Students, officials discuss disability standards on campus

UNA student Brooke Weckwarth navigates the sidewalks in front of her apartment on campus. Weckwarth, who has cerebal palsy, worked with university officials in order to get the railing put in her apartment more easily. 

Officials at UNA are working toward keeping the university compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990/2010 because parts of the campus are falling below standards.

The ADA is a civil rights law intended to prevent discrimination toward people with disabilities and provide accessibility.

To stay compliant with the ADA, UNA Shared Governance created an Infrastructure Development Committee in the fall of 2011, and an ADA consultant was hired in November to correct parts of the university that have fallen below standards, including difficult-to-access areas of the campus, buildings that don’t meet ADA standards and a 23-year-out-of-date accessibility map of the university.

“We’re creating a list of things we have to do,” said David Shields, vice president of student affairs. “We’re also developing a plan, so we’re consistently and appropriately addressing ADA issues.”

Shields said university officials have already taken steps this semester to increase UNA’s ADA compliance using a two-pronged approach addressing issues that are not yet problems but are below ADA standards and problems brought to the committee’s attention, like the recently fixed situation with handicap spots in the university’s parking lots.

“All handicap spots on campus are now ADA compliant,” Shields said. “It’s the first impression people get of the university, so it’s important to do.”

Altogether, five more spaces were added, the width of the spaces was widened to eight feet to fit ADA standards, and purple signs were put up with each spot to signal spots, said Dr. Lisa Moses, ADA consultant for UNA.

Now that the parking standards are fixed, another problem has come to both Shields’ and Moses’ attention—the need for the creation of a new map of handicap-accessible routes through the campus.

The latest available map of the university was created in 1989, Moses said, and because of changes to UNA’s campus, is missing several renovations and buildings, like the Student Recreation Center, the parking deck and Covington Hall.

Two members of the Department of Geography, students Stephen Yancey and Jimmy Hilley, are working on a new map of the campus, Moses said, and the map will be made available in a digital format online for ease of access.

Another problem with UNA’s campus being ADA compliant is the large number of stairs and the compact size of the campus.

“It’s hard for me to get up and down them,” said Brooke Weckwarth, a UNA student with cerebral palsy. “The biggest thing is the random stairs with no rails.”

Weckwarth, a senior at UNA, has difficulty travelling across campus and has received aid from Disability Support Services in the past.

“Anytime I ever need anything, I know I can go to them,” Weckwarth said. “They have always helped me. If we didn’t have them, I don’t think I would have been as good as I am.”

Weckwarth said that while she has received aid from Disability Support Services, certain places like Rice Hall and the Stone Lodge can be difficult to reach.

A detailed ramp is planned for the area around Rice Hall to allow better access to the front of the hall, Shields said, and the construction of a ramp to the Stone Lodge has been completed, though in a way that costs more money than other options.

“We know we have to do this, so we’ll go ahead and do them right,” Shields said. “We try to handle each and every case that comes to us and handle them well.

“Make it right, make it nice, do things the right way. If you do things right, you only have to do it once.”

Another major issue with allowing access to people who are wheelchair bound or otherwise limited in their mobility is older buildings like Bibb Graves, which only has a stair lift to bring students who cannot use stairs up to the higher floors.

“It could be very awkward,” said Jon McGee, a SGA senator and senior at UNA. “If you have five handicapped students trying to go up, think how long it could take. And it could be hazardous to other students.”

McGee, who is also involved in the effort to bring a veteran’s center to UNA, said some veterans can return home with various disabilities, and buildings and areas that are not ADA compliant can lead to those students not attending the university.

“I think it’s going to be an important issue as we go to Division I,” McGee said. “With the move, more disabled students will be coming to campus and may decide not to come here if they see the accommodations.”

Moses said Bibb Graves is currently compliant with ADA standards, though if students have difficulty reaching the top floor, there are lower-level floors available for classes with disabled students.

“It’s not just a building code,” Moses said. “People think of parking spaces and ramps, but that’s not all. It’s really more of a civil rights issue.”

Along with making sure buildings are up to standards, Moses said one of the major concerns right now is to make sure all programs, including Internet classes, are accessible to disabled students.

While other improvements to UNA’s campus are planned for the future, Weckwarth doesn’t think much can be done for UNA’s campus simply because of what it is.

“I’m not sure they can improve,” Weckwarth said. “They have tried, but with how the buildings are, I think it could be out of their control.”