With the unveiling of a temporary paper banner Scotch™-taped on the overhead of the office, the newly renovated Office of Accommodations and Accessibility officially opened its doors for the first time this past Thursday. The opening follows Marist College’s celebration of Disability Awareness Week, which featured a wide variety of lectures and hands-on demonstrations meant to educate the campus on physical and learning disabilities.
“The goal of this week was to not only get people familiar with our offices, but to see if we could put them in the shoes of someone with a disability and help them understand what that person goes through,” said Assistant Dean of Student Life and Development Patricia Cordner.
Formerly known as Special Services, the workplace makeover in Donnelly Hall gives the program a new exterior look. The accommodating functionality of the office towards people with physical disabilities, however, is nothing new.
New York state law has prohibited discrimination towards individuals with disabilities since the New York State Human Rights Law was passed in 1945. This law set a precedent of tolerance throughout the United States, serving as a template for influential pieces of social legislation such as Title IX and the Dignity for All Students Act in 2010.
Nationally, the physically disabled are protected under the American with Disabilities Act of 1990. According to the New York office of the Attorney General, this prohibits schools from discriminating against students for disabilities, both physical and learning. If a student is qualified to attend a school but has a disability, the school must provide multiple accommodations to satisfy their needs.
This act also mandates that schools throughout the country follow certain legal requirements in the development of their dormitories and student centers. For example, doors must be at least 32 inches wide and have less than five pounds of pull weight. Select stalls in bathrooms must be wide enough for a wheelchair to make turns, select dorms must have handicapped-accessible showers, and curbs must have inclined dimples in them to create a ramp from the street onto the sidewalk.
Dormitories that were built before the passing of the ADA that have no elevators or access to other floors, such as Marian and Sheahan Hall, are protected from federal scrutiny under a “grandfather” clause. The McCann Athletic Center, which only features cardiovascular equipment on the second floor and no elevator to get up there, is also safeguarded.
“The ADA is constantly changing every 3-4 years,” said Justin Butwell, director of Marist’s Physical Plant and primary building developer. “Everything we do, we have to be careful to comply with those shifts.”
Beyond these legal details, the Office of Accommodations and Accessibility works closely with students who have limited hearing, sight, and mobility (among other issues). Sign language experts are hired for lecture translations. Blind students were able to live on the upperclassmen side of campus before the construction of the underpass thanks to audible traffic light technology. For more daily operations, Marist helps handicapped students hire aides that assist with the navigation of campus.
“There are some things that we must offer legally,” said Deborah DiCaprio, Vice President of Student Affairs. “But often times it’s a case-by-case basis, and our team in the office work with the students and parents to find what will work best for them.”
Cordner, who is the current director of the program, shines a light on the independence of the disabled individuals.
“A lot of students are good at advocating for themselves because they know their needs. Some of them have had these disabilities for the majority of their lives. They help us figure out how we can help them correctly.”
The program also offers help for students with less severe but still endangering conditions. For example, they work with Sodexo food services and nutritionists to develop a plan for students with allergies or an injury to their jaws.
In addition to the accommodations offered for students with permanent disabilities, the office offers help for students with temporary conditions. If a student is temporarily unable to walk, golf carts can be rented for a small price. Students with broken arms can use note-takers, who record the classes on a “live-pen” that playbacks the audio as you write. Student athletes with concussion meet with athletics to plan out a balance of readings each night to avoid an overwhelming workload.
The heads of each department of the school meet frequently to discuss what they can do for these students in a group known as RADAR. “Each department needs to work together,” urges Cordner. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and for that reason we need to continue our outstanding communication. We all connect.”
Even with all of these options, it seems there can be improvements to the accommodation system and the campus itself. With such a focus on massive upcoming renovations to existing structures and plans for in-development buildings (such as a new athletic center), some of these “case-by-case” situations may sometimes not get the attention they need.
Amanda Sblendorio, a Marist senior, broke her ankle by falling into an unfilled pothole in Hoop parking lot during her sophomore year. She says the school failed to adequately offer her help in her time of physical distress.
“I think they may have thought my injury wasn’t severe enough to earn something like a golf cart,” she remembers. “I think looking back they didn’t do enough. They do everything that they need to do to avoid trouble, and security did take me to and from the hospital. But I needed more, and I felt on my own a little.”
Despite this, Sblendorio does think she made it through that period because of the generosity and kindness of her peers. She even says that many of them went out of their way to literally carry her around to certain places. DiCaprio thinks this has been a testament to the Marist community that she has noticed since she started working as a Mentor in Marian and Champagnat Hall in the 1970’s.
“We used to have Vietnam veterans living here, and there were people whose entire job it was to help these people,” she said. “It amazed me that they did this. A lot of our students reach out or take care of these kids. They want to room with them and hang out with them. It’s really good.”
For those wondering how they can help disabled individuals in everyday life, Cordner has a seemingly obvious but poignant response.
“Most people don’t want to stand out because of a disability that they have. They don’t want to be isolated, but they also don’t want to be overwhelmed. So the question becomes how do you properly help someone in a wheelchair? Well, you ask them.”