A Shameful Low in Higher Education

The University at Buffalo is inaccessible to disabled students

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The Spectrum

If there was a fire in the University at Buffalo's disability testing center, freshman Mark Shaw would not be able to get out.

Sophomore Raymond Matuszak can't fit into a regular classroom desk, so he often has to stand or sit in a chair without a desk during class.

Junior Alec Frazier often gets shuffled into back rooms and offices to take exams because he needs voice-automated software to help him.

Senior Catherine Scharf, who is visually impaired, clings to the walls of UB's staircases, because the signs and staircases are hazardous for those with limited vision.

UB is responsible for much of these students' struggles.

Eight years ago, the University at Buffalo agreed to make this campus accessible to the roughly 500 disabled students who attend every year. Today, almost a decade later, UB has failed to follow through on that promise.

"I have made it known to my friends and family that UB is inaccessible but no one knows a solution," Scharf said. "Looking over the American Disability Act [ADA] regulations, I would argue that most of what is required of UB is not being followed."

Disabled students across campus are urging the administration to bring UB up to code and are suffering because UB remains non-compliant.

Even the Disability Services Office is inaccessible to students in wheelchairs. And the testing center is a life-threatening hazard. If there was a fire, students in wheelchairs would have no safe way out.

Stairs and signs in the Academic Spine violate ADA rules. Bathrooms are non-compliant, and services intended for disabled students fail to adequately meet their needs.

And there is no sign that this will change.

A thorough review of UB 2020, a plan that the administration claims will enhance virtually every aspect of student life, doesn't mention disability services.

Where it all Began

On May 12, 2000 three wheelchair-bound UB students sued the university and the State University of New York in federal court for violations of the American Disability Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The lawsuit, filed by Jason Bowman, Rudy Denmeade, and Tammy Milillo, contended that UB failed to "provide persons with physical disabilities legally required access to facilities, services, activities, and programs owned, operated, controlled and/or maintained by the State University of New York, a governmental and public entity."

Because UB is a public institution that receives federal funding, it must be fully compliant with ADA code and the stipulations outlined in Section 504.

"When I first went to the campus, they only had one dorm that was remotely ADA accessible," said Milillo, who has cerebral palsy and was a chemistry student. "The only bathroom I could use was back in my dorm. The bathrooms [on campus] were not ADA compliant. For someone like myself in a power wheelchair I could not use them because they weren't deep enough. If I could even manage to get into the bathroom, I had to leave the door open. It was very embarrassing. But those were the best of bathrooms; most of them I couldn't even enter."

Milillo recalls not being able to visit the student health center in Michael Hall because she couldn't navigate the stairs that led inside.

"When I started as a freshman, Michael Hall was completely inaccessible," Milillo said. "I wasn't even able to get into the waiting room; I had to be seen in the doorway. I was told by staff that for routine check-ups, I should just go to the emergency room."

Numerous attempts were made to get the University at Buffalo to settle the case out of court, said Ron Hager, a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), who was one of the lawyers who represented Milillo and her co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

But all attempts led nowhere. According to Hager, it was only after he and his co-council walked the campus and pointed how inaccessible bathrooms, dorms and signage were to attorneys representing UB that the university acknowledged there were ADA violations across campus.

The court case was settled in the Fall of 2004 and UB was ordered to complete an audit of the accessibility of all three campuses and make a comprehensive plan to bring the campuses up to code.

The Audit

The 2004 audit reviewed every building, bathroom, classroom and walkway on campus and listed compliance issues in all buildings along with a rating scale that determined how inaccessible a particular building was and how high a level of priority it was to make it compliant.

Some of the most inaccessible buildings – and the ones on the top of the "to do" list – were: Capen Hall, Alumni Arena, Center for the Arts, Lockwood Memorial Library, Knox Lecture Hall, Abbott Hall, Harriman Hall, the Student Union, the Natural Sciences Complex, Kimball Tower, Squire Hall, Education Building and Diefendorf Hall.

UB's office of Facilities Planning and Design, the office responsible for all new construction on campus, created a "priority project list" for these buildings, separating the renovation into two phases.

The first phase of changes was a five-year plan spanning from 2005 to 2009, in which buildings across campus, including the Student Union, were renovated in an attempt to make them compliant at a cost of $7,792,300. According to Facilities, implementation of phase one projects is complete, with the exception of areas impacted by "larger holistic projects." The second phase of proposed renovations is set to be complete by August of 2013 with an estimated cost of $7,535,300.

Kevin Thompson, the director of Facilities Planning and Design, says steps are being taken, but bringing UB up to code is a long process.

