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Campus accessibilityimproving, little by little

What if you could not reach the buttons on the elevators? Or what if you were unable to open the door to the restroom, or worse yet there was no restroom for you to use? What if you were not able to attend classes at Portland State University without special accommodations? This is the reality for many students on campus.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, there are set guidelines for accessibility for individuals with disabilities in public and commercial places. The act outlines regulations for the design, construction and alteration of buildings and facilities.

According to Dick Piekenbrock, the staff architect at Portland State, the only buildings up to code on Portland State campus are the new Urban Center buildings.

Piekenbrock said that the legislature does not give specific money for accessibility modifications. He said that this is an issue on many college campuses around the country.

Piekenbrock said that the federal government recognizes the fact that universities do not have the money to change everything and make all the accommodations necessary. Therefore, the federal requirements apply only if there is a modification on existing conditions. For example, if there are no changes made to buildings that were built before for the ADA, then modifications are not necessary to comply with the law.

However, during a remodel, there is a twenty-five percent rule. The twenty-five percent rule means that twenty-five percent of the money for a remodel has to be spent on ADA accessibility.

If someone with a physical disability has to attend a class or a meeting in a building that is not up to ADA code, and that lack of accommodation hinders the student, then the class or meeting has to be moved.

According to the ADA, “reasonable accommodations” have to be made for people with disabilities.

Piekenbrock explained that reasonable accommodations could be a multitude of things such as finding an appropriate table for a student, sound amplification or even replacing a door handle.

Polly Livingston, the director of the Disabilities Resource Center (DRC), said the biggest service accommodation is with test and note taking. The DRC also provides services such as counseling, time management and teaching study skills.

Burt Christopherson, the director of PSU’s Affirmative Action office, said that the campus is improving physical conditions incrementally.

He said that there is a plan to improve ADA accessibility over time, but this would be a massive expenditure of funds. Christopherson said this would happen over time as the school gets money for the changes.

Piekenbrock said that some of the incremental changes that are occurring now are funded by money out of the deferred maintenance fund.

Christopherson said that accommodations would be made for individual student needs. If someone on campus needs a service, he or she needs to ask for it.

Since there are not enough funds to make everything up to ADA standards at once, there is a priority list of what needs to be physically fixed first.

“Elevators are the biggest priority,” Piekenbrock said. Replacing the elevators is a $5 million project.

Piekenbrock said that some of the elevators are forty years old and worn out. The majority of the elevators are not up to ADA standards, the button panel is too high or the buttons are too hard to push. The elevators are also not up to state fire codes.

Piekenbrock said that two elevators in Smith Memorial Center will be replaced as a part of the ongoing remodel.

Last year the elevator in Lincoln Hall was replaced because it broke. There was a three-month period when Lincoln Hall did not have an elevator, according to Piekenbrock. Facilities spent $5000 to get a wheel chair climber for students to be able to get to their classrooms in Lincoln Hall.

There have been some changes in ADA accessibility issues. A few years ago $70,000 was spent in the construction of a Stott Center ramp.

During the summer of 2001, the streetcar started operation. Portland State and the ADA committee worked closely in the construction of the streetcar and it is fully accessible.

According to Piekenbrock, strobe lights will be added soon to alert those who are hearing impaired of an emergency. It will be the only streetcar in the world with this feature. There has also been “chirping” crosswalk signals added on campus to assist those who are visually impaired in crossing the street.

Piekenbrock acknowledges that many accessibility issues still need to be addressed. One such need is the necessity for an accessible toilet in the basement of Smith Memorial Center. He said that this is especially a problem at night, because there are not many alternatives for an accessible restroom at that time.

In addition, Piekenbrock said that there will be construction on the west end of campus soon that may cause accessibility issues. The construction will be on the Birmingham building, Helen Gordon Children Center and Parking Structure 3.

He said the key to helping with accessibility issues is to keep people informed.

The ADA is a law that requires responsibility from all parties; both students and the university have responsibility for academic accommodations. To receive individual accommodation a person must register with the DRC.

Elaine Cohn, the assistant director of Affirmative Action on campus, estimates that nearly forty percent of the population is living with a disability.

There are 21,000 students on campus and only a few hundred who are registered with the DRC.

Livingston said that the number of students registered is “just the tip of the iceberg.” She said that students have to self-advocate.

It is required by the ADA that students who have disabilities that impact their ability to function in the classroom and want services must identify themselves to the DRC office and register for services.

According to Livingston, students can go to the Health Center or to CAPS for documentation. Livingston said that CAPS does a good job of testing and providing documentation for people with learning disabilities.

