Colleges improve campuses for disabled

Mct and Mct

CHICAGO – The first time the fire alarm went off in his University of Chicago dorm, Jonathan Ko, a quadriplegic, was in bed, without a plan of escape. Had it been a real fire, there would have been no obvious way for anyone to know he was stuck.

Days later, a red sign went up in his window to alert firefighters to his location.

Years after Ko’s experience and 16 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act led to sweeping changes in accommodations for people with special needs, the University of Chicago and many other institutions are still grappling with how to adapt – a slow evolution tolerated, until recently, by the government.

But roughly two years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation at the University of Chicago and about 10 other universities.

Last month, to avoid litigation, University of Chicago officials signed an agreement with the Justice Department that requires extensive campus improvements during the next four years.

Government officials hope the University of Chicago settlement and another signed last month with Colorado College are only the beginning of a series of agreements that will require universities to improve access and accommodations for students with disabilities.

The cost of retrofitting buildings, as well as revamping everything from parking to emergency plans, has caught the attention of academia.

“The Justice Department is sending a very strong shot across the bow of American higher education, from community colleges to major research universities, that they are serious about the enforcement of ADA,” said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education. He said it could be “extraordinarily expensive” to comply with what the Justice Department wants.

Under the University of Chicago agreement, changes will include making 3 percent of housing units accessible for people with disabilities, identifying accessible routes on the university’s Web site and reviewing evacuation procedures and transportation.

The agreement states that even some of the university’s new construction is faulty, noting problems with doors, restrooms, signage and classroom seating.

The settlement does not include academic accommodations such as technology that can make online course material available in an audio format for students who are blind.

Though they agreed to make the changes, university officials deny violating the law, according to the agreement.

Ingrid Gould, a University of Chicago assistant vice provost, said some of the stipulated improvements – including campuswide emergency plans – have been under way for years. Other recent changes include new entrance ramps, updating lifts for heavier and wider wheelchairs and repaving some cracked and uneven pathways.