"What we have done is a systematic approach to bring the university into compliance," Thompson said. "Now, as you might expect with a campus this large – we have almost 10.5 million square feet of buildings – it is quite an undertaking so we have decided to do it in a phased sequential approach. We decided to start with large places of assembly, like the Student Union, and we started working on a priority order to other spaces…what is not done are older and existing buildings, which we are taking a phased sequential process. We have a certain amount of time to develop a plan to make the campus compliant. It is not possible to do all spaces in such a short amount of time."

The Law

Much of the construction on North Campus was built in violation of state and federal accessibility codes dating back to 1973, Hager said.

"There are two different laws that apply [to the University at Buffalo]: the American Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 applies to all institutions that receive federal funds," Hager said. "Since UB receives federal funds, as a public university, it is covered under Section 504. [According to Section 504] anything that was designed after 1973 is new construction and must meet accessibility codes. The irony in this is that most of the campus should have been accessible when it was built."

According to Section 504 all new construction designed after 1973 must meet the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) to prevent discrimination or exclusion based on disabilities.

According to the audit, 53 buildings on North and South Campus were built after the enactment of Section 504 in 1973. Of those 53 buildings, 49 were listed as having up to as many as 58 specific accessibility violations each. Twelve buildings on North and South Campus were built after the enactment of the ADA in 1990, and 10 buildings had as many as 38 specific non-compliance issues each.

"We do make things ADA compliant," Thompson said. "I would agree with you that we are not 100 percent compliant…we certainly tried to remain sensitive to the needs of disabled students, however, we also have 28,000 other students who need access to updated facilities also."

For Shaw, Matuszak, Frazier, and Scharf, that answer is not good enough. UB may be making progress, they say. But not enough. And not fast enough.

The Disability Services Office

Located in 25 Capen Hall, the Disability Services office serves over 500 disabled students each semester, but it is not handicapped accessible.

Students in wheelchairs struggle to get inside the non-automatic doors and once inside cannot move their wheelchairs well between the numerous desks that fill the 700 square-foot space.

The office provides counseling for disabled students and is supposed to help them feel more comfortable on campus by arranging extra test-taking time for them, note-taking assistance and other services.

Instead, it makes them feel frustrated and acutely aware of their disabilities.

"Nothing is near to what they need. It's really sad," said Scharf, a senior health and human services and sociology major, who is legally blind and uses the DS office. "I think it's actually embarrassing, to compare what they are expected to do to what they are given, for how many students they help. The university does not give them what they need."

Mark Shaw, a transfer health and human services major, who uses a wheelchair due to complications from a Brain Arteriovenous Malformations (AVM), relies on others to open doors for him.

"Some doors don't have automatic openers," Shaw said. "Most of the time here, students will hold doors open doors for me and ask if I am going that way and wait so they can help me."

Shaw uses a manual wheelchair to navigate campus, but said that if he were in a power wheelchair, like several UB students, he feels he would not even be able to enter the office.

Although his office has been working on the comprehensive plan to make the campus more accessible, Kevin Thompson said he's never noticed that the DS office is inaccessible to disabled students.

"I have never had complaints and I never had a request from the DS office to make any changes," Thompson said. "There is a university process for renovation request. Anyone in DS office could make that request and it would be brought to capital facilities group, put in queue and then be reviewed and possibly added to a future project list."

Making the door to the DS office handicapped accessible has apparently not "been a priority," Thompson said.

Disability Services Director Randall Borst says he has complained "repeatedly" over the years, but that his complaints never get far. The UB hierarchy does not allow him to complain to Thompson's office directly, he said, but he has complained to Student Affairs and to the Office of Equity, Diversity and Affirmative Action (EDAAA), which is the ADA coordinator for UB.

"I am assured that Student Affairs and EDAAA have communicated my concerns and requests in those regards to all affected authorities of the university external to Student Affairs," Thompson said.

Alec Frazier, a junior political science major, insists the 700 square foot office is too small for the five workers and up to two students who use it, not to mention the 500 students it serves. Its tight spaces make students in wheelchairs feel cramped and aware of their disability in a way a spacier office would not.

"Space is the biggest problem for UB's disability department," Frazier said. "I am most concerned about the minuscule working conditions they have in their main office. The main reception area is the size of a walk-in closet…to me it is completely unacceptable how small the office space is. I want to bring to the administration's attention that these people need more space to work in."

According to Borst the annual budget for the DS office is around $80,000 a year. Notes from the Faculty Senate Meeting from Nov. 28, 2007 record Borst telling the Senate that compared to most institutions of its size, UB's budget for the DS office is "very low" and that most universities of UB's caliber are able to provide a "wider range of and more in-depth services."

"In total, the square feet of our other holdings throughout the ground floor of Capen sum to just over 650 square feet. That includes offices for three professionals, a graduate assistant, our satellite testing-center office, and the testing rooms themselves," Borst said. "Thus in all we have just under 1,400 square feet for the entire operation, including workplaces for seven FTE [full-time equivalent] staff, some eight student workers, and numerous items of equipment and furniture."

