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The Chronicle of Higher Education

Editor's Note: January 26, 2001

West Lafayette, Ind. On a crisp winter day, the sun is shining on an old curb cut in the sidewalk, across from the bell tower in the heart of the Purdue University campus. More than two decades ago, student groups raised almost $20,000 to pay for Students at Purdue with Disabilities Colloquy: Join a debate on the issues raised in this article about 100 of the cuts, which make it easier for students in wheelchairs to navigate. Today, a new era of accommodations for students with physical and learning disabilities has dawned at Purdue, leaving behind the days when these kinds of improvements were seen as acts of charity. Workers are inside nearby Recitation Hall, putting the final touches on a new elevator, one of two being installed this academic year. When that work is done, only one academic building, the 124-year-old University Hall, will be without an elevator, and it is scheduled to receive one next year. "I never dreamed there would be elevators in some of these buildings," says Betty M. Nelson, Purdue's first coordinator of disability services, who held the post from 1975 to December 1995, when she retired. Ms. Nelson and other Purdue officials say the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 deserves much of the credit for the swift turnaround on the campus. As the A.D.A. enters its second decade, The Chronicle visited Purdue to explore the law's effect on a major public university. The A.D.A. gave an unprecedented amount of publicity to the rights of disabled persons, empowering them to hold institutions more accountable to their needs. Colleges almost instantly faced the threat of lawsuits, as students began pressing administrators to stop dragging their feet on expensive accommodations. Students with disabilities and their advocates say the record for colleges so far is mixed. Small private colleges - with modest endowments and relatively few disabled students - have been especially slow in making needed improvements. Even at large public universities, progress has varied, depending on the level of student activism, campus approaches to compliance, and specific challenges faced, including topography and historical campus attitudes toward fostering diversity. Progress also has varied by type of disability. Over the past decade, many campuses have received face-lifts and added transportation services that make it easier for students in wheelchairs to get around. Services for students with visual and hearing impairments also are improving, although institutions continue to struggle with the high costs of providing Braille services and interpreters. Colleges, though, have faced an explosion of growth since the passage of the A.D.A. in the number of students they are enrolling with learning disabilities. Services for those students also have improved, although some faculty members and officials remain skeptical about accommodating them, by giving extra time on tests, for example. Disability experts say the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1975 - which requires public schools to accommodate disabled students - helped more students with learning disabilities get diagnosed and helped earlier in life, leading more to college. Advances in medical treatments also have allowed people with more severe psychological and emotional disabilities, and more traumatic brain injuries, to enter higher education, they say. Purdue, like most institutions, has been serving a growing number of students with all types of disabilities. In 1999-2000, Purdue assisted 759 students with disabilities, more than three times the number it helped a decade earlier. Its population of students with learning disabilities was 497 in the last academic year; there were 148 in 1989-90. Over the past decade at Purdue, students have pushed for better accommodations, and administrators have often responded generously. The institution's disabled students and their advocates have the advantage of a highly placed administrative ally, Purdue's treasurer, who has fought for financing for worthy projects. For example, a laboratory that produces special Braille materials for students employs some 15 people, at an annual cost of more than half a million dollars. The university also has taken special care to coordinate various offices, believing the team approach allows them to more quickly and competently respond to A.D.A. concerns. Before 1990, Purdue was slowly making improvements to campus buildings and disability services. Ms. Nelson says the new disabilities law sped up the process: "It flagged that this is a serious federal government mandate." The A.D.A. actually imposed few new requirements on colleges. All institutions that receive federal funds had been subject to nearly identical standards under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of a disability. Many colleges, however, ignored the law, and they were unlikely to face tough federal enforcement or campus activists demanding change. The A.D.A., they say, simply could not be pushed aside. Section 504 "was signed under duress and very quietly," says Richard W. Harris, director of disabled-student development at Ball State University since 1973. In contrast, President George Bush signed the A.D.A. "on a beautiful sunny day in the White House Rose Garden," he adds. "It enjoyed a lot more validity." In