U works to update disability services

by Yelena Kibasova

As students walk up the stairs to the One Stop Student Center inside Fraser Hall, Rachel Garaghty, a political science and French sophomore, sits in her electric wheelchair, waiting for someone to open the hall’s elevator door for her.

And while it might take students a couple of hours to search the Internet for information at Walter Library, for John Lukanen, a visually impaired senior, it can take as many as six hours because of technological accessibility setbacks.

According to University Disability Services, 9.2 percent of first-year students report having a disability. A disability can be anything from visual impairment to depression to dyslexia, or it can be a temporary medical condition like a broken bone.

Although Disability Services has come a long way in making the campus accessible for the disabled population, there are some rough spots that students still continue to deal with.

Physical accessibility

Building accessibility on the Minneapolis campus, though better than the St. Paul campus, has some significant obstacles.

Fraser Hall probably is the biggest problem, Garaghty said. The old-fashioned elevator and lift in the hall is a problem.

“I need someone there with me,” she said. “I have to go down a smaller lift Ö that doesn’t work all the time, so it’s really fickle.”

Another problem is that the building’s elevator does not give access to all parts of the building.

“If Fraser Hall can’t be fixed, then those student services should move to a building that’s accessible,” Garaghty said.

Liz Barrie, a psychology sophomore who also uses an electric wheelchair, said Scott Hall became an issue when one of her classes was held there. She could not gain access to the room and needed to switch discussion sections to attend the class.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating because even in the partially accessible buildings, the place I want to get to is not in the accessible part,” Barrie said.

Barrie’s father, Bob Barrie of Edina, said he initially was concerned about the University’s accessibility when looking at possible colleges with his daughter.

Bob Barrie, who graduated from the University in 1978, said “I was a bit apprehensive about the size of the campus.”

But he said he was surprised at how far accessibility on campus has come. He was especially impressed with how accessible Dinnaken House is, where Liz lives.

“They have really seemed to have bent backwards to accommodate her,” he said.

But there are obstacles scattered throughout other campus buildings.

The Nolte Center for Continuing Education has no elevator and the accessibility buttons in Anderson Hall often are hard for wheelchair users to reach, Garaghty said.

She said it is key for buildings to have accessible buttons. For her, Coffman Union is a prime example of a building with quality buttons, she said.

“They are easy to push, they’re at a height that’s good for me and it’s easy for me to come up along side of them in my wheelchair,” she said.

Nicholson Hall, which has been remodeled, has buttons the size of a light switch, which is too small, Garaghty said. One of the switches is near the corner of a door, where it is hard to reach.

“It’s really too bad because otherwise the building is great,” Garaghty said.

Overall, Garaghty and Liz Barrie said, the campus is doing very well in providing access to most locations.

“Compared to other campuses, the ‘U of M’ campus, especially the Minneapolis one, is really, really wonderful,” Garaghty said. “I would like to see that replicated on the St. Paul campus and other University campuses as well.”

Adaptive technology

After being on campus for several years, Lukanen, a human resources and development senior, has the campus pretty well figured out.

But Lukanen runs into more problems in the digital world than the physical world.

Lukanen, who uses a screen-reader program called Jaws, said some Web sites, such as WebCT Vista, are not compatible with the program. Lukanen experiences problems with PDF files, the registration Web site and online forms.

“This is something that should have been addressed many years ago,” he said.

To access these files, Lukanen has to ask professors to send him files via e-mail, have a student read the files to him or have Disability Services provide a different file format.

“It creates a huge headache for people who use these programs,” he said.

Lukanen said instead of paying for students to read the files for him, the University should put money toward making their Web sites compatible.

“You have all this online stuff – it’s great, it’s wonderful, but when you don’t have access to it, what good does it do?” he said.

Disability Services works to provide accessibility

Although some rough spots exist on campus, most buildings are appropriately accessible.

Roberta Juarez, the physical access coordinator for Disability Services, said that as new buildings are being built and old ones remodeled, they are being brought to accessibility code standards.

The campus follows guidelines laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act and

Minnesota disability access codes, which provide standards for ramp slopes, range of reach of buttons and dimensions of accessible bathroom stalls.

Juarez said the University also has its own construction standards that are “over and above those two codes.”

Another challenge for accessibility is that some buildings on campus are considered historic.

“There’s an additional set of guidelines that you follow so that you can create access while still maintaining the historic nature of those structures,” Juarez said.

Juarez explained that Disability Services continuously is working with the code office on projects throughout campus.

For example, they are taking action after a complaint was filed last year about the lack of an elevator in the Nolte Center.

“We are currently looking at securing funding to put an elevator in (the Nolte Center),” Juarez said.

Nicholson Hall, which used to be minimally accessible, also has been remodeled “to meet current state and federal guidelines,” she said.

Eric Eklund, an adaptive technology associate for Disability Services, said he is aware of the University’s technological problems. He said WebCT Vista is working on making improvements to provide accessibility for all students.

Juarez recommends students contact Disability Services with accessibility concerns.

“If they can provide us with information about these specific problems they are having, we can most often come up with a solution,” she said.

Plans for Fraser Hall

Fraser Hall, which provides services including One Stop, the Office of Student Finance and the Career and Community Learning Center, is considered “partially accessible.”

“There’s not a quick fix for Fraser,” Juarez said.

So far, the building has gone through many small renovations that make it as accessible as possible.

Mike Berthelsen, a finance officer for University Services said, “Unless and until the University is prepared to make a major building renovation, we need to just keep those small building improvements working.”

The University has sent a proposal to the state Capitol asking for funding to build a new science teaching and student services building in place of the Science Classroom Building near the Washington Avenue Bridge.

It would be a “more comprehensive, one-stop shop for student services,” Berthelson said. “We hope it would be one of the most accessible and widely traveled spots on campus.”