At one university, a garbage can blocked access to the paper towels, a table was placed in front of the automatic door button, students in wheelchairs couldn’t access the accessible sink in a science lab because of a trash can’s placement, and staff sometimes plowed snow into disabled parking spaces or access lanes.
At another institution, a professor banned all laptops, except those used by students with disabilities to take notes in class. When other students asked for an explanation, the professor violated privacy by revealing that the laptops were an accommodation for disabled students.
These common oversights can occur even on campuses where leaders believe they have complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. To avoid running afoul of the law, constant vigilance and ongoing review are essential because there are so many factors to consider—from what the law covers to how to best put accommodations into practice.
Nuts and bolts of ADA
The ADA requires U.S. colleges that receive federal funds to provide the accommodations students need to live and learn on campus. Some 11 percent of undergraduates report disabilities, and an unknown number never declare them. “We believe there are a lot more students with disabilities who probably could identify,” says Michael Hudson, director of the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities at Michigan State University. “They’re still facing stigma. They don’t want to be different.”
It’s long been a given that college campuses should be accessible and supportive to those with impaired mobility, vision or hearing. But not all have embraced the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which made it clear that the law protects people with all kinds of disabilities—including the majority of disabilities that are not visible.
Hudson estimates that 75 percent of the students he works with have invisible disabilities, such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder and food or environmental allergies.
The law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that lasts longer than six months and substantially limits one or more major life activity, including learning, eating, sleeping, seeing, hearing, walking, standing, communicating or concentrating.
Unlike in K12 education, where school districts must provide accommodations for all students with disabilities, higher ed institutions are equired to support only students who report a disability and request help.
The ADA mandate applies to college-sponsored activities on and off campus, including internships.
Universal design’s time
The best institutions believe in the spirit of the law—not only accepting it but being happy it’s there, says Bea Awoniyi, board chairman of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and assistant vice president of student affairs at Santa Fe College in Florida.
In other words, they think big and broad when it comes to the ADA.
“Universal design” involves putting measures in place to serve all kinds of students, adds Claire Hall, a higher education attorney and principal of UECAT Compliance Solutions, a Rhode Island-based consulting firm.
One example of universal design is when a campus dining facility provides gluten-free and nut-free options at every meal, so those with celiac disease and nut allergies don’t have to take extra steps just to eat.
Implementation requires educating your entire campus community (via the disabilities services office)—and it works best when there’s buy-in from the top.
While experts say there’s no data to quantify what percentage of higher ed institutions practice universal design, its principles are certainly getting attention.
“We do see a significant upswing in the interest and the application,” says David Gordon, spokesman for the Center for Applied Special Technology, a nonprofit focused on universal design for learning. “Increasingly, institutions from PK-20 are understanding that their assessments, materials and even their learning goals need to be flexible enough to recognize the great human variability that the neurosciences and other learning sciences are revealing every day.”
It takes a campus
Besides the disabilities office, the list of campus departments that may be involved in providing accommodations is long—including facilities, athletics, academics, information technology, residence life, dining, student affairs, campus safety, admissions, the bursar’s office, study abroad and career services.
Marist College in New York has a behavioral intervention team with 16 people from multiple departments to help prevent students from falling off the radar. Recently, a student was distraught because of academic troubles and a computer problem that caused registration delays, resulting in him being blocked out of a class he needed.
Two staff members who saw he was upset called the special services office for guidance, says Patricia Cordner, assistant dean for student affairs and interim director for special services. Staff in the counseling office helped him put things in perspective, and a conversation helped work things out with a professor.
ADA compliance resources
At institutions that are regarded as ADA compliance models, disability services directors don’t just preach to the choir. They ensure that part of new hire orientations across campus include an overview of ADA and related staff responsibilities.
Sue Ackerman, disabilities services director at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, routinely meets with faculty to support the notion that accommodating students with disabilities doesn’t mean giving them an unfair advantage.
