From blocked sidewalks and heavy doors to a lack of wheelchair ramps and construction sites all around campus, accessibility for people with disabilities is an ongoing conversation at the University of Nevada, Reno.
In June, ProPublica developed a tool to make the status of civil rights investigations at both higher education institutions and school districts across the nation available for the public in one place. When this was released, it was revealed UNR had seven pending investigations as of June 2018. Six of the seven pending allegations were regarding accessibility — the quality of being easy to use or access, regardless of ability.
In August 2015, four investigations were opened against the university and have yet to be resolved. The civil rights cases regarded accessibility, procedural requirements, treatment of postsecondary students and academic adjustments. In October 2016, two additional cases were opened regarding accessibility and are still pending — one for academic adjustments and the other for disability harassment.
These pending investigations were not the only cases made public by ProPublica, which also provided information regarding any opened cases from the past three years, as well as whether they were resolved with or without violations. Of the seven closed cases from the last three years, two were resolved with corrective changes. The common factor between the cases resolved with corrective changes was a lack of accessibility on campus.
In addition to the civil rights cases, the university faced a much more public mistake with accessibility in 2016. After Mackay Stadium received a $14 million renovation, builders did not put into account a portion of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act that requires wheelchair seating in all areas.
From wheelchair areas, you could see “the back of the players’ heads, their butts, not the field,” Joe Bohl, a wheelchair-bound university alumni, said to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The failure to comply with the ADA resulted in a $690,000 fix to the stadium to ensure those in wheelchairs would be able to see the field. Upon investigation, it was found that this mistake was considered to be discrimination against those with disabilities.
Sophie Coudurier, a university student who is completely wheelchair-bound because of a spinal cord injury due to skiing, does not find these investigations or mistakes surprising.
“UNR tries to be accessible, however sometimes they miss the little things that are needed to make campus more accessible such as setting up automatic doors for all buildings and putting Braille outside of the buildings so that students who are blind know which buildings they are going to,” Coudurier said. “This summer, in a class I realized that there is some Braille only at the inside of the buildings, and therefore students who are blind would not be able to find their classes by themselves. I think that that is not acceptable because all students should be able to find their classes by themselves as a part of college life.”
Coudurier feels the lack of accessibility comes from the little things being overlooked. While they could put her at risk of being inconvenienced or late to class, these accessibility violations could also put her at risk of getting hurt.
“Overall, the lack of accessibility is in the small details, such as the doors without the door opener buttons, the accessible entrances being in the back of buildings and the uneven sidewalks because I could get my front wheels stuck in one of the holes and fall out of my chair,” Coudurier said.
Coudurier named two particular areas on campus that she feels are particularly inaccessible in her day-to-day life — Frandsen Hall and the area between the William J. Raggio Building and the Reynolds School of Journalism.
“I do not feel the levels of [accessibility] are acceptable, because the wheelchair accessible routes are usually behind the building — Frandsen Hall specifically — and some of the buildings don’t have accessible doors so I end up having to pull them open and reposition my chair several times during the process, which gets frustrating sometimes,” Coudurier said. “The big ramp that connects the journalism school to the Raggio has always been a difficult place for accessibility and the long distance and tiny slope has negatively impacted my time at the university.”
The Disability Resource Center has made life in college a little easier for Coudurier, such as creating accommodations to make getting from class to class simpler.
“The university has been helpful in helping me get around campus in some aspects,” Coudurier said. “More specifically, the DRC has been a huge help when it comes to changing classrooms so that I don’t have to go to the other side of campus in 15 minutes. They’ve moved my classes to the same building or the same room, and it’s really nice to not have to brave the slow crowds in between classes on campus. Other than that, the university has not been very helpful because of accessibility issues such as heavy doors and a lack of automatic doors in some of the buildings.”
Mary Zabel, director of the DRC, said they are devoted to helping those with disabilities on campus, although Zabel herself feels that campus is doing a “commendable job” in ensuring accessibility.
“The DRC serves all students with disabilities both physical and learning, as well as Deaf and hard of hearing, students with health-related disabilities, students who are blind/low vision, students with mental health disabilities, students with Attention Deficit Disorder, students with cognitive disabilities, students on the Autism Spectrum, as well as students who have temporary disabilities [such as] a broken arm,” Zabel said. “As the Director of the Disability Resource Center and working in this field for over 30 years, this is my opinion. I believe that overall, the university does a commendable job in serving students with disabilities. One example has been our efforts in addressing Information and Communication Technology Accessibility. This was a university-wide effort to create greater accessibility in the areas of websites, captioning and access to classroom materials.”
According to university President Marc Johnson, the lack of accessibility comes from ADA regulations being changed after the construction of a building. The ADA, or the Americans with Disabilities Act, outlines the necessary components a building must have to be accessible for those with disabilities.
“All of our new buildings are built to the current code regulations, including ADA codes,” Johnson said. “Whenever we get a designer, the designers are all licensed and they have to abide by ADA standards. We have all of our designs reviewed by the State Public Works Board and they follow all state laws in terms of ADA compliance and all other codes. So when a building gets old, we may fall out of compliance with ADA regulations, but only when the codes change.”
According to Johnson, violations are fixed to comply with codes according to priority..
“When the codes change, including the ADA codes, then we review all of our buildings and create a list of violations for the current code and we prioritize them and address them as soon as we have money available to address them,” Johnson said. “We have buildings on campus that were built in 1896 and we have buildings that are being built in 2018. All the new buildings are within ADA compliances.”
The order in which things are fixed ranges depending on the severity of violation and frequency of use. The Facilities Services Division prioritizes each violation when codes change based on the level of traffic in that particular area of campus.
While every building on campus was built to ADA codes at the time of their construction, according to Johnson, this does not equate to each building being universally designed.
Universal design is a standard of construction set by the National Disability Authority as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”
While some buildings on campus have components that can be classified as universally designed, such as wide doorways for wheelchairs to fit through or automatic doors, there is currently not a single building at the university that fits all criteria to be classified as universally designed.
Johnson invites all students and university members with issues or concerns regarding disabilities to email either him or Facilities Services.
“We intend to have all of our buildings accessible for all ranges of accessibility but we know that they aren’t 100 percent accessible,” Johnson said. “If there are any issues of accessibility, a student, faculty member or member of the community can email me or Facilities Services so we can identify the issues. We want people to tell us what the issues are so we can fix it.”
Coudurier has refrained from reporting her concerns with campus accessibility due to feelings that the university places its priorities elsewhere.
“I haven’t reported this to the university because it doesn’t feel like a priority and I feel that they care more about sports than accessibility on campus,” Coudurier said.
Aside from reporting concerns to Facilities Services, students with disabilities are encouraged to set up accommodations with the DRC by going to unr.edu/drc or by calling the DRC at (775) 784-6000.
Olivia Ali can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @OliviaNAli.