Building Up Accessibility


Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and amended it in 2008. The act protects the right of people with disabilities to access public and private spaces and activities, and it has led to the advancement of rights for those with disabilities.

Most of the time, that means assured access to buildings with ramps and elevators.

But that’s not always the case—particularly not at a large, 166-year-old university.

The law does not require buildings built before or last renovated before 1992 to be made accessible. Instead, it only requires that students be able to access programs and services.

As a result, even on campuses such as the University of Minnesota, where an estimated 83 students live with a mobility or physical disability, a dozen large East Bank campus buildings and numerous St. Paul campus buildings aren’t completely accessible.

None of this means that the University’s buildings aren’t up to code, or that university officials don’t comply with the law. In fact, new construction always takes into account the latest of accessibility mandates, university officials say.

But the Americans with Disabilities Act also does not require buildings to be made accessible if the owner can prove that changes for accessibility would cause “a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity,” or an excessive financial or administrative burden. For businesses, the cost is considered disproportionate if it exceeds 20 percent of the cost of the overall alteration.

In other words, older buildings often get a pass on some items.

All that makes sense to Margot Imdieke Cross, who is an accessibility specialist at the state advisory group Minnesota State Council on Disability.  “Making an existing building accessible is expensive,” she said.  If a building does undergo structural changes, though, that part of the building is required to adhere to the code’s latest requirements, Imdieke Cross said.

Roberta Kehne, physical accessibility specialist at the University’s Disability Resource Center, said that the university faces this issue all the time.

“Great accessibility is always easier to achieve with new construction,” Kehne said.

If an older building needs significant renovation, that’s also an opportunity to update accessibility features, she said. Pioneer Hall is one example. After renovations set to be completed in the fall of 2019, it will no longer be the only major East Bank building that is completely inaccessible.

“It is going to be gutted and made new while leaving most of the architectural beauty of the building’s exterior intact,” Kehne said. The new building will have accessible spaces that include wider exterior paths, accessible parking and disability vehicle drop-off.

As for older buildings, the university does its best with the resources—but add-ons really balloon when they’re not within a larger remodel such as the one at Pioneer. For example, Kehne said, power-operated doors “are never required unless they are a way to remediate an inaccessible situation,” but the University often still places them at restrooms and accessible entrances.

Yet there is a big difference between placing a power door while constructing a new building or significantly remodeling an old building versus a retrofit, Kehne said. The installation can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per door during construction or a remodel, while a retrofitted door can cost between $12,000 and $15,000 per door, Kehne said.

Unexpected costs can further increase that price tag. One power door on campus was requested at an entrance that was level with the ground, Kehne said, but the sidewalk leading to this door was steeper than what the accessibility code allows.

“Therefore, this project would actually entail regrading and possibly reconfiguring the sidewalk, as well as possibly re-landscaping the green space on that side of the building,” Kehne said. “So, what might have initially seemed like a $15,000 job quickly mushroomed to something closer to a $100,000 job!”

When students cannot navigate an inaccessible building, faculty and staff must find a way to reach them, said Donna Johnson, the University’s ADA compliance officer.

For years, Scott Hall on the University’s East Bank campus did not have an elevator, so faculty on the building’s upper floors scheduled meetings with students in different, accessible locations.

That trade-off is simply a reality, Johnson said. When it comes to older campus buildings,  “everything can’t be what [we] want it to be.”


At Home

At the residence halls, accessibility means collaboration between Housing and Residential Life (HRL) and the Disability Resource Center (DRC). The DRC will handle the students’ sensitive medical information, and then advise HRL on what accommodations to make.

But the university also likes to think big—universal, that is.

As plans are being made to renovate Pioneer Hall, the University is thinking about its needs three to four years from now, said Mannix Clark, the associate director of operations for HRL.

It’s a chance to stop being behind the times with the old, historic buildings, Clark said. “Usually we have to be reactive,” Clark said, but every now and then “we get to be proactive.”

It’s important to do so, considering that HRL used to get 8 or 10 housing accommodation requests around 1990, but in 2016 the requests “topped over a hundred,” Clark said.

So the university has moved toward universal solutions as much as possible. For example, the residence halls replaced all their washing machines with front-loaders, although only half of them were required to be more accessible to disabled people.

It ended up simplifying things for the University, Clark said, because students, who sometimes don’t know how to work laundry machines when they come to college, only needed to be given one set of instructions on how to do laundry.

When it comes to housing buildings, Clark said the University tries to go above what the law requires, like installing an extra automatic door when one wasn’t needed.

“We have universal design in most of what we do,” Clark said, but “every room isn’t going to be accessible. It would be easier if every room was accessible.” When it comes to the costs of renovating the buildings, that’s just not feasible, Clark said.

All the residence halls are accessible, besides Pioneer Hall, which is the last building on the East Bank campus that is completely inaccessible. Still, some buildings and individual rooms are better than others.

Yudof and the 17th Avenue residence halls have wider hallways, and the apartment-style rooms in Yudof Hall come with accessible microwaves, Clark said.

Over the years, more students who live with disabilities have come with greater needs for accessible and private bathrooms, Clark said. Yudof Hall has semi-private bathrooms, and all bathrooms in the 17th Avenue Residence Hall are accessible, Clark said. At some point, Clark said it will make sense for residence halls to switch to having only private bathrooms.

Students with disabilities sometimes feel self-conscious about their greater need for privacy and that their roommates have less room because of the equipment that they need, Clark said. Still, the students with disabilities want to have the freshman experience of living with a roommate like other college students, Clark said.


University of Minnesota mall as students go to class

At School

Imani Cruzen, a freshman University student studying journalism, said she hasn’t had many problems accessing the campus as a person who uses a crutch.

Cruzen appreciates how the University’s campus has disability railings, like the ones leading from Northrop Auditorium‘s ground floor to the first floor. Using the railings, Cruzen can go up and down the stairs unaided. The stairs are a faster, more convenient and more liberating option than the elevator, Cruzen said.

Still, Cruzen said she thinks people who must access campus’ buildings using a ramp might point out problems. Some buildings have ramps only in the back of the building, which might be off-putting for some because they must go around the building and go in a back door that feels stigmatized, Cruzen said.

There’s also a social aspect to making campus inclusive, Cruzen said. While most University people she’s met are friendly and well-meaning, she doesn’t like it when people assume “If I don’t have an able-bodied person with me, I’ll fall down and hit my head.”

Clark said that engaging people with disabilities using programming is easier to implement than accessibility renovations.

For students who could benefit from extra help getting through the dining lines quickly during lunch, Clark said HRL will ask University Dining Services staff to help the students fill their plates and get them situated.


Winter on East Bank

At Work

For Coca-Ioana Vladislav, who has worked as a massage therapist at Boynton Health for over 16 years and who lives with a visual impairment, outside the buildings—namely, the sidewalks—are an important part of navigating campus.

Growing up in Romania, Vladislav took a class on orientation in space. There, she learned to remember features of a place after she’s been there once. Today, Vladislav uses her cane and her memory to navigate by remembering the number of cracks in the campus’ sidewalks. Although construction work can disrupt her orientation, Vladislav appreciated the repairs of the sidewalks and plaza.

The current layout of Church Street is much better for Vladislav. Back when there was traffic on Church Street, there was only a stop sign to regulate the constant traffic, Vladislav said. Drivers would often not yield, Vladislav said.

Otherwise, the main problem comes when there is ice on slopes, Vladislav said. The area around the Field House used to be particularly icy in the 1990s and 2000s, Vladislav said, but recently the University has made the area clean of ice.