20 years after ADA, UAF still catching up

By Molly Dischner
Sun Star Reporter

Snowy sidewalks are more than just a winter nuisance. They’re a maintenance issue and keeping them clear is mandated by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. According to a report by Fairbanks’ Seasonal Mobility Task Force, they can also be a major hurdle in making Fairbanks accessible to all. At UAF, they’re one of the many areas of ADA compliance that falls to Facilities Services to oversee.

Directions to the Fine Arts complex for those having to utilize the wheelchair access ramp. Heather Bryant / Sun Star

In its 2009-10 mobility recommendations report, the task force (a group comprised of local people from a variety of government and non-profit organizations) noted that sidewalk maintenance can make the difference between mobility or not for people with disabilities. They recommended that Fairbanks work to ensure that sidewalks are cleared of snow in a reasonable time frame to provide better access for pedestrians. That’s a goal for Facilities Services, too.

For the staff at Facilities, sidewalks are actually a year-round issue. Jonathan Shambare, from Design and Construction, said that every summer Facilities Services tackles a couple more sidewalks, making sure they meet ADA requirements.

This past summer, his department worked on the sidewalks near the lower campus dorms. “We’re also trying to make sure the sidewalks are compliant,” he said. Then his department “[waits] for the next summer to do the next batch of sidewalks.”

Sidewalks aren’t the only thing Facilities Services are responsible for – and they probably aren’t what Bob Bartlett, the former senator most famous for his role in making Alaska a state, had in mind when he pushed for P.L. 90-480. That legislation mandated that the design of all future government buildings incorporate features that enable people with disabilities to access those buildings, and is considered a precursor to ADA. Bartlett was part of a coalition of 17 senators who pushed for the act to pass in 1967.

After gradual additions to the laws discussing equal rights, the ADA was passed as civil rights legislation in 1990, mandating equal access to building, events and opportunities. Compliance is required for any institution accepting federal money, most employers and many other entities. Everything from sidewalks to testing to employment can fall under the act’s jurisdiction.

In the Office of Disability Services, Mary Matthews is one of the University’s gurus on what the law is and how to provide access for students, faculty, staff and even visitors. Although the current leading design principal promotes accessibility for all, UAF relies on finding personalized ways to approach barriers depending on an individual’s needs. Matthews said the personalized approach comes into play in everything from finding building entrances to providing academic accommodations.

UAF is constantly working on compliance, Matthews said. “Are there problems on this campus with accessibility? Yes.” But the personalized approached helps UAF overcome its barriers, she said.

Self-identification

Helping the UAF community access the campus requires those needing accommodations to identify themselves, Matthews said. Students are informed of their need to self-identify at the end of every syllabus.

Most other accommodations are brought up with her office by students, faculty, or staff directly, although Human Resources has their own person in charge of employment-related issues.

One of Matthews’ focuses is on finding academic accommodations for students. She and her colleagues serve all five UAF campuses and a total of about 170-200 students, depending on the semester.

“We don’t modify classes,” she said. Instead, her office helps level the playing field. She uses the syllabus as a guide to maintain the integrity of the class. Accommodations are based on the documented disability a student has, she said. They include making sure movies shown in class have captions, a student is allowed extra time on a test, and electronic sources of information accessible for distance students, to name a few.

Matthews said that distance delivery was a particular challenge, and a department that her office has been working with more and more. But those challenges are the fun part of the job. “We enjoy our work,” she said. “We have fun with it.”

Compliance is a construction zone

Facilities Services is mostly responsible for the side of access that would sound familiar to Bartlett, the physical barriers. Matthews said physical barriers can be confusing. “Often the public doesn’t understand what those are exactly,” she said, and explained that Facilities Services oversees everything from reserved parking spots to building entrances.

Shambare said it’s the older buildings that pose a problem. “Anything we have built since 1990 is ADA compliant.”

Matthews explained that the rules are different for older buildings. But different rules don’t mean that accessibility is actually any easier, so Facilities is constantly working on projects to improve different parts of UAF, Shambare said.

It can be hard to fix some construction errors that were made before ADA was on the table, Matthews said. “You can’t retrofit certain structures.” As a result, buildings across campus have their issues. Gruening only has one accessible bathroom. The Wood Center’s elevator is out of date. And despite having a lift, Constitution Hall can be difficult to navigate.

That’s changing as you read this. The construction zone in the basement of Constitution Hall will be transformed into two ADA compliant bathrooms by February, Shambare said. The bathrooms on the third floor are also being remodeled. That $703,000 project is just step one in making Constitution Hall more accessible, he said. Farther down the line, Facilities plans to add a true ADA compliant elevator to the building. Shambare said that won’t be done in February, but it is in the plans. These two projects are just two steps in making the building compliant, he said.

Shambare said elevators are a common problem. “Some of the elevators are…too small,” he said. “If somebody’s in a wheelchair, they may not be able to fit comfortably in the elevator.”

The elevator in Irving II was recently upgraded to bring it up to ADA standards, he said. And Lola Tilly is on the list of places that need an elevator.

Constitution Hall isn’t the only old building on campus with access issues, Matthews said. The Great Hall, for instance, doesn’t have a button to open the door. “Architecturally, the buttoning of those doors is complicated,” she said. Instead, people wanting to access the Great Hall without opening the door are asked to enter through the art department, which was recently renovated and is more accessible.

Older construction isn’t the only challenge. Geography can make access a struggle.

“Geographically, Alaska is not that accessible,” Matthews said. And it doesn’t help, she mentioned, that UAF is built on a hill.

UAF is slowly working towards the paradigm known as Universal Design, which provides access for all.

Matthews said the rationale for that approach is that “people don’t like to feel excluded.” Universal Design tries to foresee the possible challenges and get rid of them before the building is built. UAF’s newer buildings, like Reichardt or the UA Museum of the North, come closer to that approach, she said.

Students with disabilities are sometimes transported to the accessible entrance via shuttle bus. It’s a service that makes it possible for them to get to class, Matthews said. It’s also a service that separates them from their classmates.

The bathrooms in the basement of Constitution Hall closed for renovation last week. They are expected to reopen in mid-December, after upgrades to make them ADA compliant are finished. Molly Dischner / Sun Star

UAF’s newest master plan calls for addressing the problem of getting from one accessible entrance to another.

“ADA access is addressed through campus connectivity,” the plan says in a section that explains how it complies with each of the Board of Regents 12 considerations for planning. Other aspects of the plan detail efforts to strategically locate new buildings and take on other improvements to pedestrian corridors.

Reaching Out

Matthews isn’t the only person working on access issues around campus. She said UAF formed an ADA taskforce about 15 or 16 months ago. The task force is working on a map of accessible entrances, so that it’s easier to tell people where on campus the can get around. The task force is also charged with working on awareness of ADA issues at UAF, and is working on educating people about how to publicize their events.

Matthews said that people organizing events on campus need to know to put contact information for a coordinator on all their flyers. That way, anyone who wants to attend can contact the coordinator and get the accommodations he or she needs. Matthews said she helps coordinate those accommodations.

A wide range of accommodations is possible at events. People can find out what entrance has a ramp, where to park or even get help understanding a presentation. At the Patch Adams talk held earlier in the semester, an interpreter made the event accessible for the deaf community.

Events aren’t the only way UAF interacts with the community. Matthews said the campus has an assistive technology lab where community members can see the technology before ordering it.

Despite the challenges in providing access, Matthews said UAF provides the opportunity to do so creatively.

“I think thinking outside the box is a huge factor of Alaska,” she said.

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