College Fails Its Disabled Students

By Annamarya Scaccia • Brooklyn College Kingsman (printed: Week of October 23, 2006)

As he goes down the long hallway of Roosevelt Hall, toward the temporary entrance to the athletics field and far-off the W.E.B. building, there is a draft in the air. It’s chilly on the Oct. 20 afternoon and, with the realization that his problems are far from over, becomes ever more brisk.

Michael Harris, a 22-year-old Political Science major and Kingsman writer, is at the back entrance of Roosevelt, where a wheelchair lift is folded to the side of the staircase leading to the field entrance and is locked. He doesn’t have a key for it, nor can he find someone to unlock it for him. It wouldn’t matter, though, because the lift doesn’t work.

Such is life for Harris. Born with Early-Onset Generalized Dystonia, a rare neuromuscular disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease, he is bound to a wheelchair. It doesn’t prevent him from working or attending class – quite the opposite, he is very active – however, he is dependent on the Brooklyn College administration and their understanding of the accessibility issues students with disabilities face on campus. So, if a wheelchair lift doesn’t work, or if there is no one around to unlock it, he is left at the top of the stairs to gaze down and ponder his next move.

“The lift has been broken for at least two months,” said Harris.

The Roosevelt lift was, and is, a source of agony for the activist. One day, as he was running late to class, he went to the lift, only to realize that his key to the James Hall elevator was not compatible with it. He called disability services and was told that it was broken – and according to Harris, the response was due in large part to the College not wanting students playing on it – and that he would have to go all the way around the campus, through the West Quad pathway and faculty parking lot, to get to Whitehead Hall, to get where he needed to go.

Founder and campaign coordinator for the Disabled Riders Coalition, Harris has made it his mission to fight against the barriers those with disabilities often face when it comes to accessibility. Spokesperson for the Student Organization for Every Disability United for Progress and a major force behind their push for change, Harris, who is a visiting student from Mahattanville College on a year-long medical leave, was asked by the Brooklyn College club to be the prominent representation of their collective voice, mainly due to his profile as a disability advocate and background in public relations.

Over the years, the cries of the disabled have seemingly gone unheard, but what Harris hopes to do is light a fire under the seats of the Brooklyn College administration.

“As the founder and head of a disability rights organization, I have found that the best strategy is sometimes to work within and branch out if necessary,” said Harris. “I believe that is the same situation here.”

Brooklyn College President Chistoph Kimmich said that an effort has been made by the school, but the necessary funds are lacking.

“For our facilities people…it’s been frustrating for me and it’s been frustrating for them…the problem is money,” said Kimmich. “The problem is also bureaucratic delay. We have to put in to the university…requests not just for elevators but for easier access to the classrooms, to the buildings…There is a process and the process is simply very slow.”

According to Kimmich, the lack of accessibility is considered a “maintenance issue,” one which is addressed in the college’s new 2005-2010 strategic plan – the improvement of maintenance, he said, includes solving the problems students with disabilities have spoken out about. However, according to pages 17 through 18 of the five-year plan, under “Institutional Support: Aligning Resources and Priorities,” there is no mention of his claim – instead, it goes on to talk about building the school grounds into a “well-functioning and attractive campus,” vaguely alluding to annual schedules for repairs and routine campus maintenance.

“Most of the budget for [campus projects] comes from CUNY,” said John Hamill, director of communications for the college, referring to why the BC can more easily build new structures than rectify the problems with accessibility. “Agreed upon hindrances to disabled access must legally be addressed and that monies are available to do that.”

“What’s important is that there are hard realities in life. There’s not enough money to fix everything. You’ve got to pick what’s important,” he added.

These hard realities are what students have to face while attending Brooklyn College. For Harris and others, it’s a locked elevator, locked doors that block access to ramps, poorly-placed and broken automatic door openers, and entrances too small for many motorized wheelchairs to fit into that hinder their daily routines while on campus.

Although Brooklyn College does have an elevator accessible to these students from James Hall to the Bedford Avenue B6 and B11 bus stop, as required by the American Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines, the elevator, says Harris, is inadequate and, despite fulfilling public transportation requirements, is non-ADAAG compliant.

“There is currently no means of safe and independent egress and there is a protocol, waiting period and deposit required for a key to the segregated ‘ADA Entrance,” he said of the locked elevator, which can only be accessed with a key. “There is no reason why a student with a disability should have to use a completely different entrance from that of their fellow students. There is no reason why we should have to go through a formal process, pay a $10 key fee and wait a week to get said key just to get to class. That is both immoral and illegal.”

The process required in order to obtain a key for the James elevator is one of complication. First, a disabled student would have to go to the disabilities center and fill out a request form, then head to the Bursar office and pay the $10 key fee ($7 more than the regular $3 fee for deposits), and wait a week until they receive the key.