short order, students began filing - or threatening to file - grievances with the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. Some took their institutions to court. Campus advocates of increasing services for disabled students also had new ammunition for their priorities. Purdue's office for disabled students had meager beginnings, with Ms. Nelson first taking on those services only as part of her work as dean of women. Now, the university employs an equivalent of 7.75 full-time people - more than many other universities its size - to handle services for disabled students. Immediately after the 1990 law took effect, Purdue focused its attention on its most glaring deficiencies. It added entrances, elevators, and bathrooms to make accessible widely used facilities, such as the Purdue Memorial Union. About halfway through the '90's, facilities planners were able to move beyond these stopgap changes and into strategic planning. As buildings were scheduled for renovation, new and better ramps, fancier restrooms that were accessible to disabled people, and other accommodations were added as a matter of course. Officials are now down to "second-tier priorities," such as increasing the number of signs that use Braille and adding spaces for wheelchairs at the football stadium, which now has seating space for 40 to 50 people in wheelchairs. Officials also are taking steps to help disabled students have experiences that closely match those of other students. In 1995, for example, Purdue made a room in the job-placement office accessible to students in wheelchairs so that they would no longer have to schedule meetings with recruiters at other campus locations. The room had been located three steps down from the main hallway; the university raised the floor of the office to make it level with the hallway. At Purdue and across the country, gaining access to technology is becoming increasingly important for students with disabilities. Around 1990, Purdue created a laboratory that helps disabled students use computers to assimilate reading material, conduct research, and complete class assignments. The lab contains specialized equipment and software programs, such as screen magnifiers and applications that allow visually impaired and dyslexic students to scan materials that the computer will read back. Looking back on a decade of progress, university officials acknowledge that the 1990 nudge from Congress was instrumental. "I am convinced," says Kenneth P. Burns, executive vice president and treasurer, "that here at Purdue - and really across the country - the changes that occurred would not have occurred without A.D.A., or at least so quickly." Many Purdue officials credit Mr. Burns with driving much of the change, since he promoted an attitude that accommodations had to be included in the institution's budget, whatever their cost. When, for instance, Purdue began to weigh starting its Braille production facility, he offered financing: "It's very expensive, but it's an irreplaceable service," he explains. Elsewhere, some colleges were doing much to help disabled students long before the passage of A.D.A. In 1947, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed the first program for physically disabled students, besides those at institutions whose missions focused on serving students with disabilities. Curry College, outside Boston, offered the first support program for students with learning disabilities in 1970. Purdue, some national disability experts say, made particularly rapid progress in the years after the A.D.A. The campus's advances were, for instance, quicker than at its Big Ten rival - Indiana University at Bloomington. Indiana - which serves a student body similar in size to Purdue (both have more than 35,000 students) - is just now hitting its stride, campus officials and students say. "Bloomington's hilly and the university's old, so access has not always been easy," says Martha P. Jacques, who has been director of Indiana's disabled-student services since August 1999. But she says that the dean of students is committed to financing services and improvements for the campus's growing number of students with disabilities. Last semester, Indiana served about 520 students with disabilities, about 75 percent of whom have learning disabilities. The university signed off on its campus plan to meet A.D.A. requirements in 1993, and two years later pledged to make further progress when it entered an agreement with the Education Department. The Office for Civil Rights had investigated a complaint charging that 30 buildings had limited access to disabled students. Indiana agreed to improve access to drinking fountains, telephones, and parking spaces, and to fix buildings constructed after June 1977. Now only a few academic buildings are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. The university also has improved its technology offerings for disabled students. In fall 1999, Margaret Londergan, a long-time Indiana employee who developed campus computing sites, started a center that provides software and equipment designed to help students with disabilities. She began with little more than a few tape recorders and a computer used for Braille translating. Now Ms. Londergan operates a service that provides much of the same technology that Purdue's lab offers, including scanning and screen-reading applications. "I would not have this position if the A.D.A. had not heightened