Tough campus for students with disabilities

Sophomore Tatsuro Nakajima is one of a number of disabled students at SPU. He is assisted by Grant Howard. Photo by Sterling Mitchell/THE FALCON.

Sophomore Tatsuro Nakajima has lived the past 14 years of his life confined to the black, cross-patterned cloth of his electric wheelchair’s seat.

On Nov. 14, the six rubber wheels of his wheelchair squeaked against the wet pavement as he made his way to his 12:50 p.m. Global Impact of Design class, tracking in remnants of dirt and leaves that lined the landing of Demaray Hall’s second floor.

As he entered his classroom, he pulled into an extra large desk that has been provided for him by SPU’s Disability Support Services. Settling into his $9,000 dollar Permoblil wheelchair, he turned to watch the trickle of students slip into their seats.

He smiled as the sounds of chatter and footsteps slowly filled the room.

Nakajima is one of half a dozen students on campus who require mobility accommodations from DSS. SPU’s 48-acre campus has 13 elevators and one wheelchair lift. Nakajima, one of a handful of registered wheelchair users on campus, said he’s often inconvenienced because of a lack of wheelchair accessibility on campus.

Accepting SPU
Although he was accepted to other colleges with better handicap facilities, he chose Seattle Pacific because it’s near his home and because of its small, Christian environment.
Grant Howard, a healthcare attendant, helps Nakajima get around campus. Howard helps him do things like take off his jacket or get out of his chair.

“I know that SPU isn’t the best in terms of wheelchair accessibility,” Nakajima said. “But I like being at a Christian college close to home… That’s what appealed to me.”

Nakajima can point to several buildings and floors on campus he has never seen because they lack ramps, elevators or lifts.

“Third floor Demaray, Second floor SUB,” Nakajima said. “These are just a couple that have an impact on me.”

The third floor of Demaray holds the College of Arts & Sciences and Information & Data Management. The second floor of the SUB houses both University Ministries and the Center for Career and Calling. Other buildings on campus that lack handicap access include Beegle, Crawford and Alexander Halls.

Addressing needs
Bob Zurinsky, assistant director for University Ministries, said the absence of handicap accessibility to his office is something that he’s been concerned about as long as he can remember.
He said although he isn’t aware of any plans to fix this problem in the near future, he has heard of a possible long-term plan to build a new Student Union Building as well as a performance hall for on-campus ministries.

“This isn’t the right facility to address the needs of the whole student body,” Zurinsky said, referring to the existing building. “There’s been a lot of talk about when that might change. But ultimately, it comes back to having the ability financially.”

No events are held in the office of University Ministries. Worship services, chapels and other gatherings are usually held in either First Free Methodist Church or Upper Gwinn. If built, the Performance Center would host chapels, Group, and other weekly worship services and gatherings.

Zurinsky said if a student who wants to meet with a member of University Ministries, they will usually arrange to meet on the first floor of the SUB.
Mike Langford, a professor in SPU’s Theology department, said as a Christian university, it is essential for SPU to have University Ministries accessible for all students.

“[Being able to access University Ministries] seems like a pretty significant part of being on a Christian campus,” Langford said. “I just hope that we are thinking hard about the messages we are sending our students.”

Langford, who began teaching at SPU in 2008, said when he started working here, he was especially observant of opportunities to improve on-campus handicap accessibility because of personal experience with disabilities. He noticed there was a large outdoor elevator behind Moyer that was supposed to bring students in through the back of the building and into the Center for Learning, which houses the Disability Center.

When he asked about it he was told that it was unreliable and frequently broke down.

“For a number of years before the lift was installed, there was no reliable way for people with wheelchairs to get into the disability center,” Langford said. “This also seems like a pretty important place for handicapped students to have access to.”

Langford was a member of a committee of faculty members and administrators who interviewed candidates two years ago for the most recent appointment of Angela Tucker as Disability Support Service Coordinator (DSS). He said although he holds no official position within Disability Services, he is interested in the issue and see it through a theological lens.

Making do
Nakajima said he probably visits the Center for Learning every two to three weeks to take exams and meet with the DSS staff. He would like to visit the center for Career and Calling and University Ministries but is unable to unless he makes an appointment with a staff member to meet somewhere else.

In the past, SPU has made efforts to help wheelchair-bound students by installing ramps and lifts on campus. In 2001, a wheelchair lift was installed on the stairs that lead up to Martin Square. The lift soon fell into disrepair and was removed in 2012 after DSS received complaints from handicap students that the lift was slow and cumbersome to use.

David Church, assistant vice president for Facility Management, said plans are in place to install a new lift in 2014 that is faster and more convenient for wheelchair-bound students to use. The lift will cost between $30,000 and $40,000.

Tucker, an SPU graduate from 2008, said DSS is aware of all the buildings on campus that could use improvement and believes SPU is slowly but surely making progress toward fixing them.

“There are challenges that come with large, sprawling campuses,” Tucker said. “Oftentimes, students simply have to take the long way around.”

She said in addition to having a campus built on a hill, some of SPU’s facilities pose problems because of their age. When a class is inaccessible for a handicap student, she said DSS will work to move the class to an accessible room.

