Access at the U

by Emily Dalnodar

and Heather Fors
Staff Reporters

When Coffman Union officials put up a new awning last fall, most people just walked around the supporting poles. However, for a student who is blind and uses memory as a guide, this sudden change became a physical hazard.
Not knowing of the revision, the student collided with the pole and learned about Coffman’s new awning the hard way.
Kathy Strom, coordinator of the Disabled Student Cultural Center in Coffman Union, says she often hears stories such as this from University students and staff members who frequent the office.
But University officials say disability access problems and their possible solutions are a priority. In fact, Sue Lasoff, an accessibility specialist with Disability Services, said the University’s efforts in this area make it appealing to disabled people around the country.
But those who are disabled say the campus is not without fault, especially in terms of building access, transportation, parking and snow removal.
Building access
The size of the Twin Cities campus and the number of buildings can sometimes make a challenging obstacle course for those with physical disabilities.
“You have to go the long ways around to get places. You have to be really creative. There’s always a solution — you just can’t be stuck,” said Jenny Kettler, a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts who uses crutches and a motorized scooter as transportation.
“I’m lucky I can use my crutches to get up steps when the elevator breaks down,” Kettler said. Although, she said, it is frustrating.
Disability Services officials claim many buildings on campus, especially on the East Bank, are old and have accessibility problems. The buildings were not constructed under the same requirements of those built today, Lasoff said.
Currently, 90 percent of the buildings on campus are handicap accessible. But some buildings on campus cannot be reached directly. They either have stairs leading to the outside or doors that are too heavy or narrow.
The Weisman Art Museum is a good example of an accessible building, Lasoff said. It has power doors, wide-stalled bathrooms, an elevator, and different height exhibits so people seated in wheelchairs can view them.
In comparison, the Art Building on the West Bank lacks an elevator and has a steep ramp and non-accessible toilets.
Classes can also be tough to make on time. Kettler said sometimes she has to go through multiple buildings and use various tunnels and elevators just to get to class.
Walter Library is one building where stairs lead to both outside entrances. While most buildings are renovated to deal with these problems, no changes will be made to Walter because it is a historical building, said Sue Kroeger, director of Disability Services.
But Kroeger, who has a physical disability, said the hardest mobility issues for her are the tunnels and skyways.
“I can’t get from (Johnston Hall) to Nolte Cafe in my wheelchair, but everyone else can without going outside,” she said.
The tunnel system was also not built with handicap accessibility in mind. But, like Walter, the University is not required under law to change it.
Sometimes building, fire and safety codes conflict with disability access. Other times, making something convenient for people with disabilities might cause a hazard for others, Kroeger said.
But officials say adjustments are made whenever possible.
Power doors are not mandated in the Americans With Disabilities Act, which is a federal act to insure equal access for people with physical and mental disabilities. But the University tries to install 10 to 12 new doors every year, each costing between $10,000 and $12,000.
With every building upgrade, a new power-operated door is installed, Lasoff said. Right now there are power doors in about half of the buildings on campus.
One other major building complaint is elevators in the dormitories, which have a history of breaking down.
About 90 percent of all campus buildings have elevators, and half have wide-stalled bathrooms.
Despite the problems with building accessibility, officials say there is an effort.
“The University is responsive,” Kroeger said. “That’s just so key. But when it comes to going beyond code, it gets tight competing with resources. That’s the hard part.”
The small white and maroon bus tooling around and transporting people to class and work is one solution to a large campus mobility problem. The size of the campus can make getting to places on time difficult.
“I don’t know how I’d be able to get around without it,” said Robert McLeod, a General College freshman, who rode the Paratransit bus in January because of a broken foot.
People with permanent and temporary disabilities find the University Paratransit Service useful for mobilization on and between the Twin Cities campuses.
Since its first day in service Jan. 27, 1997, the experimental Paratransit has made more than 1,700 trips. “They’re not huge numbers but they’re substantial,” said Roger Huss, assistant director of transportation at Parking and Transportation Services.
“That’s the problem, I think people just aren’t aware of it,” said Brad Sundberg, a Paratransit driver.
Sundberg said he makes about 10 trips a day. He said since October he hasn’t made less than that.
“I think it’d be great if they got enough people that they’d need more than one van,” Sundberg said. Currently there is only one vehicle used daily, with a second on stand-by. It would take 30 trips a day to employ another van.
Compared to the regular bus system, though, Paratransit is more convenient and is safer for riders with disabilities. The regular bus didn’t get McLeod very close to his classes, forcing him to either skip class or walk there slowly.
Strom also said the wider lifts add to the security of those in wheelchairs, because some have fallen off regular bus lifts.
The experimental service will continue to run beyond July 1 and possibly into fall 1999. Continual evaluations will determine the final fate of the system.
The Paratransit system works for people on campus who need to get from point A to point B, but officials say that doesn’t solve all transportation problems. The University’s location within a big city makes it a chore for commuters to get to and from campus, Lasoff said.
She said parking and transportation are the biggest access issues on campus, and many people with disabilities agree.
Every day Barb Jirik drops off and picks up her daughter Kate at the University. Kate has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
“I know parking is a major issue at the University, anyway,” said Barb Jirik. She said finding a parking spot is frustrating.
The handicap spots are all either far from Kate’s classes, have too short a time limit or are simply not available.
When Barb was a student at the University in the 1970s there were five handicap parking spots behind Fraser Hall, she said. Now there are two.
Of the 20,961 parking spots on the Twin Cities campus streets, ramps, garages and lots, 494 of them are for handicap parking.
The 121 free on-street handicap spots are limited to two or three hours to protect against abuse by parking there all day.
Parking and Transportation enforces handicap parking rules by using Access Inspector for the Health, Safety and Transportation department Reed Risk.
Risk patrols the campus in his wheelchair looking for illegally parked vehicles.
He said the worst place on campus for this is in front of Williamson Hall. People park in the handicap spots to run into the book store or the Admissions Office.
Handicap parking may not always be handy, but improvements are evident. By patrolling the area and reducing the time allowed to park, officials say people are becoming more aware of those with disabilities.
Snow removal
Snow can be annoying to those walking around campus, but can be treacherous for people with disabilities.
“When there’s lots of snow piled up it messes with your landmarks,” said Jane Toleno, who is blind.
Toleno, a co-facilitator in a Diversity Connections project with University College, uses a Seeing Eye dog to help her navigate around campus. But when snow is piled up on the walkways her dog just stops.
“You tell your dog Forward’ and he won’t move because there’s a snow bank right there,” Toleno said.
Being visually impaired, Toleno’s listening skills are essential to keep her safe. Snowbanks piled up on corners have a tendency to block the sounds of traffic, she said.
She also said the stairs leading to buildings are often times icy and can be dangerous.
“I chose to live in Minnesota, so I have to deal with it,” Toleno said.
The University tries to keep snow piles at a minimum, said Les Potts, acting manager of Facilities Support. He could not recall a time when the piles would have been so big as to obstruct the sound of traffic, however.
Snow removal is one of the biggest complaints Kroeger hears at Disabilities Services. She said the grounds crew does a good job of trying to remove it. But in Minnesota it can be difficult to compete with the harsh conditions.
“It’s really hard to get through the snow,” Kettler said. “I’ve been so lucky, though. Anytime I’ve ever gotten stuck in the snow or anywhere, people come out of nowhere and will push me out.”
Grounds crew removes the snow from streets and sidewalks, but each building on campus is responsible for clearing the walks and steps outside their building.
Each year grounds crew checks with Disability Services to discuss priorities for snow removal. Public places, like Coffman Union, and buildings where people with disabilities work take precedence.