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Institute strives to comply with 1990 disabilities act

By Sarah Y. Keightley

Last spring, a letter from the Undergraduate Association vice president drew attention to the Institute's lack of compliance with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Since then, an ad hoc committee was formed to examine the issue, the administration is in the process of selecting a disabilities services coordinator, and thousands of dollars have been spent to modify campus buildings to comply with the act.

"MIT is supposed to provide services and an environment for disabled students that are conducive to one's educational pursuits," wrote Anne S. Tsao '94, the former UA vice president, in a letter to Senior Vice President William R. Dickson '56.

Tsao said that three projects to "improve disabilities services and awareness on campus" were necessary: building modifications, community awareness, and providing a federally-mandated coordinator.

In the fall, Director of Special Services Stephen D. Immerman formed an ad hoc committee to design and implement a strategy to improve MIT's services for disabled people, according to John R. Squillante, an assistant in Immerman's office. The committee is working specifically to comply with ADA provisions.

The committee will probably recommend the formation of an Institute oversight committee to be responsible for all disabilities-related priorities, Immerman said.

Hiring a coordinator

The committee also developed a job description for a disabilities services coordinator, Immerman said.

One of the principal requirements of the ADA is the creation of a Section 504 coordinator, a person "intended by the federal government to be a central person that could aid disabled students and personnel via counseling, referrals, and advocacy," Tsao said.

A search committee to fill the coordinator position was created, and final interviews were held recently, Immerman said. Vice President for Human Resources Joan F. Rice must consider the committee's recommendation, he said.

"We expect the coordinator to be significantly involved in student issues," Immerman said.

Tsao's letter raised confusion over who was serving as the Institute's disabilities services coordinator.

Squillante initially said he believed that Associate Planning Officer Michael K. Owu was the Section 504 coordinator. 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.

Facilities made more accessible

The formation of the ad hoc committee came at a time of intense activity with regard to physical modifications of buildings and facilities on campus, said ADA Projects Coordinator for Physical Plant Roy E. Ward.

During the summer, $600,000 was spent on the main group of buildings alone, for the new ramp in Building 14, eight new elevator cabs, entrance modifications, and telephone booth and bathroom modifications.

The summer spending was 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.

In October, the Institute was "in the process of replacing the door hardware on all of the entry doors to Athena [Computing Environment] clusters and administrative offices" in high traffic areas in the main group of buildings, Ward wrote in a Physical Plant document. The changes include "replacing knob hardware with lever hardware, providing door closers with reduced resistance to allow easier opening, and lowering the computer keyboards to a height accessible to a person in a wheelchair," Ward said.

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."

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.