Federal civil rights investigation into University of Illinois web accessibility launched
Despite reputation, University of Illinois struggles with web accessibility
Sarah McCabe, a junior who uses a wheelchair to navigate the University of Illinois campus, says that the quality of physical access varies greatly from building to building, room to room.
“I’ll admit that I am very spoiled because I’m a communication major, so I spend most of my time in Lincoln [Hall]. … I mean, Lincoln is like an accessibility dream,” she said of the more than century-old building that just underwent a $60 million renovation. “But then I have class in Greg, which is a whole other story.”
“Greg,” which is Gregory Hall on South Wright Street, has its accessible entrance off of an unevenly paved parking lot. The entrance doubles as the loading dock, so McCabe said that often a Coca-Cola truck is there to restock the vending machines when she’s trying to go to class.
“It looks so pretty on the outside, and it has such a home-y atmosphere, but it’s so not accessible,” McCabe said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, was intended to ensure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities to participate in mainstream American society as everyone else: from education to employment to participation in government programs and services.
While the University of Illinois has been called a pioneer in providing accessibility and support for students with disabilities, certain simple items — such as buttons to call and operate the elevator in Gregory Hall — remain out of reach.
Last year, it took three months to repair the building’s wheelchair lift that allows access to the basement classrooms. Professors swapped classrooms to accommodate students using wheelchairs in the meantime.
Struggles come as university ages
Barriers to accessibility are not unique to Gregory Hall and reflect the challenges that a 150-year-old university faces, despite being recognized as a leader in accessibility.
Some buildings have water fountains and elevator buttons too high for people in wheelchairs to use, ramps that lead to non-automatic doors and routes that are supposed to be accessible that are poorly marked or even required pedestrians who use wheelchairs to cross bike lanes to reach accessible entrances.
University of Illinois officials said, like other historic institutions of higher education across the country, they is constantly working to strike a balance between maintaining its storied facilities while also ensuring they meet modern accessibility compliance standards.
Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university usually works with historic preservation groups when planning renovations to maintain the style of the building. She also points to Lincoln Hall as an example of a building that’s been successfully “preserved and transformed all at once.”
“With that sort of thing, you’re really more looking at the envelope of the building and the characteristics, the personality of it,” she said. “But if somebody needs access, we’re certainly going to give them access because that’s the number one priority.”
As of February, 1,806 of the university’s 44,542 students identified as having a disability, according to the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services. Of those students, 184 have physical/mobility-related disabilities and an additional 40 are blind or have low vision.
The campus is comprised of a total of 647 facilities, spread across 7.1 square miles or roughly 4,500 acres. The main campus area takes up about 2.8 square miles and consists of 353 facilities.
The university’s Facilities and Services department is primarily responsible for making sure that those facilities — excluding auxiliaries and a few other categories — are accessible to all students, faculty, staff or campus visitors with disabilities.
Trouble with accessibility routes
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that each building have at least one accessible route that originates from a drop-off point such as a parking lot or public bus stop. The University of Illinois has designated 124 accessible routes to help people with disabilities safely and easily navigate the campus. Signage for these routes points out where automatic doors are located on a building and the most direct route to the building’s elevator.
Over time, the more than 9,000 feet of sidewalk on these routes have deteriorated. Sidewalk panels have cracked from harsh winter weather and fallen tree branches. Large sidewalk grates pose hazards to people who use wheelchairs, crutches or canes. ADA standards have also been updated since the routes were put in, so some entry thresholds are now considered to be too tall and some ramps are too steep.
Facilities and Services, with the help of students from the urban planning department, performed a self-evaluation of these routes over the past two years. In total, more than 400 deficiencies were identified on campus.
In late April, the department announced a plan to correct such issues for about $1.2 million.
The University has designated nearly 80 buildings as “priority facilities,” places where students with disabilities live or that are most heavily used. Construction on these facilities has been divided into three phases and is slated to be completed over the next 20 years, though Facilities and Services plans to pursue additional funding in order to accelerate completion.
“We want to under-promise and over-deliver,” said Roland White, an engineer with Facilities and Services.
With regards to this plan and all barriers to access, it takes cooperation on the public’s part to address access issues.
“Students, or whomever is having the problem, have to tell us because we can’t work on it if we don’t know,” Kaler said.
Pat Malik, director of the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, said her office works together with Facilities and Services to create solutions to address barriers to access when they are brought to the attention of her office.
Craig Grant, the associate director for campus code and fire safety, said in an email that his office receives about 10 requests annually to enhance accessibility for an individual, often from a referral through the disabilities office or another specific department. He added that there may be a few additional requests made to other divisions for other issues, such as uneven sidewalks.
“Ideally, wherever you go, somebody will point you in the right place,” Kaler said. “That’s the goal, and we try to make that happen. But again, it’s a big place and not everybody knows to do that. We do try to make sure that that is pretty prominent.”
Kaler said the university has a running list of capital improvements that need to be made, with projects shifting in priority based on urgency. The 120-year-old Altgeld Hall is currently at the top of the list for a variety of reasons.
“We try to address any building element that is brought to our attention or that has been previously identified,” Grant said. “We look for programmatic access concerns if any have not already been addressed, and we often work to incorporate accessibility improvements that would exceed the minimum requirements.”
Grant said that, to his knowledge, the university does not break the cost of accessibility updates out from the rest of a capital improvement project but estimates that the university has spent several hundred thousand dollars on accessibility improvements in any given year.
“In years where we have done major capital projects, the amount is likely significantly more than that,” he said. “We are looking at ways to more specifically break out the cost of the accessibility work in our future projects.”
For restroom upgrades, Grant said they try to create greater accessibility by renovating bathrooms on multiple floors throughout multiple facilities, even though they’re only required to have one accessible bathroom per building.
Malik, the director of DRES, said she would give the campus a B+ or A- for its physical access.
As a student, McCabe finds it harder to give a grade, but warns: “If you want to go somewhere, ask somebody.”
“There’s certain places that I just don’t go, like the [Undergraduate Library] because I’ve heard the horror stories there,” she said. She added that her friends — in Engineering especially — have their fair share of stories about getting stuck in elevators.
McCabe has run into a few physical barriers here and there herself — for example, when an elevator broke and left her unable to go to her assigned STAT 100 section for some time. But she said that her professors and supervisors have always been accommodating.
“If you can’t go somewhere, 99 percent of the time, I would say it’s on you,” she said. “If you ask someone at DRES or whatever, they’ll help you figure it out. But it’s a matter of wanting to go there and do what you need to do.”
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