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MIT Aims to Comply with ADA

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate News Editor

Director of Special Services Stephen D. Immerman is currently forming an ad hoc committee to design and implement a strategy to improve MIT's services for disabled persons, according to John R. Squillante, an assistant in Immerman's office. The committee will work specifically to comply with the provisions of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

The creation of this committee comes during a period of intense activity with regard to physically modifying and upgrading buildings and facilities on campus, said ADA Projects Coordinator for Physical Plant Roy E. Ward.

In a March letter to Senior Vice President William R. Dickson '56, former Undergraduate Association Vice President Anne S. Tsao '94 said that the disability services at MIT may not be in compliance with the ADA ["Institute Is Failing to Comply with Federal Disability Rules," Apr. 8]. "MIT is supposed to provide services and an environment for disabled students that are conducive to one's educational pursuits," Tsao said.

In her letter, Tsao raised concerns about building modifications, community awareness, and the role of a federally mandated coordinator.

The issue of a disabilities services coordinator has yet to be resolved. The coordinator is "intended by the federal government to be a central person that could aid disabled students and personnel via counseling, referrals, and advocacy," Tsao said.

However, along with the present building and facility changes, a publicity and education campaign will address Tsao's concerns about community awareness, according to Michael K. Owu, an associate planning officer in the planning office.

Improvements are significant

The recent and upcoming building and facility improvements represent a historically significant effort, Ward said. "Each individual element is not large, but when you put them all together the impact on accessibility from where I'm sitting seems to be quite significant."

For the summer, "there's probably a million dollars worth of work that's happening," Ward said. Of this amount, $600,000 will be in the "main group" of buildings alone, which generally includes Buildings 1 to 14, Ward said, with other work scattered around the campus.

Work in the main buildings includes a new ramp at Building 14, eight new elevator cabs, entrance modifications, and telephone booth and bathroom modifications. "There is an enormous range" of projects regarding disabilities access, Ward said.

The summer spending is part of slightly more than $1.33 million already committed to construction projects since the ADA went into effect, Ward said. In total, "MIT has allocated a little over $2 million," Ward said, with the remaining funds yet to be committed to specific projects.

While the work on disabilities services is not nearly as large as the Cogeneration Plant or the construction of the new biology building, in regards to improving disabilities services "it's a fairly significant venture," Ward said.

"Other institutions aren't quite as aggressive or generous as MIT is in their efforts regarding disabilities services," Ward said. "We've spent a lot of time and energy both in dollars and in manpower making an effort to do this intelligently and in a way that's going to make our response to it the most appropriate for intelligently and rationally providing access."

No current disabilities coordinator

While no one person is currently coordinating disabilities services, people working on disabilities issues will use the ad hoc committee to "meet to update each other on what's going on and to make sure we're following a coordinated effort," Owu said.

Since Tsao's letter there has been confusion over who is serving as the Institute's disabilities services coordinator.

Squillante initially said he believed that Owu was the "Section 504 coordinator," as the federally mandated position is called. When asked, however, Owu said that the late Vice President Constantine B. Simonides '57 held the position. Squillante later said that Immerman believed Simonides was the coordinator.

In her March letter Tsao, who was informed that Owu was the Section 504 coordinator, said that Owu had "a rather low profile (close to nonexistent) on campus." The Institute "has not pursued the spirit and intent of having this position," Tsao said.

The focus of the ad hoc group will be more operational in nature, as opposed to a permanent policy group, Squillante said. "Steve had thought about doing this for a while and it was just a matter of timing," he said.

Personnel involved with improving disabilities services are currently "taking a fresh look at it to see where we are and preparing for another intense period of activity," Owu said.

The ad hoc committee will be "regrouping and seeing where we are and seeing what's going to be involved to keep the process moving," Owu said. "There are various levels of things that are continuing to be done over time."

Barrier removal

Another major disabilities services-related project Immerman is involved with is "working with Michael Owu designing a barrier removal program for the entire campus," Squillante said.

The barrier removal program is "sort of an ongoing process where we try to identify barriers [to disabled individuals] on the campus and develop a system of removing those barriers over time," Owu said.

Barriers in the context of disability services are defined as "things that impede the free movement of people with disabilities," Owu said. One common example is a flight of stairs as an access barrier for someone in a wheelchair. The barrier removal program in this instance could involve construction of a ramp.

However, barrier removal includes both physical construction and signs indicating where an accessible entrance is, Owu said.

"MIT has been removing barriers for 15 or 20 years," Owu said.

In addition, part of the effort to provide increased disabilities services involves a publicity and education campaign, Owu said. "If people don't know how to relate to people with disabilities, that in itself can be a major problem for them," he said.

The ad hoc committee will be working to "step up getting the word out as to what exactly disabilities are," Owu said. The group will work with the MIT News Office and the computing support services lab, according to Owu.

The ultimate format of publicity and education could include pamphlets, publications, or presentations, Owu said.