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Disability Coordinator Roberts Looks Back on a Year of Progress

By Eva Moy
Staff Reporter

When Barbara Roberts took the post of MIT's disability coordinator just over a year ago, she did not have an easy task ahead of her. The Institute had fallen short of federal standards for accomodating students with disabilities, and was under pressure to make changes.

While construction like that at Building 68 and Senior House are automatically designed to be in compliance of ADA requirements, older buildings need to be only partially accessible, Roberts said.

"It was obvious to me that physically there were [accessibility] problems," Roberts said. In many areas, "nothing had been done before."

The Institute kicked off an effort to improve compliance last summer and has invested several million dollars in improvements around the campus. Bathrooms were redesigned, automatic doors installed, signs pointing to accessible entrances posted, and public telephones moved closer to the floor.

A large portion of the money for this six-year plan has been allocated for renovating Kresge Auditorium and Walker Memorial, two of the largest public meeting places on campus.

Other improvements, like increasing the accesibilty of MIT housing or the Athena clusters, fall under their respective departments both in terms of funding and decision-making, Roberts said.

Despite the fragmentation, Roberts said that MIT now has a long-term outlook on this issue, and credits the Institute in its efforts to improve. It has worked aggressively on compliance, she said. "If [it] could get the six-year plan moving, then attitudes will change" even more, she said.

Learning disabilities considered

"I assist a student in advocating what their needs are," Roberts said. Students and employees have immediate problems to be solved, and "keeping up with their peers was a priority," she said. "They can't be put off."

Roberts' office spends time planning course schedules with students. It tries to obtain course notes ahead of time for translation into braille or recording on audio tape. Staffers have managed to translate tables, graphs, and even Latex formatting into braille.

Learning disabilities like dyslexia also fall under information access; in most cases, students find they have the disorder only after being exposed to the presures of college. A way of dealing with the problem might be spending more time studying instead of joining activities, or requesting extra time on an exam, Roberts said.

A large part of the job is finding a "balance between academic integrity, of course, and students' needs," Roberts said. However, she emphasizes, "the standards are not lowered for these students."

In an environment of people eager to solve new problems, "MIT is going to be the leading place for informational access," she said.

Disabilities focus late in coming

In mid-1994, the Undergraduate Association pushed the administration to address problems with compliance to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

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," said then-UA Vice President Anne S. Tsao '94.

Within a few months, an ad hoc committee was formed to design and implement a strategy to improve MIT's services for disabled persons, and one year after the UA's initial push, a new ADA coordinator was chosen.

Roberts' long-term goal, ironically, is to eliminate her own position by having members of the community understand disability issues and come to solutions on their own.

"This is not a job you retire from," she said. A Section 504 coordinator needs to have a fresh perspective on the needs of the community. But for now, Roberts still thinks that she has many good ideas to try to implement.