At most colleges, new students discuss past accommodations with the disabilities services or health services office, which then creates a plan in collaboration with other departments. For example, a student with allergies and asthma may need to be housed in an air-conditioned room without carpeting.
The faculty has some discretion as to how needs are met; for example, if a student needs extra time on a test, the professor could stay in the classroom with the student for the extra time or have the student take the test at the disabilities services office.
A vast majority of students need only routine accommodations, such as extra time for test-taking, assistance from note-takers or moving a class to an accessible building. Yet requests for accommodations must be considered individually.
Emerging challenges for universities include grappling with accommodations for students with severe allergies or chemical sensitivities, says Deborah Demille-Wagman, director of Academic and Disability Support at American University in Washington, D.C. “Such requests often include asking that we control the behavior of others.”
The aim is to respect all students’ rights. For example, when a student has a severe chemical sensitivity to fragrances, it’s impossible to require all people on campus to avoid scented products, says Demille-Wagman.
But the university can work with the student to ensure that classrooms are well ventilated, classmates and faculty are asked to refrain from using fragrance, and the student can take a break from the classroom or miss class, if necessary.
A growing number of students with documented anxiety disorder or other mental illness are requesting—and getting approval for—an emotional-support animal (typically a dog or cat) in the dorm. Aaron Spector, director of Disability Resources and Services at Temple University in Philadelphia, suggests that institutions develop policies and procedures to guard against complaints of discrimination or favoritism, as Temple has.
Since there are also students allergic to dogs and cats, schools are obligated to find a way to accommodate both groups, notes Hall of UECAT Compliance Solutions.
And the law requires that accommodations be made regardless of cost.
A few years ago, a blind student at Michigan State approached Hudson, who is also blind, to say she wanted to major in computer science, even though she knew the heavy amount of math required would necessitate extensive accommodations.
“It involved a lot of hard work on her part and ours,” he says.
Disability services worked with the physics and engineering departments to create 3D models that she could touch in order to learn the physics concepts. Using existing equipment, the university made textbooks in braille, adding 2D graphs, line drawings and diagrams that she could touch. They used an adaptive device that looks like a clip board covered with a thin piece of plastic; when she drew on it with a special pen, the line became raised.
As she advanced through her courses, the university brought in consultants as needed, Hudson says. The school also trained students in the honors program to help devise creative tools. One low-tech solution involved sticking pins into a board and connecting the pins with string.
The student wound up graduating with a computer science degree in four years and is now working at Apple, helping with product accessibility.
What’s not required
Colleges and universities must try to level the playing field for those with disabilities. But they don’t have to give these students an academic advantage or extra perks.
A student in a wheelchair, for instance, may reasonably receive a room on the first floor to ensure safe exit in the event of a fire, but the university need not honor a student’s request to get into a particular high-demand dorm if needs can be met elsewhere.
Less expensive remedies are also allowed. For a hearing-impaired student, for example, a college can install a bed-shaker, rather than the costlier flashing lights a student might request, to alert that the fire alarm has gone off.
Rather than looking at serving disabled students as a burden, the situation can be approached as an opportunity to prepare all students for the diverse world of work, says Awoniyi. “Many people want diverse populations,” she says. “The best universities and colleges think of disability as an aspect of diversity.”
Technological challenges and tools
As technology evolves, it poses new challenges to ADA compliance. For example, more than 90 percent of 20 top college websites studied by Perkins Solutions, a digital accessibility consulting firm, failed to meet some or all of the guidelines that make websites accessible to users with disabilities.
People with disabilities use assistive technology such as screen readers, text enlargement or voice-command programs. But behind-the-scenes coding can block these applications, says Bill Oates, vice president of Perkins Solutions, a subsidiary of Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts.
On a website, all users should be able to play and stop a video, stop screens in a slideshow from changing before the user has finished reading the text, and turn captions on or off. To comply with ADA, institutions need to ensure that online courses as well as websites used by prospective and existing students and staff are accessible to all.
Theresa Sullivan Barger is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.