9 Dec. 2011
Project Two Paper: Disability Access on Campus
The definition of a ramp has really deteriorated over my lifetime. They used to be a way for people with injuries, or in wheelchairs, to get to the door of a restaurant or to an otherwise inaccessible area. However, it seems now, that access is a formality and that the architecture behind the ramps going to buildings (and inside of them for that matter) reflects that formality. Anyone confined to a wheelchair to get around can understand this best. We have to use the ramps and therefore, we notice when they are not up to par. The worst part of it all is that no one seems to care when you mention that their ramps are in need of repair. Another annoyance in this matter is the location of the handicapped accessible routes into a building. No one seems to realize how far out of the way the disabled route is until they are asked where it is. The ramp does not need to be on the other side of the building from the main entrance for everyone else. It is amusing to me that when it is pointed out to people that ramps in poor condition are difficult to navigate they seem surprised.
While ramps are not perfect, they exist as a possible entrance to most buildings as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The goal of the ADA is “To establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.” Before the ADA, it was not required for businesses to have disabled entrances. This seemed ironic because many of the disabled people at this time were war veterans.
In fact, one of the main lobbyists for the Americans with Disabilities Act, Richard Pimentel, was a veteran of the Vietnam War. Pimentel had a bomb explode near him and he lost his hearing. He was written off as a disgruntled vet when he returned home, and despite this went on to college. There he met Art Honneyman who had a severe case of cerebral palsy. The pair became friends, and while eating at a diner celebrating Art’s birthday, the waitress asked them to leave because Art was the “ugliest and most disgusting thing” she had ever seen (miltwright.com). They refused to leave, and this resulted in them being arrested. This was the event that inspired Richard to start the effort that culminated in the Americans with Disabilities Act. There was a movie made based on the story of Richard Pimentel. It was called “The Music Within.” The movie ends with Richard and Art going back to the aforementioned diner after the ADA was passed. Art is able to go up the ramp in his wheelchair, and that same waitress was now required to serve them. I cannot say if that really happened, but I think that it perfectly embodies the purpose and impact of the ADA.
The construction of an accessible route into the building (usually a ramp), when I was younger were quite solid. The transition from the ground to the sidewalk was flat. There was no deviation in the concrete. It is becoming increasingly common to see a “ramp” that has at least a half inch deviation from ground to sidewalk. That makes life difficult for a (manual) wheelchair user. The deviation or “lip” stops all of your momentum and forces you to navigate an incline from what feels like a dead stop. This is difficult because wheelchairs tend to just pop wheelies at this point. If the rear wheels are pushed too hard, the front wheels just pop up, and the chair does not climb the incline. Therefore, with no momentum to assist the chair, ramps can be the most difficult things to navigate.
There are many ways to incorporate a ramp into the design of a building. I have seen many examples where the ramp can be right next to the stairs and everything is fine. It is because of this that a building with the ramp that is around the corner is unnecessary. It is also extremely frustrating. One of the many requirements for an ADA compliant ramp is that it provides access to all other levels of the structure. It is also a (apparently less enforced) requirement that the accessible route is to the closest possible entrance. This seems to be met in a very subjective manner. One may be able to go around a building and find the accessible entrance, however, there are likely not going to be signs for that person to be able to get back to the main entrance. This makes an unfamiliar building really easy to get confusing and difficult to navigate.
The main example I can think of is the Reynolds Building. I was required to go there for “Photo Day.” The first problem was, on the way there, a couple of the sidewalks did not have ramps. My solution to this was to backtrack until I found a ramp, then just go along the edge of the street instead of being on the sidewalk. This did not seem safe, but it appeared to be my only option. Once I was near the building, the only way to get to the entrance that everyone else was using was a gravel road that was not easy for me to travel. When I got to the building, the only way in was via stairs. To make matters worse no one else coming in knew where the accessible route was. I went back out to the street and went alongside the building looking for a door I could use. I kept going until I got to another building with graffiti painted on the side that read “We are all going to die.” At this point, I assumed I was no longer on campus and turned around without finding a suitable way of entry into Reynolds. Finally, someone came out and walked me to the accessible entrance. The ramp was past the graffiti and around the next corner. There were no signs to indicate this fact. That seems unreasonable to me.
The reaction of other people to this complication is always quite amusing. They do not seem to realize that the handicapped accessible entrance is so far away until they are showing someone where it is. Their response is always similar. It is something along the lines of “Wow, this is annoying, does this type of thing happen to you very often?” The truth is these instances are not common (likely because of the ADA). Nevertheless, as with most things that are a “pain” it always seems to happen while there is inclement weather. These reactions could be avoided if those who design the setup had to go through the building themselves. Terry Szold mentions that city government officials in Burlington, Vermont actually do go through their day in wheelchairs in order to see the effect of their decisions on the disabled. It would benefit those who make the infrastructure decisions to go through campus in manual wheelchairs for one day. There are many spots that do not technically violate ADA regulations, yet it is not smooth sailing throughout the campus.
I often wonder if others even realize how broken the blacktop is in some areas around the University. For example, on one sidewalk from my dorm that leads in the direction of Kennedy’s Book Store, just off the ramp there is a divot in the blacktop that is at least a couple of inches deep. I compare me hitting this with my wheelchair to someone hitting a pothole with their car. Most of the time it will not hurt the vehicle, but at some point it may do some type of damage. The blacktop is not regulated by the ADA, but the blacktop near ramps is in poor condition throughout campus. For those of us that have to use these ramps, they can become big problems.
