From Inside Higher Ed, here's the story of a seven-year-old ADA case against Louisiana's McNeese State University for failure to make the student union accessible to the disabled. In 2001, a student using a wheelchair injured herself while trying to pry open a restroom door. (For those unfamiliar with this particular access dilemma, imagine sitting in a chair that rolls while trying to open a heavy door towards yourself and hold it open while you pull yourself through, all in a usually very confined space.)
The noteworthy aspects of this specific case are 1) that the university president has stated that access to the student union -- where the school newspaper, yearbook, student government offices and the two major cafeterias on campus are located -- was not a high priority, and 2) that the school's legal team is arguing that the plaintiff, a former student with epilepsy who was recovering from several surgeries to a knee at the time of her restroom injury, was not completely incapable of walking and thus had no business using the wheelchair in the inaccessible restroom.
From the article:
In a 2007 summary judgment, a Louisiana district court ruled that McNeese had failed to meet its obligations under the federal disabilities law. The act required that the Old Ranch [nickname for the union] be equipped with an accessible bathroom because the building had been renovated after 1990, the court found.
McNeese is now appealing the judgment, arguing that [the plaintiff, Collette] Covington — who didn’t absolutely need a wheelchair, according to McNeese officials — isn’t entitled to coverage under federal law. Covington had started using the wheelchair about a week before the accident, not because she couldn’t walk, but because she wanted to get around campus “at a faster pace,” according to statements attributed to Covington in court documents.
“It is reasonable to assume, then, that Covington could have stepped out of her wheelchair temporarily in order to use the restroom,” McNeese’s lawyer wrote in an appellate brief.
Also noteworthy is that the author of the linked article on the case describes the university president's position as follows:
Under the harshest interpretation, Hebert’s words could mean that he simply doesn’t view giving disabled students an “education” as a “high priority.” In the broader context of his deposition, however, Hebert noted that McNeese was confronted with something of a Sophie’s Choice. Forced to choose between making classrooms accessible and making the union accessible, he said, McNeese chose the classrooms. Whether McNeese lacked the funds to do both, however, is disputed in the lawsuit.
Because deciding how to use public funds for a public facility is exactly like choosing which of your children to let the Nazi's kill.
From the article, it appears that both Covington’s lawyer and InsideHigherEd missed the obvious in this case. The ADA was passed in 1990, but the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (with it’s Section 504 regulations) was implemented in 1977. While the Rehab Act had somewhat less stringent requirements for architectural access than does the ADA, basic access to restrooms has always been... basic! McNeese State, as a public institution has had more than 30 years to respond appropriately to federal mandates for equal access for persons with disabilities. Moreover, it appears that McNeese has resorted to an Appeal to Spite in its denial of wrongdoing. Covington asserted that she was injured because the bathroom door was not in compliance with access requirements. McNeese responds that because Covington didn’t NEED to be in a wheelchair (an “iffy” assertion, at best), the fact that they failed to meet their 30+ year responsibility for access shouldn’t matter. Huh? Meantime, InsideHigherEd also seems to need a refresher course on disability law. The article states that, “The ADA, which applies some of its most stringent rules to public universities...” There is simply no basis for this bald statement unless the suggestion is that the Title II regulations (which apply to public entities of all kinds, including colleges and universities) are among the “most stringent rules” of the ADA. If that were the intent of the comment, it still misses the mark, as the requirements for architectural access (ADAAG) under discussion in this case appear in Title III of the ADA. While the letter of the law for both the ADA and Section 504 focuses on legal requirements for *access* to programs and facilities, the spirit of the law has always suggested that indepence, safety, and dignity are important issues in assessing how well those legal mandates for access are met. It would appear that McNeese State has lost sight of all three.That's something, right?