“Everywhere, there’s always room for improvement,” Tucker said. “Educating people in disability needs is an ongoing thing forever.”

Tucker hopes that as SPU’s campus grows, it will build all new buildings with equally-accessible areas for everyone and continue to honor regulations so modifications will not have to be made later.

“Institutions and building designers are working to do this all around the city,” Tucker said. “We need to try to do things the best way the first time.”

Up to code
The Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal anti-discrimination law passed in 1990, works to break down barriers that prevent disabled persons from enjoying equal opportunities. The regulations enforced are relevant to both public and private universities as well as workplaces nationwide.

Private universities that don’t receive federal funding aren’t required to follow the accessibility codes required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, another law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination. This says buildings constructed before 1977 don’t need to be made accessible if the university can ensure that students with disabilities can enjoy its full range of programs by relocating classes to a different building.

SPU buildings must follow ADA regulations, which say buildings constructed after Jan. 26, 1992 must be constructed in a way that the building, or at least part of it, is readily accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Beegle Hall was built in 1952. The Student Union Building and Crawford Hall were built in 1960. Demaray Hall was built in 1966.

SPU is also required to provide reasonable accommodation to faculty, staff and students with disabilities provided it doesn’t create undo hardship on the university. This means that while faculty members or students may request the installation of an elevator, ramp or other assisting devices in a certain building or section of campus, SPU is not required to provide the change if it requires significant difficulty or expense.

Tucker said SPU is currently up to date on all ADA regulations. In 1986, a suit was filed against SPU alleging many buildings weren’t compliant with building codes. In October 1987, SPU entered into a voluntary compliance agreement with the Board of Education and Office for Civil Rights that promised all existing buildings would be brought into compliance with current codes.

To do this, major renovations were done to Royal Brougham and Peterson Hall, as well as minor alterations to at least 10 other buildings.

By 1994, improvements had been made across campus. These included the installation of an elevator, the restoration of the west Demaray ramp, a replaced entry into McKenna Hall, and the installation of handicap bathroom stalls and doors in Crawford Hall.

Assistant Vice President for Facility Management David Church says that even before the suit, SPU has been particularly aware of working with students and faculty to make SPU a more aware and accessible campus for mobility-impaired students.

Stalled improvements
He said steady improvements have continued throughout the years, including the construction of a new library in 1994 and the renovation of Gwinn Commons in 1999.
He also said plans for a University Center were drawn up in February of 2011.

Plans would include building a new Student Union Building and Performance Hall, as well as replacing Beegle and Watson Halls. All project plans are currently on hold due to lack of funding.

Vice President of Business and Finance Craig Kispert said overall project costs for the University Center were anticipated at $72.5 million.
Of that total, it was anticipated that $54.5 million would be raised.

“Plans were designed and permitted by the city,” Church said. “But their completion is dependent on sufficient fundraising, which at this point, we don’t have.”

Church said a complete renovation would have to be made in order to install the needed handicapped accommodations for the third floor of Demaray and second floor SUB.

“You can’t just slap on an elevator,” Church said. “You have all the pathways, the landings, the ramp. It’s hard to do without replacing the whole building.”

Church said the university doesn’t plan to replace or renovate Demaray Hall.

Church also said the idea for an indoor wheelchair lift in the Center for Learning was a result of collaborative effort between the Office of Student Life, Facilities and DSS to invest in an indoor lift after receiving complaints that the outdoor elevator was breaking down.

“Every time it broke, we would rush to repair it right away,” Church said. “But then it would just sit. The need for it wasn’t big enough for consistent use.”

In 2012, a handicapped lift was installed in the front entrance of the Center for Learning. It cost approximately $180,000.

Niki Amarantides, director of the Center for Learning, said that DSS faculty will often notice people in wheelchairs on campus but not know whether they are students, parents or guests.

“DSS is here to help problem solve with the student,” Amarantides said. “If they don’t register, they can’t expect everything to go smoothly.”

Currently, DSS works with about 150 undergraduate and graduate students with documentation on file.

One- third of all Washington state colleges and universities have 150 to 300 students who have documented with their disability support services. She also said making SPU a more wheelchair accessible campus should be a university- wide effort, encompassing the concerns of faculty, staff and even guests that visit.

“The need for handicapped accessibility on campus runs deeper than just our students,” Amarantides said. “It’s about how we make ourselves an inviting campus for all, regardless of ability or disability.”

Getting around
After class, Nakajima watches as other students gather their belongings and walk out of the room. He listens to their chatter as he rolls behind, their voices echoing down the hallway.

As he reaches the door, he can hear the stamping feet of students as they rush down the winding staircase. Rolling through the door and down the landing, he waits as passing pedestrians walk hurriedly along the sidewalk.

“I can’t really run to class last minute or rush out quick at the end,” Nakajima said. “I have to plan ahead and wait because it takes me longer to get around here. If they were to build an elevator in Demaray, it would make my life a lot easier and save me a lot of time.”

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Alex Cnossen

News Editor Alex Cnossen is a sophomore journalism major.