t received renovations.
“There are no plans for major gutting of houses — ripping out everything, which would be required to add things like wheelchair ramps and lifts,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the university is often forced to prioritize when it comes to funding large-scale renovations.
“It’s not that I don’t ask,” he said. “If budget time comes around, we ask. But the university is often in the position of saying we need to do the urgent things before we can do the important things. … Sometimes a leaking roof in the physics building is more important than doing something we’d like to do but isn’t urgent.”
But over the years, Gullickson said, amenities on the campus have steadily improved.
“The main administration building had an elevator that was the size of a postage stamp,” she said. “It was like a dumbwaiter — it was just tiny. And finally, about four years ago, a really nice elevator was put in that building.”
Though some buildings aren’t completely accessible — Gullickson pointed to Holzapfel Hall, which she said doesn’t have an adequate elevator — this is often because the university has plans to tear down or completely renovate the building.
In 2010, the Department of Facilities Planning outlined $15.9 million worth of projects to improve the campus’s accessibility, said Facilities Management program planner Leonard Azonobi.
Because of new devices such as motorized wheelchairs, more students with disabilities are moving around independently, and thus more modifications are needed, the plan stated. The plan mentioned that a student in a wheelchair got stuck in an architecture building elevator.
But the projects aren’t cheap: Modifying an entire restroom, including widening doors and stalls and lowering paper towel racks, costs $18,000, and building an elevator costs $500,000, the plan stated.
In 2010, the proposed projects included about $6.6 million for restrooms in 88 different buildings and about $7.6 million for elevators in 30 buildings. Other projects included installing curb cuts and ramps, widening doors, installing visual alarms and modifying water fountains.
Since 2009, projects in 30 buildings have been completed, as well as $15,000 in curb cuts. Thirteen projects in 12 buildings are ongoing, including in several older buildings on McKeldin Mall and the Potomac Building, which is installing a new elevator and building an entrance ramp.
Each year, the department requests state money for projects, prioritizing academic buildings first and then libraries, administration buildings and academic support facilities. On Feb. 27, the department requested about $1 million for improvements in the Biology-Psychology Building, Computer and Space Science Building and Hornbake Library.
But at a campus forum on disabilities issues in 2009, students complained about how long it takes the university to complete renovations. The recently proposed changes aren’t slated to begin until fiscal year 2015.
Though many worry about the impact of state and federal funding cuts on higher education, Azonobi thinks because ADA funding makes up so little of what the state doles out, it most likely won’t be affected.
For Gullickson, along with physically changing the campus, it’s important to eliminate the stigma associated with disabilities. Gullickson asks students for help every day unloading and reloading her wheelchair into her car. And at first, students are surprised at what she’s asking, she said.
“It’s not what they’re expecting anybody to ask,” Gullickson said. “I say, ‘Do you think you could pull my wheelchair out of the trunk?’ And there’ll just be this moment of hesitation and then, ‘Oh, sure!’ while the penny dropped and they realized what I was asking.”
But over the years, Gullickson said she’s noticed students learning how to put together a wheelchair, something she attributes to increased education about people with disabilities.
Since anyone can acquire a disability at any time, there needs to be much more awareness on the campus, Gullickson said.
“The odds are really, really good that at some point, everybody’s going to break an ankle, or get sick or something’s going to happen, and they’re going to enter this group of people with disabilities,” Gullickson said. “And then they won’t know what’s happened to them.”
“Rather than the outsiders, make everybody insiders.”