Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Disabled Face Difficulties Getting Around GU

Charles Nailen/The Hoya Jen Howitt (SFS ’05) reaches another dead end in Village A. Howitt, who uses a wheelchair to get around campus, has found manuevering parts of Georgetown difficult.

Jen Howitt (SFS ’05) often lost her appetite on her way to dinner at New South last year. Because Howitt uses a wheelchair, she had to take a path less traveled than that of most Georgetown students. First she had to take a Village A elevator to a basement room. The elevator smelled like a combination of beer and urine, and broken glass filled the floor. After wheeling past stacked tables and broken beer bottles in the basement room, Howitt went back outside and entered the dining hall from an alternate door. Her entrance would be made public when the alarm sounded each time she opened the door to enter.

This year she does not have a meal plan. “Broken glass could’ve meant flat tires for me. My friend called that area the `armpit of the university.’ It smelled and was so dirty,” she said. Howitt and other students with mobility impairments say they face a number of inconveniences with campus facilities. Among their other concerns are elevator malfunctioning, accessible bathrooms and better signage of building entrances.

After Howitt found herself stranded on the third floor of White Gravenor because of a broken elevator – for the second time this year – she turned to the Office of Learning and Disability Support Services. Jane Holahan, director of disability and academic outreach, urges students to approach her if they have difficulties. “Students need to come to me with their concerns. I understand their frustration, and it is their responsibility to let me know. Unless we work together we can’t solve problems,” she said. When a student files a complaint or request, Holahan networks with the necessary authorities to cater to the student’s need. Prospective students receive a university Handicapped Access Map and a Disability Support Services information guide.

In the last week, Howitt filed a second complaint about an elevator in Copley Hall being locked on the first floor, barring any entrance to wheelchair-users. And under the new lockdown system, she does not have access to other side entrances. The only way to enter the building is from a basement entrance that can only be opened from inside. This is problematical for her since as she attends Protestant services in the Copley chapel.

Holahan said she is working on getting approval for GOCard access to the side entrances of Copley so mobility impaired students can enter the building freely. She also directs issues of elevator breakdown to Facilities Work Management, which has a permanent mechanic on campus from Elevator Control Services, an outside contractor. Facilities has set up an elevator status Web site that updates the status of repairs for elevators in each building on campus.

Howitt and others say, however, the system is reactive and only responds to problems as they arise. “Instead of fixing the problems for the long-term, they just put a Band-Aid on it and think it’s fixed,” Howitt said. “Everything is excuses all the time. It’s complete and total frustration; the university is not being responsive at all.”

Under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, private institutions are required to have “readily achievable barrier removal” – meaning they must remove barriers of accessibility. As an ADA consultant and board member of the National Council on Independent Living, Mark Derry of the organtown, W. Va.-based Eastlake, Derry and Associates, travels the country doing accessibility surveys and training clients on how to meet the Department of Justice requirements. Derry cites the four basic requirements the Justice Department advises institutions to meet as a good starting point to determine how accessible a facility is. “First there must be access to get into the facility, then you make sure they can get to goods and services within the building. Restrooms and other areas are then finally considered,” he said.

Georgetown meets all of the basic requirements for ADA accessibility, according to Holahan. All preexisting buildings had to be remodeled for accessibility, while new projects must fully comply from the start. Historic buildings such as Healy Hall and White Gravenor pose challenges because they were not originally built with the intent of accessibility, Holahan said. The total number of students with mobility issues is difficult to determine, as she can only account for students who actually register their names with her office. She estimates she has a little over 10 students who are registered with Disability Support Services.

Derry has found making a list of what needs to be done is more effective than addressing problems one at a time. Universities that do not do this and neglect proper maintenance and compliance can run into trouble. Schools such as Duke University have been sued for failure to provide adequate accessibility. “Schools who’ve done nothing are walking a tightrope,” he said.

Howitt, in the meantime, who plays on a national wheelchair basketball team, can be found working out at Yates Field House. She voices concern on how the elevator was out for three weeks last year, how she wheeled up the big hill and how there are no wheelchair accessible restrooms on the first floor. Yet she is eager to describe what an upper body ergometer is, and how useful the equipment could be for both the disabled and non-disabled alike. If her concerns are not addressed, she may partner up with other disabled students and campaign for their interests. “I don’t like to think that the administration is thinking, `if we hold out she’ll graduate soon and we won’t have to worry about her,'” Howitt said. “It’s difficult.”

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