The Disability Services Testing Center

The Disability Services Testing Center does more than violate ADA code; the building is a safety risk.

"The DS testing rooms are on the bottom floor of Capen and I always think about what am I going to do if there is a fire or something down here because you can't use elevator if there is a fire," said Mark Shaw, a freshman in a wheelchair. "I just think about how am I ever going to get out?"

Randall Borst said he has been trying to get the university to accept the danger for years.

"This is one of the things that I have talked about and the university knows about it because I've talked to any leader that I can get in to see," Borst said. "They just need to prioritize that and get that fixed."

The underground testing center has an emergency exit that leads to a sub-level outdoor terrace from which the only exits are non-handicapped accessible doors and a staircase. There are two other emergency exits from the basement of Capen, both fixed with crash bars that would prevent a wheelchair-bound person from opening them. One emergency exit opens to a high step into a utility room and the second leads out into the first floor of Capen.

Kevin Thompson believes that not having an emergency exit doesn't mean students are at risk.

"In the point of a fire emergency no one should be using an elevator," Thompson said. "When the fire department arrives they have an override key that allows first responders to access the situation and understand whether or not it's safe and firemen could get disabled people out of a particular area. I am not sure how that testing center got set up; that doesn't sound like a project we worked on anytime in the recent past. That issue may fall under the auspices of another office. I was not aware of testing center; luckily I haven't had to take a test there."

The testing center only holds 16 students, Thompson said, so it doesn't merit a second emergency exit. ADA regulations make no mention of exceptions for low-capacity rooms.

According to Ron Hager, even if the ADA were to make exceptions it should not matter to UB administration.

"It's possible that UB is exempt from code, but so what?" Hager said. "Why would you put somebody down there in that situation? It may be a tech issue in the spirit of the law, why use that space if it was unsafe? UB should have a safety plan not just because they are legally responsible, but how would you feel if someone burned to death because you didn't have a plan to evacuate them?"

In addition to being unsafe, the space is also too small for the number of students it serves.

Last year, the center administered over 3,792 tests. At peak times, such as finals week, the center administers 83 exams a day, said coordinator Kristie Kohl.

Yet the space will only hold 16 students at a time.

So, inevitably, some students get bumped and that leaves Kohl scurrying for space.

"The number of exams we administer is growing every year. I have to put overflow wherever I can find space," Kohl said. "I often rely on the kindness of departments who lend us the use of their learning labs and conference rooms. But I have to be picky to ensure the space [is adequate for the students'] needs."

Those who do manage to get a coveted spot say conditions are not ideal.

"The testing center is always crowded," Catherine Scharf said. "I usually have to schedule months in advance just to get a spot to take the exam."

Students with disabilities are legally entitled to reasonable accommodations for exams, which can include extra test time, help with writing or the availability of software, magnification or other tools they need.

Andrew Olgin, a junior physics major who uses the DS testing center, thinks it's inadequate.

"I believe that as for being a large institution they should have more space available for test taking," Olgin said. "Students using Disability Services need to be assured that they will have a place to take a test."

Students like Alec Frazier, who needs voice-activated software during his exams, are forced to take exams in personal offices because the testing center cannot accommodate them properly.

"Sometimes people like me use voice-activated software and that means we need a private, individual quiet test-taking place," Frazier said. "I am stuck using Tina Oddo's [the director of client services for the Center for Assistive Technology] office. There is voice-activated software in key locations [other than her office] but it is located in classrooms. Because the software [in Oddo's office] is the only one [for testing use] you have to schedule carefully and it can be difficult if there are other people that have to use the software."

According to Hager, if students are forced to take exams in locations other than the DS testing center, the students need proper testing places.

"If [the student is taking an exam] in someone's office and people are running in and out, that's not really appropriate," Hager said. "[UB] can use alternate locations but they have to be sure that those locations are proper and meet all the [student's individual] requirements."

Borst acknowledges the inadequacies of the testing center and states that he has made numerous attempts to get the UB administration to make improvements. Those complaints – and others like them – would, according to the UB hierarchy, go to Sean Sullivan, associate vice president for academic planning and budget, whose office handles space requests.

Sullivan said he has never been told about issues involving the testing center and that he is unaware of any compliance violations.

Alex, a senior member of the UB administration, who chose not to use a real name for fear of being fired, claims Sullivan is not only aware of the problems with the testing center, but actively ignores them.

"When there are problems in Capen Hall Sean Sullivan is in charge of fixing it," Alex said. "When Randy [the director of DS] came to him about the fact that students with disabilities are having a real hard time using Disability Services, Sean said nothing is going to be done that is not in the UB 2020 plan."

Another issue that students have with the DS testing center is its location.

