KU making progress on accessibility for students with disabilities

Kansas University’s progress on making its campus accessible for students with disabilities can be measured in numbers. For instance, so far it has checked off 21 of 49 accessibility recommendations made last year by a KU task force.

But student Elizabeth Boresow says she can also see it in a shift in attitude that she’s perceived during her five years at KU.

“There was an attitude of, ‘We don’t want to deal with disability, and we don’t have to unless they make us,’ ” Boresow said.

Now, she says, things are different. A sign on her dorm room that once labeled it with the negatively charged word “handicapped” now uses the more positive “accessible.” Boresow, who has autism, lives there with a roommate who has a visual impairment.

The university has involved students in decision-making on accessibility. There’s an administrator dedicated to accessibility issues who is a phone call or email away for any student.

“I would say things are overwhelmingly more positive,” said Boresow, who helps advocate for accessibility as a member of the student group Ablehawks and Allies.

The new helper is Jamie Simpson, the university’s director of accessibility and Americans with Disabilities Act education, who was hired in March.

In July 2011, a task force on ADA compliance gave Provost Jeff Vitter a report with 49 recommendations for making the campus more accessible. An update this September listed 21 of those steps as complete.

“Accessibility isn’t something that changes completely overnight,” Simpson said, “but we’ve had some major victories.”

The steps address facets of campus life ranging from tests and classroom instruction to vending machines and language on campus signs.

Simpson helped to provide faculty and staff with training on how to accommodate students with disabilities in their classes. It included videos, Simpson said, of students talking with faculty about how such things help them. “The students just got their chance to say an accommodation isn’t an advantage,” Simpson said. “It’s really just a way to even the playing field.”

Another campus office, the Academic Achievement and Access Center, has reserved a room in Strong Hall this semester for students with a need for reduced distraction, additional time or other accommodations while taking tests. It includes furniture designed for students who use wheelchairs, as well. Previously, Simpson said, the 700 or so requests for test accommodations each semester required staff to locate rooms somewhere that would work.

The Parking and Transit office has placed stickers on 500 accessible parking-spot signs around the campus to replace the word “handicapped” — a term fraught with historical connotations of pity — with the more positive “accessible parking.”

“That is a small thing, but it makes a difference,” Simpson said.

Simpson and other KU staff also asked campus vending machine providers about complying with new ADA standards related to the reach range for people who use wheelchairs. The new standards dictate that anything a person might need to reach should sit between 15 and 48 inches off the floor. Buttons and card-swipers on KU’s campus machines sometimes are as high as 66 inches.

The vending machine providers answered the call, and KU is now the first institution in the country to receive new Coca-Cola machines designed to meet those specifications.

“The accessible vending machines — you can do that on your own, without having to ask someone, a stranger, for help,” Simpson said.

KU offices’ Web presences are also becoming more accessible. KU’s Information Technology office is helping KU entities switch their webpages to a new content-management system designed to aid screen-reader programs used by Internet users with visual impairments. KU will require all units to make that switch eventually.

With more than half of the 49 recommendations not yet fulfilled, there’s still a ways to go. Among the items still on the to-do list are two more fulltime assistants, additional staff training and proposed changes in paratransit programs.

One step that’s in progress but not yet completed is an effort to map routes through campus that avoid the use of stairs. Such routes can get complicated on KU’s hilly campus: The route from Jayhawk Boulevard at the top of Mount Oread down to Sunnyside Aveune below requires one to move through five buildings and ride three different elevators.

Eventually, Simpson said, signs will be posted throughout those routes to guide people not yet familiar with the campus. “We can’t change the topography of this campus,” Simpson said. “We can’t raze the hills. But we can make it easier for people to know how they can get to where they need to go in a way that does not include stairs.”

Boresow says the biggest change for her was the introduction of Simpson’s position. Now there’s one place for students with disabilities to go with a question or concern.

She noted that the university even allowed members of the Ablehawks student group to take part in the hiring process.

“In a big university, you get sent everywhere, and you find yourself going in circles without anything happening,” Boresow said, “and she’s sort of making sure that doesn’t happen.”