When Sam Goodin, the director of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, recently looked into making a video about spinal cord injuries to educate hospital employees, he offered students a pretty lucrative deal. In exchange for being in a focus group, students were offered $20 an hour and a chance to win an iPod.
“We got nobody,” Goodin said. “That happens all the time.”
But recently, concerns for the rights of people with disabilities spurred loud chastisement of the University for its lawsuit defending the Michigan Stadium construction against allegations that it has ignored the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
ADA is now a household acronym in the University’s already abbreviation-saturated jargon. And for the University community, it is a mixed blessing. Despite the angry backlash against administrators, the lawsuit has had a noticeably positive effect. It has raised an unprecedented amount of awareness on campus about disability concerns.
For an often-overlooked facet of diversity, awareness offers the potential spark that could help unite the University, faculty, alumni and students in making this campus a more inclusive and welcoming place for people with disabilities of all kinds.
This is a goal that transcends minimum legal requirements, since ADA guidelines requiring ramps don’t assure convenient, or easily usable ramps. And providing access to education at the University doesn’t stop at entering the building – class lectures and PowerPoint presentations are inaccessible to the deaf and blind.
Meeting this challenge is a task riddled with complexity. As a large, old and constantly changing campus, integrated with the city of Ann Arbor and diverse in its duties as an employer and educator, the University’s role in meeting the needs of people with disabilities is multi-faceted. Likewise, there are individual and collective, as well as short-term and long-term responsibilities that the University must meet.
The bad press the University has gotten from the stadium controversy makes it seem callous towards people with disabilities. But in reality, it has some exceptional programs staffed with committed individuals who have managed a Herculean task to the best of their ability. While not always perfect, the University is able to offer a wide variety of services that meet its legal obligations and, more importantly, improve the lives of the people receiving the services.
But to reach the goal of creating an inclusive campus, that might not be enough.
All the programs in the world wouldn’t turn a campus with unwelcoming people into a welcoming place. To do that will take a commitment from everyone on campus.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines disability as: “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.”
More broadly, a disability can mean one of many types of impairments, including the physical, sensory, psychiatric, cognitive and health-related. Some, like physical disabilities that require special equipment such as wheelchairs and sensory disabilities like blindness, are conspicuous. Others, like bipolar disorder, learning disabilities or health disabilities like diabetes, are usually hidden.
Sometimes faced with cultural stereotypes of inferiority, misconceptions about what it means to be a person with a disability and a lack of sensitivity, the environment for people with disabilities is frequently challenging. It is an environment that doesn’t recognize that people with disabilities are people first, or is just oblivious to it.
“We are in a society that has a difficult time placing value – people value – on people with disabilities,” said Jack Bernard, the chair of the University of Michigan Council for Disability Concerns, a volunteer organization comprised of University faculty, staff and students and Ann Arbor residents. “People just don’t understand or are afraid or just don’t know.”
According to data from the 2000 U.S. Census, an estimated one in five people have a long-lasting condition or disability. However, people with disabilities are unlike many other groups facing discrimination because they don’t identify collectively as a community (One exception is deaf people).
Bernard said that the lack of community identity can be attributed to to three main reasons. First, many people who have disabilities “don’t feel that sense of commonness” with other people who have disabilities. For example, it is difficult for a deaf person and a blind person to communicate. Second, facing the daily challenges of a disability is a time challenge as well, preventing free time to organize. Third, because there are both conspicuous and inconspicuous disabilities, there is not always an observable distinction.
The diversity of characteristics that fall under “disabilities” means that while society groups people with disabilities together, the people who are given that label don’t necessarily feel solidarity with one another. These people then experience discrimination based on their group, but they have no group to fall back on.
Unique circumstances at the ‘U’
Like all institutions since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the ADA and other state laws, the University now has an obligation to correct this situation. Legally, it is required to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for any qualified person with a disability. What “reasonable” means or whether someone needs an accommodation is determined on a case-by-case basis. It is also required to meet ADA standards on new construction projects and renovations – the issue at odds in the litigation over the stadium.
“Disability in particular strikes at the core of the academy and fundamental questions about what is our goal, the goal of the University and the various resources we provide,” Bernard said. “What is our purpose?”
The lawsuit about the stadium obscures how much the University is doing to make itself more accessible to people with disabilities. There are obvious areas that need improvement – snow removal comes to mind today. But there are other areas where University is not only meeting the law – it is exceeding it.
“What we look at is what is the intent of the ADA?” said Carole Dubritsky, the University’s assistant director of the Office of Institutional Equity and ADA coordinator.
Looking to the intent of the ADA means ensuring all kinds of accessibility, including physical, programmatic and classroom accessibility, among others.
The University is able to do this with an arsenal of services provided by different offices and a constant re-examination of those services.
Chief among these departments is the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities. In many cases, the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act outline fairly specific requirements for what services different disabilities require. If a student is deaf, the SSWD does what it takes to minimize the challenges presented by not being able to hear. This could include assigning an interpreter, note taker or a real-time captioning device to spoken part of class into text. In other cases, the SSWD merely points students in the direction of department of the University that can provide the service, including places on campus like the Adaptive Technology Computing Site, which offers specialized computers and software to meet the needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities.
