In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities, as well as to integrate them into society. State and local government agencies, which include public colleges like Mercer, are required to provide access to their facilities so that they do not discriminate against individuals with physical or mental impairments according to Title II of the law.
The guidelines for meeting ADA standards are much less strict for facilities constructed prior to 1992 when the ADA laws went into full effect. According to the ADA, any barriers that prevent access for people with disabilities in older buildings must be removed, but the building does not need to adhere to all of the regulations in the ADA unless major renovations are undertaken.
“By law we reach the minimum of the code,” says Debra Stotland, the executive assistant to the Dean of Liberal Arts for six years. For the past five years she has used a motorized chair to avoid pain caused by Charcot-Marie Tooth disease, an inherited disorder she has that is characterized by progressive muscle loss and spasms that often result in immobility.
Does Mercer in fact reach the ADA code’s minimum requirements? The VOICE set out to find out, testing and retesting every door button, elevator and access point on the West Windsor campus. The results were mixed.
Some of the automatic door buttons failed to operate properly. These included the buttons for exterior doors to the Business (BS) building and the Engineering and Technology (ET) building and a particularly temperamental door to the Fine Arts (FA) building, which one day worked, but the next failed to operate entirely despite repeated attempts. VOICE reporters confirmed with security that the FA door was turned on during each attempt to access the building.
Another problematic access issue on the West Windsor campus is that no handicapped buttons are installed at the entrances of the financial aid office, bursars or bookstore, several of the most frequented locations on campus and part of the newly built –thus required to be fully ADA compliant– Student Success Center. The doors for these locations are usually propped open to provide access, but during random inspections The VOICE frequently found the doors to financial aid shut.
Elevators are another concern. On September 4, faculty and staff were alerted via email that the elevator within the Math and Science (MS) building would be out of order until the end of September. The elevator was down for most of August as well, forcing disabled students in summer and fall classes to devise complex and time-consuming new routes to get to their classes.
Another problem is that the second floor of the Communications (CM) Building houses the Mercer Art Gallery which is supposed to welcome the public throughout the day, but there is no elevator in the CM building.
“Because the CM building doesn’t have an elevator…community people have to come through the LA building to see an exhibit. If you aren’t familiar with Mercer, you won’t know to do that,” Stotland told The VOICE.
Broken door switches, downed or non-existent elevators, and closed doors to the student services offices –while likely not pushing Mercer into actual non-compliance with the ADA policies– pose significant access problems for the community.
On October 5, the Alliance Center for Independence hosted it’s annual New Jersey Disability Pride Parade in Trenton. According to ACI its central mission and the goal of the parade is to promote independent living for people with disabilities. Independence is central to the disability rights movement.
Although many of the core campus buildings are linked by enclosed second-floor walkways, and the various areas of campus can usually be accessed through one route or another, the reality is that disabled persons on campus cannot reasonably remain autonomous; in order to get around efficiently they must rely on others for assistance.
Diagnosed with spina bifida, third-year Liberal Arts major Danny Wheeler uses a wheelchair and his service dog, Buck, to get around campus. Wheeler told The VOICE, “If the buttons don’t work I just ask a janitor or security officer nearby [for help].”