PLU invests in continued accessibility improvements across campus with help from student advocates
By Kari Plog '11
PLU Marketing & Communications
TACOMA, WASH. (Sept. 19, 2017)- Noelle Green ’18 says equal access to education means equal access to facilities across campus. Leaders at Pacific Lutheran University agree.
The institution recently invested more than $630,000 to improve accessibility for students such as Green, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when she was 3 years old. Growing up, doctors told her she may never move out of her parents’ house. Now, she’s a senior living in South Hall at PLU and considering law school.
“I didn’t let that define me,” she said of the prognosis.
Still, her journey hasn’t always been easy. Green, who relies on a wheelchair to get around, almost didn’t return to PLU after her first semester. She worried about her ability to access some spaces on campus and the potential that it would interfere with her academic success.
But a support system in the Department of Sociology, through which she eventually declared her major, and elsewhere on campus kept her coming back. Those advocates propped up Green as she developed her own identity as a vocal advocate for campus accessibility.
“Some staff and faculty have been a driving force behind change,” she said.
Ray Orr is one of them.
Orr, associate vice president for facilities management, says accessibility upgrades are a priority at PLU, even when funds are limited. Institutions across the country struggle to comply with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, amid aging buildings and a lack of funds to address all the needs at once. PLU is no different, Orr said.
“Everyone’s trying to catch up and do what they can,” he said. “Limited funds go to the biggest impact and priorities.”
Disability Support Services
Pacific Lutheran University Disability Support Services (DSS), part of the Dean of Students Office, is dedicated to ensuring equitable access and inclusion for all students with disabilities. It serves students with either temporary or permanent physical, health, learning, sensory or psychological disabilities. Students partner with the office, faculty and staff to establish reasonable accommodations and services to receive equitable access to academic and co-curricular opportunities. Reasonable accommodation is provided at no cost to students on a case-by-case basis as recommended in the student’s documentation of a disability and as determined by the DSS coordinator. Visit plu.edu/dss to learn more about available resources.
PLU is working hard to tackle the upgrades as quickly and efficiently as possible, Orr stressed, prioritizing the projects that make the biggest impact as funding becomes available (projects are paid for through a combination of sources; PLU identifies funds annually in its budget to meet specific ADA goals). The ultimate goal: campus-wide ADA compliance.
The university is making progress toward that goal. PLU’s recent investment funded several projects — many of which were completed over the summer. About $525,000 paid for modernization of elevators in Tingelstad Hall, Green’s former residence hall. One of the reasons she relocated to South Hall was the unreliability of the elevators.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Green said of the recent upgrades across campus.
In addition to the elevators, which will be completed by January 2018, a wider restroom door and new ramp provide better access to the Kreidler Hall lounge where commuter and military-affiliated students gather. Paving between Mary Baker Russell Music Center and Hong Hall, as well as miscellaneous spots around campus, offer smoother access to sidewalks (funds from ASPLU were included in this project). And restrooms in Rieke Science Center and the library’s new Center for Student Success are now gender-neutral and ADA-compliant. These changes follow pedestrian improvements that recently were completed by Pierce County in partnership with the university.
The projects are the first to be completed from a list of many priorities identified as part of a campus-wide audit last year, Orr said. The $120,000 effort pinpointed all of the facilities out of compliance with ADA.
“This audit allowed us to see fully and more clearly the physical barriers to learning and success that students with short- and long-term mobility or physical limitations experience as they navigate PLU,” Acting President Allan Belton said during his address at the annual Fall Faculty Conference.
“We have a lot more to go,” Orr said, “but focusing on the survey and community feedback will help PLU be a more welcoming and accessible university for everyone.”
The findings of the audit are outlined in a document that serves as a shared resource for many departments on campus, Orr noted. The Accessibility Committee, which Orr leads, reviewed the findings and will work to prioritize future projects that meet PLU’s highest needs, said Dean of Students Eva Frey.
“At the heart of every college or university is access to an educational experience that prepares the student to serve in the world,” Frey said, adding that optimum access to teaching, learning and living spaces is necessary to fulfilling the institution’s mission. “Renovations and repairs that are ADA-compliant serve everyone. It means that all students have access to space and, ultimately, to the diversity of voices that speak in the classroom. That’s the positive.”
Shared knowledge is key to the process, Orr stressed: “It takes all of us to figure it out. I need the input, understanding and communication amongst everyone.”
Student organizations have been heavily involved in dialogue around campus accessibility, too. Residence Hall Association and Associated Students of Pacific Lutheran University (ASPLU) joined forces to host forums. And student leaders such as Miranda Martens, Haedon Brunelle, Veronica Winter, Austin Beiermann, Ayanna Cole, Rebecca Hultman and Tono Sablan raised awareness around issues of accessibility with an exhibit in the Tunnel of Oppression event last semester. The students comprised the core group on the Accessibility Committee last year, Martens said.
“This year, we are officially an Advisory Committee to (Disability Support Services),” she said. “It is still that main group of people as part of it, and we will have more of a formal connection to DSS and facilities.”
Green said she appreciates the constant effort to improve her experience and the experience of students in similar situations. Although accessibility at PLU still isn’t perfect, she sees meaningful progress happening and hopes it continues.
“Little things every single year would be inspirational,” Green said. “It shows we’re making progress and not putting it on the back-burner.”
As for the next step in her journey, Green is applying to law schools. She hopes to practice civil rights law and work with youth and families involved in the criminal justice system, as well as disabled individuals. She hopes to get accepted to law programs at the University of Washington, Seattle University or Gonzaga University.
“That’s where my story comes full circle,” Green said. “I want to be an advocate for people who can’t be an advocate for themselves.”
In the meantime, Green is advocating for improved handicap parking in university lots. She says the projects left to be done are just as important as the progress already made.
“It’s all important,” she said. “There’s not one thing that’s more important than another.”
Cost breakdown of improvements
- Tingelstad elevator modernization: $525,000
- Installation of ADA parking signs: $34,100
- Rieke restroom upgrades: $22,500
- Pathway paving: $20,000 (which includes $6,928 of funding from student government)
- Kreidler ramp, bathroom door widening: $17,200
- Library restroom first floor: $15,600
Campus-wide accessibility audit completed last year: $120,000