It also goes beyond the basic requirements of the laws. For instance, the SSWD provides academic coaching for students with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
“Without any laws to push us whatsoever, we are starting to figure out what the model is going to look like to allow those students to be successful,” Goodin said.
In 2007 alone, the SSWD provided services for 854 students, a figure that has grown by just over 300 students since 2001.
Another office at the University that works to make campus more accessible for people with disabilities is the Office of Institutional Equity, which, according to the office’s website, “provides leadership and support on matters relating to equity, diversity, respect and inclusiveness for all members of the University of Michigan community.”
The Office of Institutional Equity is where the University’s ADA coordinator works. She reviews blueprints, handles complaints and works with other departments to provide services and programs for faculty, staff, students and visitors.
That office also makes long-term plans for a more accessible campus. As Anthony Walesby, assistant provost and senior director of the office puts it, “It’s not just about compliance. We’re also interested in – just using the physical accessibility as an example – usability.”
But there’s no getting around the fact that many of the buildings on campus are old. When the nation’s ivory towers first went up, elevators weren’t a concern.
Dubritsky is in the middle of a review of campus’s more than 200 buildings. She plans to be finished by 2010.
The last major organization with a unique role is the Council for Disability Concerns, a volunteer group made up of University students, faculty and staff, as well as Ann Arbor-area residents, which meets monthly to address disability issues. Created by University President Harry Shapiro in 1983, the council “creates a community for a constituency that largely isn’t a community,” as Bernard said.
Each year, the council hosts Investing in Ability Week and gives out the James T. Neubacher Award, events that raise awareness and reward advocates for those with disabilities. Also, it works with the University to review policy and blueprints, as well as advocate new policies and actions. As a separate entity, the council is unique in its ability “to shine a light on what areas we are achieving and not,” Bernard said.
While these three groups may be the most visible among the organizations working to improve accessibility on campus, they are not by any means all the University offers. Many others are working tirelessly too, like those in the University of Michigan Initiative on Disability Studies. The fact that these three groups already offer so much is a testament to how much support there is.
The missing link
While the University has been demonstrating a successful top-down approach to improving the accessibility of campus, the disability-rights discussion stalls when it comes to any sort of bottom-up movement. Students are especially uninterested and often times ignorant on even the most basic disability issues or courtesies.
“People don’t know a lot about what it means to be a wheelchair user,” said Rackham graduate student Jolene Pemberton, who is a wheelchair user.
Although there are fledgling signs of improvement in student groups, there is concern that the attention span of groups on campus is too short to affect any change.
Pemberton said that the University’s Paratransit service, which offers free door-to-door transportation for students, faculty or staff with disabilities, has “been great,” that the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities was very helpful when she first arrived on campus and that most of the buildings have accessibility. But other students, she said, are often unsure of how to act around her.
Since Pemberton is a wheelchair user she needs the accessible stall when using the bathroom. But students who have taken the stall in front of her have at times made her wait as long as 10 minutes. Similarly, students love to take the elevator, which is not a problem unless she is in an older building with only one elevator that students overcrowd, forcing her to wait. While these are just inconveniences, they reflect students’ obliviousness to the needs of their peers with disabilities.
Teddy Dorsette, who is a deaf student and the co-chair of the Michigan Student Assembly’s Disabilities Committee, expressed similar concerns.
“People have the misconception that we can understand exactly everything that is going on,” he said.
There is a simple solution, he said: Include everyone in a cohesive conversation.
After MSA’s president resigned in disgrace in December following revelations that he had created a Facebook group mocking a representative and making reference to his Aspberger’s syndrome, the assembly re-formed its disabilities committee. The committee had been inactive.
Undoubtedly, the resurrection of the MSA Disabilities Committee suggests the potential to turn the negative attention into positive action. Dorsette and co-chair Elson Lu seem committed to the task at hand. They also recognize that focusing on short-term projects and education, instead of pledging to make campus fully accessible overnight, is a wiser strategy.
Lu also told a story that underscores the personal rewards working for progress on disabilities issues offers. He recalled the time when he was in an upper-level engineering class at the University of Arizona and his professor asked him to be a volunteer note-taker for another student. He said he was inspired by “the fact that it takes so little to help out a student so much.”
Bernard points out something often overlooked by people without disabilities: Everyone benefits from these resources. No matter if you are riding a bike, walking a stroller or rolling a wheelchair, more curbcuts – the places where the sidewalk slants down into the street, forming a ramp – benefit everyone. Elevators benefit everyone. Widescreen computer monitors benefit everyone.
“Every single one of us could be that person tomorrow,” said Bernard. “That is a difficult mirror in which to look.”
Rackham student Alison Whyte, who is involved with a School of Social Work student affairs task force on disabilities, said many student organizations don’t have the patience to fully research the issues before trying to act.
“People don’t want to be involved,” she said. “They want to do something now.”
On such an issue, which requires a lot of background research, it’s tough to keep people’s attention because not everyone is on the same page when it comes to their views of disabilities.
While disability concerns are still in our campus’s collective memory – even if the stories sparking the thought were negative stories – we must seize this opportunity to make this the campus we want it to be.