Being in a wheelchair used to be a tremendous burden, but the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made that a thing of the past–right? According to Jefferey Evans, the president of Oregon State University’s Able Student Alliance, OSU fails to meet ADA regulations on numerous counts. Both old and new buildings fail to comply with standards, and many of its supposedly accessible parking spaces are slanted so that a wheelchair would run away from someone trying to transfer into their car.
“Only about 30 spaces actually comply with the standards,” he said.
Evans has filed numerous complaints over the years; most recently, he filed eight complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice through the Deputy Assistant for Civil Rights in Portland.
“We’re still waiting for them to get formal sign-off,” he said.
According to Evans, one major problem is that the University Historic District is not held to ADA standards. Instead, the City of Corvallis places it under the realm of the historic district code, a code that tries to minimize newer construction–such as wheelchair ramps.
Evans believes that the historic buildings on campus should not be treated the same as historic residences or museums.
“You have people making decisions based on what’s pretty,” he said. “Those standards cannot be applied to buildings that have as many as 20,000 people going in and out every day. Historic buildings that qualify have to be used primarily for historic preservation.”
In addition to older historic buildings that have not yet been renovated to meet ADA standards, much of OSU’s recent construction is non-compliant, said Evans. He named the entrance to the recently renovated Furman Hall–a multi-million dollar project–as one example.
“ADA requires that the front entrance be accessible. We can’t go in the front door. They’ve been building buildings that do not comply. The recent stadium improvements don’t comply. Linus Pauling, the brand new science building, doesn’t comply.”
Evans claimed that OSU has not only failed to consult with the Able Student Alliance, but has also retaliated against his advocacy and withheld documents from the Able Student Alliance.
While the university does have a task force of students, staff, and faculty designated to act as an advisor on ADA matters, Evans said that individuals with disabilities comprise only a fourth of the group, which is mainly run by administrators. The Able Student Alliance was so frustrated by its lack of representation and other issues that the group withdrew.
“We decided that we wouldn’t associate with that group,” said Evans.
According to Angelo Gomez, the director of the Department of Equity and Inclusion at OSU, the university is not doing as poor a job as Evans claims.
“Compliance is not an either-or proposition,” he said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of very detailed requirements for new buildings: how high a grab bar is; how wide a door entry is. You can have a building that is 99 percent consistent with all of the requirements but in one percent someone got it wrong by a couple inches. Somebody might look at that and say it’s not compliant.
The purpose of all of the ADA standards and requirements is to allow equal access of the university’s services. We ensure that all students and anybody who wants to access our programs, services, and opportunities has the ability to do that. That’s why I say, ‘Yes, we comply with the ADA.’”
So who’s right in this? Does the university have to comply with every measurement of ADA standards, or is it OK if students with disabilities have their classes relocated to buildings that they can enter?
“We are doing everything we can to achieve perfection. It is nearly an impossible task with an institution that size,” said Gomez.
Either way, the situation should improve in coming years. Gomez noted that OSU is currently conducting an assessment of the entire campus which began last summer. The project’s estimated total cost is 2.5 million. This brings us to the only place where Gomez and Evans agree; it’s sad that so much money must be spent in assessing the situation when it could go to correcting these problems.