OSU works to improve access to campus for people of all abilities

Gabe Merrell and Jenny Gossett of Disability Access Services at OSU talk about the newly installed ramp in front of Gilfillan Auditorium on campus. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

While it may not be immediately obvious, improvements to disability access are going on around campus all the time, and it’s more than new ramps and automatic doors, although those are crucial to making OSU buildings available to all.

The work going on behind the scenes ranges from keeping up with changing federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations to combing OSU web pages to make sure they’re accessible to everyone, to addressing student and faculty concerns when classroom space doesn’t offer adequate program access.

The many historic buildings on campus offer their own unique challenges, with some still remaining inaccessible to users in wheelchairs, and others with very limited access to those with mobility issues.

Tracy Bentley-Townlin, director of Disability Access Services, said historically when a student signed up to take a class that was in a classroom that didn’t provide access, the class would simply be relocated to another space. But because OSU’s student body has grown so rapidly in the past few years, and classroom space is at a premium, relocation has become a difficult juggling act.

“We are required to provide program access,” she said, but that is easier said than done. “It’s a domino effect,” Bentley-Townlin added.

The ramp in front of Kearney Hall is also aesthetically pleasing, proving form and function can meet when it comes to creating accessible buildings on campus. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

As new buildings are going up around campus, the hope is that those buildings are being created with disability access in mind, and that they’ll contain larger classroom spaces which can be used to ease the bottleneck on campus. But although those new buildings are required to meet minimum ADA standards, they’re not always created with an eye for making the lives of students with disabilities much easier.

Facilities Services has recently received funds to hire an ADA project manager, which will help focus attention on access issues around campus.

“Hopefully that person will help influence the policy and procedural changes needed to ensure that access is built into projects from the beginning,” said Gabe Merrell, a program manager with Disability Access Services. He said architects aren’t always up-to-date on the latest ADA standards, and a project manager could ensure that both new building projects and renovations are up to specifications.

Hiring an ADA project manager also should mean that future construction will include even better accommodations for students with disabilities and establish best practices for the university.

“We want to do more than the minimum required,” Merrell said.

But the process is a long and complex one. Even when classroom space is provided for students with disabilities, it may not be in the right spot. A space for a student in a wheelchair in the back of the room may prove challenging if the student also has vision issues, while putting the spot up front sometimes means they’re crammed next to the lectern with the view of the board blocked.

“You have to look at the student holistically,” Bentley-Townlin said.

The interior of Gilfillan Auditorium is being remodeled this summer to make it more accessible. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

She said that when access issues arise, faculty sometimes become frustrated that they have to make changes for the benefit of one student. But Bentley-Townlin likes to remind faculty that not only is OSU legally required to provide access to all students, it’s also the right thing to do. She asks faculty to imagine themselves with a child with a disability, and suggests they would fight to make sure their child had the same opportunities as everyone else.

Parking continues to be an issue, Bentley-Townlin said. Only a certain percentage of spots are reserved as ADA parking spaces, and in buildings where a number of employees use the spaces, visitors or students with access issues have to find parking farther away. Employees with ADA parking permits can request a reserved parking spot near their building through the Office of Affirmative Action, but the policy is not widely known.

Even when classroom space is adequate and parking is available, there are other challenges facing students with disabilities, like whether the textbook they are required to purchase for the class has an e-text version. Bentley-Townlin’s office has to scan in more than 300 books a term for students because their books don’t have an e-text version.

Summer construction projects

Weniger Hall Classroom and HVAC Upgrade
Remodel of Weniger classrooms 116, 149, and 153

Weniger Hall Accessibility Ramp
Add ramp to South (utility) entrance and convert to classroom and accessible entry

Milam Auditorium, Classrooms, and New Ramp
Remodel of classrooms and auditorium
Add ramp to North side, Campus Way

Withycombe Auditorium and Accessibility Ramp
Remodel of auditorium and replace existing ramp

Gilfillan Auditorium
Remodel of auditorium and restrooms

ADA Parking

The addition of 36 spaces on campus

Path of Travel Work (sidewalks and street crossings)
Many areas on campus, including reconstructed path between Moreland/Langton down to Dixon, 26th and Campus Way intersection, and work around Waldo to achieve an accessible path to the building.

The summer construction map is available at http://oregonstate.edu/dept/facilities/cpd/summer-2010-construction-map and Facilities Services is in the process of creating an RSS feed for weekly construction updates that will help keep the community informed of closures.

Merrell is in the process of creating an Internet technology access policy for the university anticipating coming federal changes. Those potential changes to federal policy could mean that making university web sites accessible to people with disabilities will be mandatory, not simply encouraged.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the game,” Merrell said.

Currently, many of the university’s web pages are built in Drupal, a content management system which Merrell said has accessibility features built-in, and he encourages departments and divisions who don’t use Drupal to switch over. But there are a variety of other ways in which the university web presence can be more easily accessible by people with visual impairments.

Most people with visual impairments use a screen reader, which translates what’s on the page into an audio format. But if images on the screen aren’t labeled correctly when they’re uploaded, assistive technology has trouble recognizing and translating those images. Other items, such as decorative bullet points or superfluous images which are added for aesthetic, rather than practical, reasons, can clutter up a page and make it much harder for a screen reader to process.

Other disabilities, including cognitive or mobility issues, as well as color blindness, can also make a web page more difficult to read.

Another big technological hurdle is ensuring that all videos used by faculty in classrooms or posted to the web contain captions for the hearing impaired.

“If a video is being made publically available, then it should have captions,” Merrell said.

Student workers in Disability Access Services have captioned hundreds of videos for faculty use, but are limited by time and resources. Merrell said there is software available online for faculty and staff to do their own video captioning.

Building awareness is a key component to the success of making the campus a more accessible place. Last May, the Commission on the Status of Individuals with Disabilities brought Richard Pimentel to campus to speak about issues of access and disability. Pimental, a Vietnam veteran, is one of the leading experts in the nation on overcoming educational attitudinal barriers, creating jobs for people with disabilities, attitude change, and workplace diversity.

And during the University Day program on Sept. 22, the university will host an afternoon session on university access, and the obligation that university staff and faculty have to ensure access to all, and how that helps not just individuals but the entire campus. The program takes place from 1:30 to 3 p.m. in the LaSells Stewart Center.

Change is happening on campus, both in the virtual world and the physical one, and Merrell and Bentley-Townlin are optimistic about the future of accessibility on campus. Vice President of Finance and Administration Mark McCambridge has provided money for a professional exterior assessment of campus so that a prioritized list of facility improvements can be made and addressed.  That project will release a report to the community in the fall for public comments, and will help the university set priorities for future work.

Last summer a number of capital projects addressed some of the campus’ most pressing accessibility issues, and this summer, $1,065,000 has been earmarked for improvements to sidewalks, parking lots and other issues.

Merrell wants OSU to become known as the best campus in the country for students and staff with disabilities.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we were known as the most open campus for people with disabilities, and were able to attract faculty, staff and students with disabilities because of the environment we’ve created?” Merrell said.

~ Theresa Hogue

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