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Handicapped accessibility: compliance vs. convenience

Members of CSU community find problems in older buildings

Oct. 27, 2011

By Brandon Blackwell

Journalism major Matt StaffordAlthough Cleveland State is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a set of federal regulations that provide equal rights and facility access for people with disabilities, the question remains whether mere compliance at CSU is enough.

In older campus buildings, those with disabilities often have problems accessing with certain restrooms, classrooms, elevators and office spaces.

CSU Journalism major Matt Stafford can often be seen moving effortlessly through the halls of the Music and Communication (MU) building in his motorized wheelchair. For Stafford, who has cerebral palsy, the ease of moving about MU is halted when it’s time to enter certain classrooms or restrooms.

The computer lab in which Stafford attends a journalism class has heavy doors and he can only enter with the help of a classmate. Double-door entrances into the men’s restroom on the second floor of MU require Stafford to back in, or even ram the heavy doors to gain entry — and once inside, the handicap stall provides more problems.

“I don’t bother with the [MU] restrooms anymore,” Stafford said. “You can put all the bars on the stall you want, but if an average wheelchair can’t get in, it can’t get in.”

Stafford also said many handicap stalls do not give him enough room to turn his bulky wheelchair around, preventing him from being able to close the stall door.

Because of this, Stafford says he uses private family restrooms on campus such as the one located in Main Classroom.

According to the ADA, the space required for a wheelchair to make a 180-degree turn is a clear space of 60 inches. The restroom on the second floor of MU doesn’t provide this space. Because Stafford has access to other restrooms on campus that do provide the turning space, CSU maintains compliance.

“Where the problems still exist is in the older buildings,” said Jeff Dell, assistive technology specialist for CSU’s Office of Disability Services. “It’s not that they are not ADA compliant, it’s that they are not the most accessible things.”

Facilities constructed after the ADA was enacted in 1990 have more stringent regulations and provide better access for people with disabilities, but decades-old buildings like MU are not subject to the same guidelines.

Dell said buildings constructed prior to 1990 must comply with some ADA requirements, but not all unless those buildings are being renovated. He added that only a portion of facilities in older buildings are required to have wheelchair access.

Although MU does have a wheelchair ramp and partial elevator access, many of the facilities in the building provide hardship—and Stafford is not the only one feeling the effects.

Eileen Berlin Ray, a professor in the School of Communication, has been using a wheelchair or walker to get around campus after being diagnosed with cervical myelopathy—a spinal cord disorder—in Nov. 2009. The condition affects Berlin Ray’s balance and ability to walk.

Berlin Ray said she not only has difficulty accessing the restrooms on the second floor of MU, where her office is located, but her actual office space poses a problem as well.

“A place could say ‘we provide the minimal amount and therefore we are in compliance,’ and technically they would be, but that doesn’t make peoples lives easier,” Berlin Ray said.

Berlin Ray’s office was once a cramped space with cumbersome furniture, shelving raised to nearly ceiling level, and a door that was too heavy to safely maneuver with her walker. This all changed when she brought these problems to the attention of Disability Services.

Within about a year’s time, Disability Services helped to replace Berlin Ray’s office furniture and shelving, making it a safer and more maneuverable environment. Berlin Ray took it upon herself to adjust her office door so that it would open with little pressure.

Additional adjustments were made to one of the doors in MU 206, a room Berlin Ray instructs in, and one of the double doors leading into the women’s restroom on the second floor of MU, which is now always propped open. This has alleviated some of the difficulty Berlin Ray has accessing facilities in the building.

“[Disability Services] was great,” Berlin Ray said.

Although classrooms and restrooms provide the largest challenge for Berlin Ray and Stafford, other problems still exist.

Accounting major Tim Barry, who uses arm crutches, said his biggest concern is handicap parking spaces and the distance to a handicap accessible entrance to the Ahuja College of Business building. He said that the handicap accessible spaces he uses when parking for a class at the business building are opposite of the nearest handicap accessible entrance.

“I find it kind of strange,” Barry said. “I have pretty good mobility, but it’s strange that I have to walk around the building to get to a handicap entrance when there is another [non-handicap accessible] entrance closer to the handicap spaces.”

Stafford said he relies on elevator access to reach certain classrooms and that when elevators have been inoperable, he has been forced to miss class.

“Making sure the elevators work is crucial,” Stafford said.

According to Dell, CSU is ADA compliant, but those with disabilities on campus have expressed the level of compliance is far less than convenient.

“Compliance is not always perfect,” Stafford said. “While something might technically ‘comply,’ it can still be crappy in terms of access.”

Stafford said he was uncertain about the probability of major changes in accessibilty in older campus facilities, but hopes CSU officials will acknowledge the difficulties students with disabilities face and make an effort to hold events in more accessible facilites.

Dell recommends for students, faculty or staff members who have accessibility difficulties to see Disability Services so such hardships can be addressed.

According to the Disability Services website, “All accommodations are individualized—there is not a standard list of what one ‘gets’ if one has a specific disability.”

For more information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit www.ada.gov.
To contact the Cleveland State Office of Disability Services, call 216-687-2015, or visit www.csuohio.edu/offices/disability.