"The DS office [where students must first stop to check in, prior to taking an exam] is on one level of Capen and then you have to go up the stairs or take an elevator to get into the library and go back down another flight of stairs [to get to the testing center]," Scharf, who is visually impaired, said. "There are no signs. When I first took an exam I was walking aimlessly around not knowing where to go. Even students with sight don't know where it is."

Furthermore, in the basement of Capen, there is one set of men's and women's restrooms and although the interiors of the bathrooms have been retrofitted to make them handicapped accessible, the doors to the bathrooms themselves have no automatic openers that would allow wheelchair users to access them.

Signs and Stairs

Many freshmen may find the University at Buffalo's campus to be overwhelming and confusing to navigate when they first come to UB.

For students like Catherine Scharf, who is currently in her fourth year at UB, the campus is dangerous.

Scharf suffers from Stargardts disease, a genetic disease that progressively takes away her center vision. Because of this, seeing things such as room numbers or even the stairs in a lecture hall is almost impossible for her in certain buildings at UB.

According to American Disability Act regulations, all signs that indicate room numbers need to written in a light color on a dark background, include raised lettering and Braille, and be attached 60 inches from the ground on the latch side of the door.

Much of the room numbers, even in new buildings like the NSC, have room numbers that violate ADA code, appearing without raised letters or Braille at the top of the door frame.

For students like Scharf, this creates a difficult and sometimes embarrassing situation.

"After eight semesters here I still have to have someone help me find my classrooms. I am 22 years old. It would be nice to know where I am going once in a while without having to hold a hand."

While Scharf finds the classroom signs to be inaccessible and bothersome, stairs in many of the classroom across campus are extremely dangerous for someone with her level of visual impairment.

According to ADA regulations, stairs are supposed to be of an even tread width, meaning that all stairs in a particular stairway must be of uniform size and shape. In addition to uniformity in size, the ADA recommends that stairs have a distinct "mark stripe" or a band of color that is different from the rest of the staircase to signify where a particular tread is ending.

According to Scharf, many of the staircases in her classrooms have stairs of varying tread widths and have zero mark stripes, making it almost impossible for her to reach the lower levels of a classroom.

While some classrooms have lights built in the steps to illuminate different stairs or the change in tread width, Scharf states that the lights are so dim that she cannot even see them.

"In certain lecture halls, I wanted to go to the bottom of the class and I couldn't because there are no contrast to the stairs," Scharf said. "All stairs were different sized steps. If I have to go to the bottom level, I have to hold onto the wall and feel for the next step with my foot."

Raymond Matuszak, a sophomore mathematics major, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 16. The removal of the tumor also involved the removal of Matuszak's pituitary glad.

Because of this surgery, Matuszak has been unable to control his weight gain, despite taking up to 28 pills a day.

While many classrooms across campus have separate desks intended for the use of wheelchair-bound students, Matuszak finds that they are not designed with a heavier-set individual in mind.

"I weighed 195 pounds before surgery. I currently weigh 398 pounds. I am slowly staring to lose weight but it is hard because your pituitary controls everything," Matuszak said. "It's hard in some classrooms for me to fit into desks. Most of the time I can only use a chair. I have to bring a clipboard with me to class so I can have something to write on."

The Future

Susan Mann Dolce, assistant director for consultation and research for the DS office, acknowledges the issues on accessibility on campus, but has hope that UB administration, faculty and staff can work together toward a more accessible university.

"There is a schedule of accessibility things that we are supposed to be taking care of," Mann Dolce said. "We have made a lot of gains, but things such as automatic doors, signage, elevators and stairways are still problematic. We have to remember that accessibility benefits everyone. Why aren't we focusing on that? Making our campus universally accessible. That is the 20-year solution."

While the university is making steps toward making its campus universally accessible to all students with complexes like the new sophomore dorm, Greiner Hall, which was built with universal accessibility in mind, it's unclear if accessibility is in UB's future.

UB 2020, the bold plan to inject economic life into UB and Western New York, addresses a wide-range of aspects of life on campus, but not Disability Services.

Sources in the DS office and community say they fought for inclusion in the UB 2020 legislation, but a search of the UB 2020 website for "disability services" yields no results in the master plan.

According to Tammy Milillo, it is up to students to stand up for their rights, just as she and two others did in 2000.

"Students need to know if you don't speak up and you don't advocate, nothing will ever change, it's that simple. I think that if something is not being done, students need to speak up and start advocating for change – look into what the settlement was and start going into the process," Milillo said. "It's impossible for one lawsuit to cover every disability group for every possible scenario. The lawsuit is a springboard. The reason why I finished [the lawsuit] was because even though I realized that I wouldn't be able to see many of the changes take effect, I wanted to do it for other students, to help people in general."

Email: features@ubspectrum.com