For Harris though, the process was even more difficult. He paid the $3 for a key deposit – the Bursar computer was not programmed to accept a larger deposit – and went to the locksmith, but was told it wasn’t enough. He then went back to the Bursar, explained the situation and in turn was told they couldn’t process the required amount, so he returned his deposit and paid the $10 as a “miscellaneous charge.” The run-around could have been avoided if the miscellaneous charge had been implemented originally.

According to section 4.10.2 of the guidelines, operation of elevators, as well as any other means of egress, must be automatic and readily accessible to and able by persons with disabilities – something that the James Hall elevator is in clear violation of. Harris said that he had been told that the reason for the elevator being locked is due to the fact it is not staffed by security – a sort of public safety rationale that leaves students with disabilities using the non-ADA compliant ramp that leads out onto East 23rd Street and Campus Road. And while this may seem like an easy solution, it is lacking.

The ramp, which according to Harris, has been built for construction workers to transport materials into James while working on the West Quad, with its sharp turns, is dangerously steep. In addition, all ramps must have a marker on the sides of each flat surface, where students can rest, in order to prevent those in wheelchairs from becoming stuck if they happen to steer the wrong way, however, the James ramp only has two markers out of the three required on each side. And, in the face of legalities and common sense, the entrance and exit of the ramp is not easily accessible during open hours for the college – where as the campus closes at about 11 p.m., the walkway to the ramp is marked by signs that read “this entrance will close at 8:30 p.m. ” The problem is ever the more highlighted by last Friday, when Harris tried to exit on to Campus Road from the ramp at 6 p.m., only to be welcomed by two locked gates.

In addition, the automatic door opener to the one entrance of Roosevelt Hall is another source of grief. According  to  S.O.F.E.D.U.P.  President     O’Donnell,  the  problem with  the  door opener is not that it is broken, but that if staff member forgets to activate the mechanism above the door at the start of the day, it will not work. “They forget out of laziness to turn the opener,” said O’Donnell.

“It’s outrageous,” said Jamin Sewell, legislative director for G. Olive Koppel, chair of the Council Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcohol Abuse & Disability Services. “Not only do they need to comply with the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as New York State and  City Human  Rights law,  it requires the college,  and  all the CUNY colleges, be accessible to students with disabilities.”

In response to a request for an interview, Roberta Adelman, director of the Center for Disability Services at Brooklyn College, said it would be inappropriate for her to comment as “all issues and concerns are in the process of being examined by the College.”

“I am glad to hear that the college is examining the issue, however I disagree with her assertion,” said Harris. “I believe that this, combined with [last Thursday’s] ‘secret’ meeting is demonstrative of a disturbing lack of transparency.”

“While I am yet to obtain a copy of the BC consent decree…it is my understanding…that part of the consent decree included a ‘right to know’ clause, whereby any student has the right to request to be copied on all non-confidential correspondence pertaining to accommodating students with disabilities,” he added.

The consent decree which Harris refers to is the result of a 1995 lawsuit against Brooklyn College brought by six disabled students who alleged in their complaints that the school is not complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it fostered the practice of discrimination against students with disabilities, similar to the current situation Harris and others find themselves in.

“We believe that we have solid evidence of discrimination. Brooklyn College and other CUNY schools have been sued on numerous occasions for failing to comply with disability rights laws,” said Harris. “The barriers in question and in particular the James Hall elevator issues have been reported to Brooklyn College for years, and nothing has been done about them.”

“Given years of documented complaints, we do not believe that the administration can reasonably claim ignorance or oversight. As such, we regretfully believe that the College’s actions constitute discrimination, not oversight,” he added.

This consent decree, which was unable to be obtained, allows S.O.F.E.D.U.P. to exist – according to Harris and former City College student Lunetha Lancaster, the decree not only allows students to be made aware of all non-confidential correspondences concerning disabled students, it also allows S.O.F.E.D.U.P. to function uniquely – student activities can’t de-charter the group, a minimum of $4 of every student activity fee must go to the organization, and their budget can not be reduced by student activities or student government.

As for O’Donnell, 23, a Television/Radio Communications major, Adelman’s response was one that has been heard many times before.

“I have complained to Adelman and I heard the same thing you always hear – the same answer [of] ‘it’s out of my hands, so and so is working on it,'” O’Donnell said. “‘ve heard it given around time and time again as a way of saying ‘I don’t want to speak on these issues because right now.’ It’s pushing the issue along and not really dealing with it.”

O’Donnell, who, as a result of being six months premature, is blind, has a different set of issues than those that Harris has touched upon. A major issue he faces, O’Donnell said, is the traffic light on Bedford Avenue, across from the security booth on the East Quad. Due to his disability, O’Donnell says it’s hard for him to know when to cross since the remodeling of Bedford Avenue entrance – security guards would easily call out to him to cross, however, since changing the booth to face towards Boylan Hall, as to match the booths at the Hillel and Campus Road entrances, guards have told him they are unable to help them because they can not see you cross on either side. His situation is also magnified by the college’s maintenance vehicle, which, according to O’Donnell, is parked long ways along Bedford, taking up the sidewalk so he’d have to walk around it and into the streets.

