Limited access: Frustrations and goals seek to forge a new future

As MSU prepares to break ground on the new College of Business building and seeks funding to renovate Romney Gym, university planners hope to improve campus-wide access for those with mobility disabilities.

MSU is required by law to adhere to the Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, which are part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, the guidelines apply to buildings built after 1990, and only a handful of buildings on campus were constructed after that year.

“The key is that 1990 date,” said Brenda York, director of Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services. “Any building [built] prior to that is grandfathered in, so it doesn’t have to be accessible unless you’re rebuilding or doing a major remodel.”

Still, the reality of an old campus can be frustrating for students with mobility issues.

A student’s concern

Jaime Henríquez, a biology student, believes the 1990 limitation is no excuse for the lack of accessible restrooms on campus. His wheelchair has become damaged and his hands scratched from attempts at squeezing into narrow restroom stalls and making sharp turns inside entrances to certain restrooms.

He explained that he needs a wider space around the toilet and more space with no abrupt turns as he enters the restroom.

As buildings on campus undergo major renovations or are rebuilt, they must be made compliant with ADA guidelines, York said. But until older buildings are brought up to code, Henríquez typically uses restrooms that are wheelchair-accessible, even if they are in separate buildings from his classes. Reid Hall and the Renne Library, which have accessible restrooms for him on most levels, are the easiest for him to use.

Henríquez, who has a class in Leon Johnson Hall, is bothered by the fact that there is a wheelchair-accessible restroom on the sixth floor of the building, but not on the first. He said this was an illogical choice, adding, “If an emergency happened, it would take a lot for me to get down.”

Dennis Raffensperger, an architect with University Facilities Planning, Design & Construction explained that the entire sixth floor of Leon Johnson was remodeled with a Thermal Biology Institute grant and an accessible restroom was added at the time. Luckily for Henríquez and other students with accessibility limitations, funding from the state Legislature for university system maintenance projects is being used to make the second floor accessible, as it houses the anatomy and physiology labs many students use.

Change is in the air

While Henríquez remains frustrated with the restroom situation, York said the abundance of older buildings makes campus-wide ADA accessibility a long-term project, and that alternative measures must be taken in the meantime.

Her office considers the schedules of approximately 15 students, about seven of whom use wheelchairs, at the beginning of each semester. These students, all who identify as having mobility issues, are given priority registration so a Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services staff member can evaluate their schedules and move classes to accessible rooms and buildings if necessary.

Although York said the process of moving classrooms is effective for now, a document called the ADA Transition Plan notes the deficiencies of each academic building on campus and also includes a schedule for when each deficiency is expected to be addressed, as well as the cost.

According to Raffensperger, the current Transition Plan from 1994 is out-of-date. However, in the summer of 2011, four architecture interns were hired and trained to update the plan, which will be presented to MSU’s ADA Advisory Committee in March.

While the document depicts campus’ shortcomings in accessibility, everything done on campus now and in the future will meet current ADA guidelines.

Montana, Herrick, Linfield and Lewis Halls, as well as the Romney Gym, have limited accessibility, but a planned remodel of Linfield will make it almost entirely accessible, and the Romney Gym Academic Renovation, if funded by the state Legislature, will make that building fully ADA accessible as well.

MSU’s new residence hall, North Hedges Suite Three, and the new College of Business building will also be fully accessible, with the residence hall having 11 fully-accessible rooms, as well as accessible restrooms.

The little things

Despite the promising plans for university accessibility, Henríquez is still often thwarted by some details. He explained how some smaller-scale issues impact him — for example, Haynes Hall has an accessible women’s restroom, but no men’s — and he described how he recently has had to manually pull shut the SUB elevator in order for it to take him where he needs to go.

He also commented on the cracked sidewalks west of the SUB and the uneven pavement throughout campus, saying these problems affect not only him, but pedestrians and bicyclists as well.

But York said quick-fixes are not always simple or feasible. Ramps must meet certain measurements, lifts are not always safely supported by the structure, and emergency egresses must be considered.

“Doing something quickly usually means it won’t last, and it’s a lot better if we can plan for it and do a permanent solution, as opposed to a quick-fix,” Raffensperger said.

While Henríquez has become somewhat well-known around campus for his concern and frustration — he ran for an ASMSU senate seat last fall with accessibility as his main platform — he said he had a positive experience when requesting a wheelchair-accessible entrance to his basement apartment in Family and Graduate Housing — it was installed almost immediately.

He also said campus handicapped parking spaces are typically easy to find.

“Sometimes I feel that I’m pushing too much…but I believe [I should] keep pushing,” he said.

He believes the university must work harder to motivate the elderly and the disabled to be at MSU, and that accessibility plays a key role in doing so.

Positive present, brighter future

“We’re really proactive,” York said. She described the accessibility icon at the bottom of the university’s official website, montana.edu, explaining how the icon leads students to an interactive map where they can see which buildings on campus have accessible bathrooms and entrances.

Raffensperger also explained that a part of the larger Facilities organization is responsible for snow removal. “We’ve got 25 miles of sidewalks on campus, but every semester our grounds maintenance staff determines where each student with special physical needs lives and where their first classes are. The first thing they do in the morning when they go out and clean snow is those routes — that’s first priority.”

MSU also has an ADA Advisory Committee which is attached to the University Facilities Planning Board. The committee, which includes a student representative who uses a wheelchair, discusses problem areas on campus and evaluates what can be done reasonably at the time being, or what may be a larger project requiring state funding. “They’re never cheap fixes…especially in these old buildings,” York said.

When it comes to funding for accessibility projects, York explained there is no dedicated ADA fund.

“There’s no constant funding stream to address accessibility issues,” Raffensperger said. When the university does get funding, officials identify buildings with the most student use and typically address those first.

He added that funding comes from a variety of places. Sometimes the state will classify money as “code-deferred maintenance,” where money is parceled out among universities and state agencies to go toward buildings with deferred issues so they can be brought up to code.

A total of $3 million from academic fee increases due to increased enrollment was also set aside, with $1.5 million dedicated for upgrades to accessibility issues and the other $1.5 million allocated for classroom upgrades.

“The problem with MSU is it snows here, it’s on a hill and we have old buildings, so we have to work the best we can and get things as reasonably and as fast as we can,” York said, adding, “Our buildings are becoming better and better.”