The Price of Disability
Texas State University has agreed to pay $6,000 to a student who uses a wheelchair and who says she was charged nearly double for her dormitory room because the cheaper campus housing option she wanted was inaccessible.
A Texas State spokesman emphasized Friday that the settlement does not suggest any wrongdoing on the university's part. But experts and advocates for people with disabilities stressed that federal law on the matter -- requiring that colleges and other entities offer access to all of their different categories of service, and, in lieu of that, absorb the cost of any necessary upgrades on their own – is well-established.
“It’s an analogous situation, but [the Department of Transportation] has proposed regulations out on cruise ships, and it’s the same principle: If a person with a disability that needs an accessible room also wants the cheapest cabin, but the cheapest cabin is not accessible, they have to give the person the next higher-up cabin that is accessible at the lower rate,” said Kenneth Shiotani, a senior staff attorney working on housing and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues for the National Disability Rights Network.
At Texas State, the university originally assigned Bailey Gosda, a sophomore, to an inaccessible dormitory her freshman year, said Lucy Wood, a lawyer who filed a complaint on Gosda's behalf charging that the university's actions were in violation of ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Gosda, who has cerebral palsy and relies upon a wheelchair and a walker, was subsequently assigned to live alone in an accessible room in a more expensive dormitory.
Her housing bill -- complete with a surcharge because the room was deemed too small to accommodate a roommate along with Gosda’s equipment – was double that of her peers in traditional freshman housing, or approximately an extra $1,500 per semester.
Rather than paying $1,612 a semester for a traditional double in the cheaper dorm with a roommate, she paid a basic per-semester room rate of $2,095, multiplied by 1.5 to reflect the surcharge for living alone -- meaning her per-semester payments for the room totaled $3,142.50.
Gosda had specifically requested both traditional freshman housing and a roommate in writing prior to starting at Texas State.
"[S]he is a student who is incurring a large amount of debt in order to attend college at her own expense, and who but for her disability would elect to live in the cheaper dorm and with a roommate," Wood wrote in a November letter to William Fly, Texas State's counsel, in which she rejected an earlier $725 settlement offer. "To the extent that the accommodations selected by the university (that she live without a roommate in the College Inn because no room was accessible to her once the roommate and roommate's belongings were put in any room) were necessitated by her disability, they were required to be offered to her at no cost to her."
Wood, who as a lawyer for the nonprofit Advocacy, Inc. waived her fees for the case, said she was pleased with the settlement and eager to improve conditions for future Texas State students with disabilities. Wood recently wrote and submitted a draft policy that would better address disability issues on campus for the university’s consideration, and said that she has received word that Texas State officials are reviewing it.
“I’m just glad that it’s over,” Gosda said Friday afternoon, adding that she was also pleased with the terms of the settlement but did wish she had been compensated for the hours upon hours she spent writing letters and speaking to various staff members about her situation. It seemed, Gosda said in explanation of the university’s slow response, as though no protocol or policy was in place to address her needs. “I don’t think they really knew how to react to the situation. As far as I know, they haven’t had this kind of situation happen before. I guess they thought if they didn’t answer me I would go away.”
Many Texas State University administrative offices were closed Friday for spring vacation, and neither the university counsel nor the director of the Office for Disability Services returned e-mail requests for comment. However, Mark S. Hendricks, a university spokesman, said he believes “that the interests of both parties are served well by this settlement.” He described the case via e-mail as “a mutually agreed upon legal settlement between both parties for financial considerations with no stipulation of wrongdoing on the part of Texas State.”
"There was no judicial finding that any money was unlawfully collected," Hendricks stressed, when asked via e-mail if there were any inaccuracies in a press release outlining the basic facts of the case.
But advocates working on disability issues said the law is clear on the question of whether the university could charge Gosda extra for the more pricey room. Shiotani added however that he personally is not aware of a clear resolution to the question of whether colleges can implement a surcharge for a single room when no acceptable double room is available for a student requiring extra space. Cases in which students with disabilities are automatically assigned single rooms, despite their desire for doubles, come up periodically, said Shiotani, who cited in particular a 1993 case, Coleman v. Zatechka, finding that the University of Nebraska violated federal law by refusing to include a student who needed the services of a personal attendant in the random roommate pool.
Wendy Wilkinson, project director of the Southwest ADA Center, one of 10 centers across the country offering technical assistance on disability law, said all colleges need to do more to offer disabled students access to one of their key programmatic offerings: The roommate experience. And students certainly shouldn't be penalized financially if that program is closed to them, she said.
“It’s something colleges need to think about," Wilkinson said, "so that someone with a wheelchair who comes isn’t simply segregated into one room simply because they have extra equipment.”
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