Three Years into Strategic Initiative, Dramatic Increase Seen in ADA Compliance

Physical Improvements Plan universal design on campus
By adhering to 'universal design,' new buildings on campus like the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center are built at grade level with the surrounding landscape.

By Ed Brennen

Even with the addition of 12 brand-new or completely renovated buildings in the last seven years, the university is home to many halls, dorms and offices built before 1990 — the year the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted.

While those older buildings were grandfathered into the law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, university leaders in 2012 developed the Physical Improvements Plan, a strategic, incremental roadmap that prioritizes facilities projects to make the campus more accessible for all students, faculty and staff.

Spearheaded by representatives from Facilities Management, Student Disability Services and Human Resources, the Physical Improvements Plan has resulted in significant progress over the past five years. In 2011, just nine of 38 buildings surveyed on campus met the minimum federal ADA requirements; by 2017, 39 of 44 buildings will do so.

“There’s still a lot of important work to do, but if you look back five years now, it’s incredible,” says Peter Brigham, the university’s assistant director of planning, urban design and transportation, who heads up the plan’s 12-member advisory group that meets monthly to review progress and identify code-compliance objectives.

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” adds Janelle Diaz, who joined the advisory group three years ago as a student representative and now works as a support counselor in Disability Services. “Everyone’s needs are different, but we’re trying to target everything, which is important.”

Brigham says the rolling plan initially identified and prioritized approximately 20 projects across campus. While some of the improvements have been relatively simple, like adding accessible parking within the required 200 feet of a building, others have been more complex. The North Quad pods project, for instance, will provide accessible entries, bathrooms and elevators for Southwick, Falmouth, Kitson and Pasteur halls when it’s completed in fall 2017.

The pods project, which had been on the drawing board before the creation of the Physical Improvements Plan, also opens the door for future renovation work on the quad buildings. That’s because according to federal law, if work done on a grandfathered public building costs less than 30 percent of the building’s value, but more than $100,000, then the building must have an accessible public entrance, as well as an accessible bathroom, telephone and drinking fountain.

Embracing Diversity

Beyond code compliance and “good-faith efforts” to improve accessibility, Brigham says the ultimate goal is “universal design,” or creating spaces that can be used by the widest range of people possible. While older buildings like Coburn Hall were constructed in the style of a Greek temple, set high with grand staircases, new buildings like the Pulichino Tong Business Building are designed to be at an even grade with the surrounding landscape — a prime example of universal design.

“That fits into the university’s 2020 Strategic Plan, this idea of one campus and embracing diversity,” says Brigham, who will present the Physical Improvements Plan at the Society of College and University Professionals’ spring conference this March in New York City.

By next year, there will only be five grandfathered buildings left for the university to tackle: Coburn Hall (built in 1894), Mahoney Hall (1960) and Concordia Hall (1966) on South Campus; Pinanski Hall (1968) on North Campus, and the Ames Building (1968) on East Campus.

Once those buildings are addressed, Brigham says the university can focus on the aspiration of universal design, making more entries, classrooms, student spaces and walkways accessible.

And because the ADA was amended in 2008 to broaden the definition of “disability,” Brigham says the scope of the university’s work extends beyond just physical accessibility. 

Coordinated by Dean of Student Affairs and Enrichment James Kohl, the Access and Accommodation committee also works to improve access to all facets of student life, including academic support, health and wellness services, transportation and Web services. For instance, an accessibility website was created to provide easy-to-find information and resources for students, faculty, staff and visitors, including downloadable campus maps highlighting accessible parking, routes and entrances.

Multi-Prong Approach

For all its success, the Physical Improvements Plan is just one part of a multi-prong approach the university is taking to address accessibility. The second, “Facilities Growth and Adaptation,” refers to integrating the new buildings and renovation work into the big picture while keeping pace with growing enrollment. The third prong, “Feedback,” involves members of the campus community bringing accessibility issues to the university’s attention through channels like the Chancellor’s Forum.

That’s how Diaz, a double River Hawk who earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s in community social psychology, first became involved with the Physical Improvements Plan three years ago.

“I saw all these changes occurring at the university for accessibility, and I brought up my concern at a Chancellor’s Forum, asking if those changes included the perspective of someone with a disability,” says Diaz, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. “I think it’s important to have the perspective of the population you’re trying to help, someone going through it.”

Diaz says serving on the advisory group has helped her realize how complicated it can be to manage improvements on a campus with 10,000 rooms spread across nearly 50 buildings.

“It’s definitely eye-opening to understand all the different factors that are involved when making decisions as to which buildings we should target for improvements and why,” she says. “People think, ‘Why aren’t these changes being made?’ But they don’t always understand all the dynamics that go into it.

“I definitely feel like we’ve come a long, long way since I first got here in 2007 in terms of accessibility,” Diaz adds. “We’re definitely moving forward.”