Make no mistake, the Americans with Disabilities Act has resulted in great strides in disability access to public places in general. That being said, not everything that needs to be considered is mandated by the ADA. This view was echoed by Jake Karnes, “Sure, just because the University has spent lots of money, and the Federal Government has said you’ve got to do certain things, doesn’t mean there isn’t more that needs to be done.” There are only a few areas, but those areas can be very important.
Another questionable decision regarding accessibility is fire safety. It is common knowledge that elevators are not supposed to be used in the case of a fire. Therefore, everyone must use the stairs. However, some disabled people cannot use stairs at all. How are those that cannot climb or descend stairs supposed to get out of a building if they are not on the ground floor? This is not covered by the ADA. I have been told that in such a situation at UK, I should wait where I am and the fire department will be informed that I am in that building. They will be instructed to get me and any other disabled students out as a first priority. It seems to me that waiting in a building that is on fire seems like a really unsafe plan. How long do I wait? When is it time to go? We are taught from a very young age to get out of a building if it catches on fire. Therefore, it would be better if there was some sort of requirement of a fire plan as an amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Poor or limited access (that is, a lack of ramps) is not limited to the outdoors. There are issues within the classroom buildings, and more specifically the lecture halls. The entrances to the lecture halls are typically from the back of the room, and the professor or lecturer is in the front of the room. The problem is, there are stairs from the back row down to the front row. This limits where people in wheelchairs, with injures, or otherwise physically limited can sit because someone that is disabled in one of these ways likely cannot descend the stairs. As a result of my experience sitting in the back of the hall, it is not uncommon for a professor to be difficult to hear from that far away. This can make learning significantly more difficult. If someone needs a certain G.P.A. to keep a scholarship, it is not good if they cannot hear their lectures. However, there is not much a person can do if they cannot navigate the stairs. They have no choice but to sit in the back.
Accessibility issues are not contained in classrooms and sidewalks. There are problems in a place that no one wants to have problems. That place is public restrooms on campus. One would hope that these areas would be the most accessible in any building. Sadly, it is usually quite the opposite. This is likely a result of the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not include regulations for restrooms. Public restrooms are instead subject to the “regulations” of the Architectural and Transportation Compliance Board. The board’s primary mission is accessibility to people with disabilities. As you can imagine, inaccessible restrooms can create major difficulty when in public. If one cannot fit themselves or their wheelchair into the stalls, what should they do? Most of the time going home, or to a place they know they can use the facilities is out of the question. That is why a disabled person’s ability to not only get in the door of the restroom, but also to get to the toilet should be higher on the priority list when designing a public restroom. No one likes to be stranded and not be able to use the facilities. This is arguably the most important part of any building.
In contrast to restrooms, the disability access in event or athletic stadiums is usually very good. This is a surprise when compared with the aforementioned buildings and areas. This is good for those of us who enjoy sports (me). A possible reason behind this could be that the ADA has regulations for colleges and universities when building new stadiums (although most stadiums comply with them regardless of when they were built).
Disability access is not just an issue for wheelchair users. It becomes an issue when people who normally do not have to consider accessibility get injured. If I have a friend who gets injured, one of the first things they ask me is how I deal with having to go out of my way to get to places. I always respond by saying that one gets used to it. This makes it clear to me that accessibility is an issue that most able-bodied people do not notice.
Some people, like Richard Pimentel, have disabilities that do not involve ramps and wheelchairs. Having a loss of hearing is no reason not to be able to go to school. At the University of Kentucky, the most common accommodation for those that are deaf or have a loss of hearing is a sign language interpreter. As I understand it, the interpreter signs what the instructor is saying during a lecture. Blind students are also accommodated on campus. However, in a second unofficial interview with Jake Karnes, he told me that textbooks in brail is no longer the most common assistance given to blind students. The assistance is audiobooks.
There are even some buildings on campus that do not have any handicapped access. The shocking thing is how important the buildings are. Jake Karnes has worked in the Disability Resource Center at UK for forty one years. According to him, “One of the buildings that actually does not have any access is Bradley Hall.” Bradley Hall houses the Academic Ombud’s office, which students are advised to go to if they have any equality issues that they cannot solve on their own. That is also the office students are told to go to if they are accused of cheating. There are several other student-assisting offices that can be important for students to be able to get to, that are housed in Bradley Hall.
There are many ways that disability access needs to be improved. Ramps are not as easily navigated or structurally sound as they used to be. Many buildings have ramps that are far away from the main entrance. It surprises me that public restrooms are not regulated by the ADA. Lecture halls are not made for the disabled. This makes life difficult for wheelchair users and injured people. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act was groundbreaking when it was enacted, there are many ways in which the ADA could be improved. If someone gets injured they need to be able to get around as well. It would be helpful to have people in wheelchairs go around testing the accessibility of new buildings, or additions to buildings.
“ADA Compliance an Uphill Effort .” American School and University. Volume 79. issue 9. (2007): page 16. Web.
American School and University. Volume 72. Issue 6. (Feb. 2000): page 46. Web.
Brennan, Martin L. “Assessing Access.” American School and University. Volume 77. Issue 12. (July 2005): pages 44-47. Web.
“Dr. Richard Pimentel.” Miltwright.com. Milt Wright and Associates. N.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.
Karnes, Jake. Personal Interview. 9 Nov. 2011.
Kennedy, Mike. “ADA Compliance.” American School and University. Volume 76. Issue 12. (2004): page 22. Web.
Szold, Terry S.”What Difference Has the ADA Made?.” Planning Vol. 68 Issue 4. (2002): p10. Web.
The other side of this paper is the administrative costs. The cost can add up. Repairs can take a while. However, this does not excuse many of the problems addressed in the above post. If you would like to know more about ADA compliance with a focus on cost, go to