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'Turning point in American civil rights history'

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Peter Berg and Robin Jones of UIC’s Great Lakes ADA Center

Peter Berg and Robin Jones of UIC’s Great Lakes ADA Center, which works with businesses, governments and others to comply with the law. “The ADA has had a huge impact, not only on the infrastructure but also examining the accessibility of the university,” Jones says.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Two decades ago, a visit to his dean’s office was impossible for Drew Browning.

There was no way for Browning, who uses a wheelchair, to travel to the third-floor office in Jefferson Hall.

The obstacles didn’t stop there. He couldn’t reach his department office, attend meetings in the conference room on the 28th floor of University Hall or visit upper-level floors in several campus buildings.

“There are many examples of things that were inaccessible when I first came to the university,” said Browning, who retired last spring as associate professor of art and design but plans to rejoin the faculty part time this fall.

“There have been big improvements.”

The catalyst for such changes, on campus and across the nation, was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The legislation prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires that all university programs and services be accessible.

As the legislation marks its 20th anniversary this year, UIC has made significant accessibility improvements for students and employees with disabilities, said Robin Jones, instructor in disability and human development.

“The ADA has had a huge impact, not only on the infrastructure but also examining the accessibility of the university,” Jones said.


Lifts, elevators, Braille signs

After the act’s passage, lifts and elevators were installed in campus buildings, bathrooms were remodeled for wheelchair access, more parking was added for people with disabilities, Braille signs were installed across campus, and campus buses became accessible for everyone, Jones said.

“We had a campus that was not well structured or designed for accessibility,” Jones said.

“I applaud the university for the efforts it has made to this point by making sure the ADA is something that is considered in the planning of activities and not an afterthought.

“The biggest challenge is always integration into the planning process.”

Recent campus improvements include accessibility ramps to the second-floor terrace of the Behavioral Sciences Building and the west end of the Education, Performing Arts and Social Work Building.

Building renovations last year had accessibility in mind. Hallways in Lincoln Hall were expanded to connect with the second and third floors of Douglas Hall. Second- and third-floor corridors in Douglas Hall connect to Grant Hall, which has an elevator.

“Accessibility is really one of the main priorities when we are doing any renovations on campus,” said Mark Donovan, vice chancellor for administrative services.

“As we renovate, we’re really looking toward universal design, and it’s our goal to meet those standards whenever possible. Everyone, no matter what, should be able to get where they have to go.”

Digital accessibility is a new concern, Jones said.

Two years ago, the campus completed a web overhaul to make sure its web pages incorporate state-designated accessibility standards so that people who use assistive technologies can access online content.

The ADA is evolving with the times, too. The Department of Justice recently announced that it is considering an update to the legislation to include web accessibility, Jones said.


Making voices heard

UIC reaches out to the community through initiatives like the Great Lakes ADA Center, which Jones directs.

The center helps businesses, government agencies, disability rights groups and others in a six-state region to comply with the ADA.

The Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities is charged with ensuring that the voices of employees and students with disabilities are heard.

One of the group’s biggest successes is the Disability Resource Center, established in 2005, said committee co-chair Marsha Cassidy.

“It’s not just a resource center in the sense of providing accommodations for student with disabilities,” said Cassidy, a lecturer in English.

“Center director Roxana Stupp has a philosophy of establishing a respect for disability culture on campus.”

Students who have disabilities can register with the center, which lets their professors know the accommodations they need, Stupp said. The center provides services — such as note takers, sign language interpreters, captioning, document conversion and assistive technology.

Since fall 2006, the center has served 735 registered students with diverse disabilities.

“One of the main purposes of the ADA is to eliminate discrimination and promote equal opportunities,” she said.

“Institutions of higher education have to become proactive in both directions because ensuring educational opportunities for all students requires access to all services, programs and activities on campus, as well as a change in attitudes that are favorable for people with disabilities.”

The impact of the ADA was far-reaching, said Stupp, who was a leader in ensuring accessibility to students with disabilities in Costa Rica before joining UIC.

“The ADA was a turning point and a milestone in American civil rights history that had an impact, not only in the U.S. but in many countries,” she said.

“But the approval of the ADA should not be considered as the end product, but rather a dynamic social process and aspiration to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Universities have the responsibility and the challenge to become leaders in this process.”


Further to go

Though Browning has seen many campus improvements, there are still problems.

Once, he used a lift to attend a function in a University Hall conference room — but when it was time to leave, the lift wouldn’t work. Quick thinking by former chancellor David Broski helped Browning exit the conference room; Broski made a ramp out of a folding table.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Browning said.

“The ADA has made a big difference, but the task was and is enormous.”

Results from a poll conducted by UIC’s Great Lakes ADA Center this summer show that people with disabilities still face considerable barriers, said Peter Berg, technical assistance coordinator at the center.

More than 3,500 people with disabilities, their family members and people working in the disability community rated how well the ADA had been implemented and pointed out areas for improvement.

“Access to employment and barriers to community participation were things that were cited regularly as issues,” he said.

“Problems accessing programs ranged from physical access to policies that excluded people with disabilities and a lack of effective communication.”

The unemployment or underemployment of people with disabilities is an ongoing problem, Jones said.

“People with disabilities tend to be more negatively affected in a bad economy,” she said.

“When employers are not hiring, people with disabilities are likely the last ones to be hired.”

Attitudinal changes are important for societal acceptance, Jones said.

“We still have a lot to do in getting across the message that people with disabilities are able to participate in activities and should be given that opportunity,” she said.

“They shouldn’t be thought of as one or two people at an event.

“We need to make people understand that anyone, at any time, can become part of the disability community.”


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