Enforcing the Disabilities Law

Justice Dept. settlement with U. of Chicago may be first of series of accords on college facilities -- 10 other institutions face review.
July 19, 2006

Among college officials, it's widely known that many campus facilities do not comply with standards for accessibility required by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Most colleges focus on the issue when they are adding new facilities or when they receive complaints from students or employees.

The U.S. Justice Department has become interested in the issue, however, and some colleges may be experiencing more scrutiny than they are used to about the ADA. The department this week announced a settlement in which the University of Chicago has pledged to make a series of improvements in facilities over the next four years and to regularly report its progress. The university denied the Justice Department's contention that it was violating the law, but agreed to make the changes nonetheless.

Chicago may soon have company. Its review was focused on Title III of the ADA, which deals primarily with facilities. About 10 other colleges are currently undergoing similar reviews, according to Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's civil rights division. To date, only the Chicago review, which has been completed, has been announced.

Magnuson said that the reviews have not necessarily been prompted by specific complaints -- and Chicago officials stated that their review was not prompted by a complaint.

But Magnuson described the review process as "not random" and said that institutions are selected for reviews because "we're aware of certain problems." Department officials hope that the reviews will lead to improvements not only at the institutions being studied, but more generally in higher education, she said.

The compliance agreement with Chicago notes that the university must make improvements both in older and newer facilities (and meet those standards for any that are constructed in the future), and suggests that considerable work may be necessary. Among the tasks cited by the Justice Department for Chicago are:

  • Changing elements of facilities -- including doors, restrooms, signage and entrances -- that act as barriers for people with disabilities.
  • Ensuring that all buildings and facilities in which programs are offered to the public and students meet accessibility standards.
  • Creating systems for changing facilities or moving events if a person with a disability registers for an event.
  • Reviewing and possibly changing evacuation procedures and transportation services.
  • Ensuring that 3 percent of units (and adjoining bathrooms) in dormitories are accessible to people with disabilities and that a "reasonable number" of housing units have first floor common areas and bathrooms that could be used by visitors with disabilities.

A spokesman for the University of Chicago said that the institution is currently trying to figure out how much all the changes will cost. The spokesman stressed that many Chicago facilities are already in compliance with the law.

The Justice Department's new emphasis is something colleges need to watch, said Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education. "This seems to be new. It's possible that the department is looking to more aggressively enforce ADA," he said.

If the Justice Department does start to look at more colleges, Steinbach said that he thinks many institutions could be facing very large bills to pay for changes. Institutions in urban areas and older colleges are "particularly vulnerable," he added.

The irony, Steinbach said, is that most colleges have been working very hard on their own to make campuses more accessible and welcoming to students with disabilities, but much of the activity has taken place on a case-by-case basis. "We were doing this long before ADA," he said.

Richard Allegra, associate executive director of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, said that he welcomed an increased emphasis on complying with the ADA. "If a college is going to say that we are here to educate the students, and there are barriers to some students," he said, "they are not meeting their mission."


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