awareness on campus," says Ms. Londergan. "I view this as a very optimistic time." Still, some Indiana students say access to campus facilities and activities needs to be improved. Ryan M. McCrocklin, a junior, uses a wheelchair and values many of the accommodations the university provides, especially its van service to classes. But he also says that more academic buildings need automatic door openers. And he laments the seating in Assembly Hall, where the Hoosiers play basketball. Wheelchair seating is behind the section for students, who stand throughout the game, obscuring his view. "People need to really be dealing with the fact that I.U. needs to make changes to make it easier for physically disabled students to come here," Mr. McCrocklin says. At Purdue, students have perhaps been more successful in advocating for change. Cary A. Supalo, a blind student who attended Purdue from fall 1994 to May 1999, says that when he first arrived the university "had nothing" for students like him. He spent days converting his textbooks to Braille, punching it out by hand as a reader provided by Purdue dictated the text. He also asked his reader to trace diagrams on Braille paper and go over the lines with a hot-glue gun to create a raised surface that Mr. Supalo, a chemistry major, could read. In 1995, Mr. Supalo contacted the U.S. Justice Department to ask whether the A.D.A. required Purdue to provide academic materials in Braille. After he learned that it did, Mr. Supalo says he wrote Purdue officials a "nonthreatening threatening letter" asking for the accommodation. A second student lodged a similar complaint. In 1996, the university responded by creating a Braille enterprise unmatched by other colleges. Many campuses offer texts in Braille, and some have software programs that provide automated translations. But no other institution has as many specialists as Purdue does to decipher complex scientific and mathematical formulas and diagrams and translate them - by hand - into a special type of Braille, known as Nemeth Code. Purdue also provides materials within 48 hours; the process takes weeks elsewhere. Purdue officials consider the service necessary, despite its annual $550,000 budget, because the curriculum here is dominated by math and science. Both students and campus staff members have helped soften another common roadblock to improvements: the attitudes of faculty members toward the A.D.A. At Purdue, officials say there was a breakthrough in 1992-1993, when the university's faculty senate explored the details of the disabilities law. Faculty members started to warm to the A.D.A. when they began to understand it "wasn't an affirmative-action law," says Paula J. Micka, assistant dean of students. "We weren't lowering standards. It wasn't the kind of policy where we had to admit 'x' number of students with disabilities." Students at Purdue and Indiana who need extra time on tests and other accommodations say they often encounter professors who go out of their way to help. One Purdue instructor, for example, went to the dorm of a student in a wheelchair to proctor weekly tests. But the students also still face professors who are reluctant to honor their needs, especially if the students have "invisible" disabilities like attention deficit disorder. Some college officials across the nation worry that some students and their parents might be "gaming the system" to gain extra time and an edge on tests. They fear that wealthier people might be able to get easier access to a diagnosis of a learning disability, when a student might not have a legitimate condition and just be lacking in ability. Research has shown that students from upper-middle-income families are most likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability. "It is very easy to understand visible disabilities, but invisible ones are harder to judge," says Glenn Hueckel, an economics professor at Purdue who led the faculty committee that studied the A.D.A. in 1992-93. "There is this question that still troubles faculty, that if I have 100 students, how can I assure the other 99 that it's fair to them that this one student gets extra time on a test?" It has helped faculty members, he says, to be assured that there is a process in place by which the university carefully documents who really needs the extra time. Nevertheless, "you get a variety of responses - everything from, 'Is there anything I can do?' to 'What are you doing in my class?'" says Chris G. Fisher, a senior at Purdue who has cyclic seizures and short-term memory difficulties resulting from a 1994 car accident. "It's very discouraging to have to say, 'There is paperwork to back me up.'" Over all, many students with disabilities and campus officials say that the A.D.A. was not a magic bullet that instantly improved campus climates and accommodations. But many changes would not have happened without the law, they say. Standing outside Stanley Coulter Hall, home of Purdue's department of foreign languages and literatures, Ms. Nelson points out that an elevator was added to the building during a remodeling in the mid-90's. Purdue also removed steps leading up to the side entrance and created a gradual incline, so that students in wheelchairs could enter. Such changes would have been almost unthinkable in the days before the A.D.A., she says. "Having all our language labs accessible is a gift from the gods," Ms. Nelson says. "We've come a long way."