NEWS

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May 22, 2007

Accessibility settlement shapes campus renovation projects

Students returning to campus this fall will notice subtle changes across the quads, as the University continues work to bring campus buildings into compliance with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Structural enhancements to improve accessibility are scheduled for Walker Hall, Rosenwald Hall, and the Law School over the next few months, said Ingrid Gould, associate provost and assistant vice president, in an e-mail interview.

The planned improvements are the result of a 2006 out-of-court settlement between the University and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The settlement followed a two-year review process, initiated by the DOJ, evaluating campus accessibility.

“The agreement focuses primarily on improving the accessibility of campus buildings. It also addresses signage, transportation, campus pathways, and a few other topics,” Gould said.

The University initiated some campus renovations as early as 1992 but must be fully ADA–compliant by 2010 under the terms of the settlement.

Gould said that the University is committed to following through with the terms of the settlement.

“In the context of the agreement, the University has met all deadlines to date, including those related to transportation, signage, and web-based accessibility information,” she said.

According to Gould, the University’s assessment of building accessibility is still underway. So far, Cobb Hall, Harper Library, the Reynolds Club, and International House have been targeted for repairs and renovations in the upcoming years.

Gould acknowledged that many of the University’s older buildings cannot be made fully compliant with ADA standards due to architectural limitations.

“It is important to understand, as the law itself acknowledges, many old buildings cannot meet compliance standards applied to new construction,” she said.

“For example, elevator shafts may be non-existent or too small, or the space available may be too short for a ramp of requisite slope. This means that accessibility on a campus of many old buildings is not a perfectly consistent concept.”

Despite the accessibility limitations of several older campus facilities, Gould said that the University expects to continue expanding campus accessibility past the 2010 deadline in order to provide students options beyond the minimum ADA requirements.

“[S]ome individuals have accessibility needs that exceed the ADA guidelines. The University has accommodated those needs, and we are committed to continuing to do so,” Gould said.

Brian Shaw, director of transportation and parking services at the University, echoed Gould’s sentiments. Shaw said that the University transportation office provides services for students with special needs that go beyond the basic ADA guidelines.

One such service, the University’s Dial-a-Ride program, offers disabled students door-to-door transportation using vehicles that accommodate wheelchair-bound individuals.

“The Dial-a-Ride program is for qualified students with permanent medical disabilities, determined by the dean of students,” Shaw said.

“Dial-a-Ride is not required [under the ADA], but we provide this service because we feel it’s safer for students [who have special needs].”

Shaw said that the Dial-a-Ride program existed prior to last year’s settlement, and that the transportation office expects to continue offering non–ADA required services for students in the future.

“The Dial-a-Ride program hasn’t changed in a number of years. It’s run through a private provider and is available to qualified students 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

Although the DOJ settlement did not provide specific guidelines for transportation, the settlement prompted the transportation office to initiate a review of existing University transportation services last summer, Shaw said.

“[The settlement] didn’t really identify anything in particular that needed improvement. It was really a blanket statement and just stated that we needed to become compliant with ADA standards. It didn’t really target any service or need,” he said.

“We looked into this last summer, we looked at all the services we were providing and determined whether they were ADA–compliant or not,” he added.

The in-house review suggested that while the existing Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus routes were already fully accessible at the time of the settlement, the U of C late night van service was not ADA–complaint.

The late-night van service was “not in compliance at the time. At the time, the police department oversaw the late night van service. There was a lot of research done by my department,” Shaw said. “It was ultimately decided that the late-night van service would be transitioned to my department [from the U of C police] with fully compliant vehicles.”

The U of C began changes to the late-night van service at the start of last summer, and the service was fully transitioned to University control by the end of the calendar year.

According to Shaw, the late-night van service is now fully ADA–compliant under a new private contractor and is “fully accessible to everyone,” Shaw said. All vehicles are equipped to accommodate students with disabilities.

The same private contractor also operates the evening bus routes, Shaw added.

Shaw said that the improvements to the late-night van service have enabled the University transportation services to fully meet the settlement’s expectations.

“Basically my department is fully accessible [under ADA requirements]. The determination for compliance is whether your vehicles are 100-percent accessible, and there’s no doubt about it, we’re compliant,” he said.

Shaw acknowledged the possibility for future improvements to the University’s transportation infrastructure but said that such changes would go beyond standards outlined by the ADA.

“Those changes would be not so much federal government requirements. These are stuff we choose to adopt on our own.”

Shaw added that in the future, the transportation office plans to direct its efforts toward maintaining its existing infrastructure rather than restructuring.

“Now that we’re there [and fully complaint], there’s no reason not to stay here,” he said.

Financially, Shaw said that funding has not been an impediment in the effort for greater accessibility in University transportation services. The cost of running the new accessible vehicles is not significantly higher than it was under the old transportation system.

“[The changes under the ADA] didn’t really cost more in the big picture. We pay the same CTA rate. [The private contractor’s] costs were based on vehicles that are compliant. They’re not running anything else,” Shaw said.

Although the changes to campus transportation services have proven relatively inexpensive, the University’s total expenditure on renovations has totaled in the tens of millions, Gould said. While the University does not yet know the costs of accessibility projects in upcoming years, Gould said that the administration projects high costs for future campus expansion and renovation.

“The costs of complying with the agreement will be considerable. Construction is expensive, and we want our projects completed in keeping with the elegance and quality that our community merits and our campus expresses,” Gould said.