“By the time a student gets to PSU, they have lived with the condition for a while and have a pretty good idea what they need,” Christopherson said.

The issue that still remains is the discrepancy in the number of students who register with the DRC and the number of students who actually have disabilities.

There are many reasons why students do not register. Christopherson said that those students who have not registered may not need any special accommodations. Some students may also be hesitant to register themselves as disabled.

“We can coach them if they are nervous,” Cohn said.

Livingston said that she would like for more students to register with the DRC. She said perhaps one of the reasons why more students do not register is because they do not feel that they have a disability.

The student handbook states that the ADA specifies a two-step accommodation process. In the first step of the accommodation and access process, the ADA requires that students identify themselves as requiring academic accommodation or assistance in any class.

According to the ADA, students will need to inform every instructor in every class in which they are enrolled, each term, of their needs for accommodation. The instructor needs to be informed of the accommodation, but not of the specific disability.

Livingston stressed that students do not have to tell their instructors anything about their specific disabilities, just the fact that their accommodation needs to be reported.

In the second step, the student needs to give timely notice to his or her instructor. The instructor has to be notified early in the term to have time to adjust, accommodate or consult prior to the class or test affected.

“This is ok; they aren’t cheating. You [the instructors] aren’t giving them an unfair advantage,” Christopherson said. “We teach faculty not to change what they expect from students but instead they may need to change the delivery.”

Livingston said it may mean changing the way instructors teach, instructors should use a multimode method.

She said that it is important to have a process that works for all students.

Livingston said that they are working on a video with the ADA policy to make people more aware of the varying degrees of ability.

Instructors may need to comply with accommodations once they are aware of the need, but it is the student’s responsibility to register, and acknowledge, the needs.

In order to have documentation on file, students must register with the DRC. To register with the DRC, students must make an accommodation assessment appointment that provides evidence of their disability from a qualified medical or psychological professional.

Christopherson said that students are required to register with the DRC to assure that the student really does have a disability.

Christopherson explained that to a person without disabilities such accommodations would be an advantage, but for a student living with a disability, accommodations level the playing field.

Livingston said that the idea is never to give an advantage, but instead to the give the ability for students to move along with everyone else. She said it is important to not make judgments without knowing the full situation.

“People are pretty amazing. People have an amazing ability to cope with challenges they are faced with,” Livingston said.

Christopherson gave the example of automated doors. If a person is not disabled and uses the automated door then it is an advantage, but for a student in a wheelchair an automated door is a necessity Therefore, the reason for documentation of students with disabilities is to ensure the students who really need the resources are being served.

The cost of such documentation is the responsibility of the students.

If students become registered with the DRC, the students can then request letters that will verify that they have a documented disability and list accommodations for which they qualify.

To receive this letter of accommodation, the student must first request it and then turn in a copy of their class schedule to the DRC desk. The student will receive one letter for each instructor.

Documentation is held under strict confidence and in accordance with all laws pertaining to disability in higher education.

Accommodation for ADA is not restricted to students who have physical disabilities, but also for students with learning disabilities.

According to the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), a learning disorder is defined as a disparity between achievement and ability and is usually a long-standing problem. Students with learning disabilities need to present documentation for their disability as well.

Christopherson said that all the committees work together in an effort to help accessibility and accommodation.

Piekenbrock said that facilities meet every month with the ADA committee. Parking, security and OIT identify problems on campus and help find solutions that everyone can contribute to.

There are several resources on campus that students with disabilities can use for assistance. The Assistive Technology Center in the library is one such resource.

The Assistive Technology Center has computer desks that change levels, a Braille printer, a scanner reader and many types of adaptive programs for speech recognition.

Phyllis Petteys, the director of the Assistive Technology Center, said that many students do not know that they can request software but that the administration is doing all they can.

“The things are in place, it is just day to day cracks,” Petteys said.

Piekenbrock said that on the facilities Web site, there are maps to illustrate what is ADA accessible and what is not. He said that they took documents from the Students with disAbilities Union and put them on the facilities Web site as web pages. Those Web pages give a narrative about accessible for each individual building on campus.

The Office of Affirmative Action provides workshops, one-on-one consultation, and guest lectures on employment and diversity-related topics such as accommodating disabilities in higher education.

The Office of Educational Equity Programs and Services and the Educational Opportunity Program help students who are low-income, who have a physical, psychological, or learning disability, and those who are first generation students.

Students can also make use of the Campus Ombuds Office, which provides mediating or resolution in complaints and conflicts.