“[Adelman] said they moved the booth for cosmetic reasons to look like the other ones because it’s better to see the people as they come in,” said O’Donnell. “But my argument was if they faced the street, they can see the people from a distance. Adelman said [the college] wants to wait when the West Quad is finished, they will see the way it works and think about changing [the booth].”

More scathing is O’Donnell’s allegation that a staff member from the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures had discouraged him from registering for a foreign language course, saying of with the scanning of books and the translation required in order for him to use them, “it takes time.”

“It’s bad enough that people are discriminatory and look down on you when you have a disability. It’s bad enough that you have to work just to get the same equal rights you don’t want to be denied because of your disability and you almost took the easy way out,” said O’Donnell. “You pay the tuition and [you want to] get the most out of it because Brooklyn College has all these hard cores, but it’s just a school in the ghetto.”

“It  may  have  been  the  professor…on   his   own   who   instructed   him   to   do   that,” said  Sherzer, department chair of Modern Languages and Literatures. “We have blind students in our classes. A blind student just won the prize for best student in the class…So if [he was discouraged], it was by that particular instructor’s viewpoint, not that of the department.”

But the issues at Brooklyn College only scratch the surface of what seems to be a CUNY-wide problem. According to Lancaster, an active member of the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities – a group started to improve and foster the community among CUNY’s more than 9,000 disabled students – students with disabilities at City Collegehave faced and continue to face similar problems as those at BC. And, like these BC students, Lancaster, who was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis, a form of Muscular Dystrophy, in 1986 while working for IBM, said students at City College are often ignored.

Chris Rosa, director of Student Affairs and acting coordinator of Disability and Veterans Services, believes that ensuring access and opportunity for members of the CUNY community with disabilities is that of an ongoing endeavor, both through the City University and Brooklyn College. He essentially refutes the claim that complaints are ignored, stating that Brooklyn College and the City University “has made barrier removal a central feature of their capital plans.”

Although he assures that the accessibility issues are being dealt with, Harris, O’Donnell, and Lancaster assert that Rosa, who is also disabled, is part of the problem, accusing him of being no more than a figurehead who is not at all honest and will “buy you out in a heartbeat” in order to keep the issues quiet. However, they say, it’s not only him – it seems that another problem also lies in the voices – or lack thereof – of those most affected.

“The lack of accommodations that you face gets to be overwhelming, especially when you are advocating alone,” said Lancaster, a non-traditional student who says she’s unafraid of the backlash she may receive from voicing her concerns. “It’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because of the retaliation they face when they speak up. I’ve seen it for years, when [students] are trying to assert their rights, or try to form alliances with outside disability advocates, they are retaliated against.”

Lancaster attributes this bureaucratic run-around partly to CCSD Chair Madeline Schwartz, a disabled Brooklyn College student. Lancaster said that Schwartz does “everything Rosa tells her to do,” preventing her from speaking out on the issues. “Rosa has put her in her place,” she added.

These staunch accusations are something that both Rosa and Schwartz deny. “I believe your sources are misinformed…If [students] stay quiet…there is nothing that we can’t do,” said Schwartz.

“I do not respond to accusations that are anonymous, baseless, and above all, insulting and offensive,” said Rosa. “I will simply let my record of advocacy, service, and empowerment of CUNY students with disabilities speak for itself.”

Lancaster dismisses Rosa’s comment. “He is the apologist on disabilities matters when it comes to CUNY,” she said. “He is a flat out liar…if it means sweeping cases under the rug or turning students against each other, he’ll do it.”

Furthermore, according to Lancaster, disabled students at City College tried to get in touch with S.O.F.E.D.U.P some years ago but couldn’t reach them through, having to go through Adelman and the Center for Disability Services to pass along the message. This, said Lancaster, was apparently never done as S.O.F.E.D.U.P . did not contact them back, further proving an administration strong-hold on student voices.

If the college does not meet with the complaining students, Harris said, S.O.F.E.D.U.P. plans to stage a media demonstration with possible locations include the James Hall elevator and the out- of-service lift in Roosevelt Hall “which would set the stage for a tour.” But Harris hopes the college will sign a written commitment to consult with students with disabilities prior to taking action that would have an impact on the students.

“I’d like to see the administration speak directly to the student group representing the disabled students on campus and I’d like to hear that there is going to be a plan for making the campus accessible,” Sewell said.

As for the results, those have yet to be seen. “I’m not ignoring them…it’s an ongoing story,” said Kimmich. “It’s partly because we’re catching up.”

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