In spring 2010, Courtney Griffin and her parents were trying to find the back entrance to Marquette Hall. Making their challenge more difficult was an additional question: how Griffin, then a high school junior, in a wheelchair with Type 3 spinal muscular dystrophy, would be able to ride the small elevator down to the Office of Disability Services (ODS), located in the basement area.
The elevator was actually broken that day.
After Griffin’s mother went inside to tell the office the elevator wasn’t working, the meeting was moved to another location that Griffin could access in her wheelchair. However, having an older brother at Marquette, Griffin said this had not been the first time such an incident had occurred while visiting academic buildings or residence halls.
“Trying to go to the dorms at McCormick, I couldn’t fit through the doors or turn around in my chair. I couldn’t fit in the rooms,” Griffin said. “I had to sit outside in the hallway and look in on everyone.”
In the end, Griffin decided to attend University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign. While she still loves Marquette and found the university helpful in figuring out options if she had come to Milwaukee, Griffin said her current school seemed to be the better fit for her needs.
“It was really just at U of I they have a program and plan set in place,” Griffin said. “They have everything laid out for you; at Marquette it was more work, a lot more testing the waters, and that’s not something you want to do when you have a disability. You want to be sure every step of the way of what you’re doing and I didn’t get that feeling at Marquette as much as I did here.”
Bill Wantuck, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, who has cerebral palsy, also said ODS was in a “horrible location.”
“My first time there, I walked in circles; they don’t make themselves accessible or known,” Wantuck said. “We can get downstairs if we need to but there are some disabled students where, if they were to hear (the office is in the basement), they’d shy away.”
While he does not necessarily need a wheelchair to get around campus, the biggest adjustment for Wantuck was figuring out the best times for him to leave for his classes, just like any other college student. Because he can only walk for so long, he had to have time to not only get to class but also to accommodate any resting time he might need along the way.
“For some people, if they see I’m having a hard time, they carry me across the street,” Wantuck said.
Wantuck was able to get around McCormick Hall during his freshman year, but when it came time to choose a new dorm sophomore year, things became trickier. Wantuck had a 6:30 p.m. room sign up time and he knew the rooms that would best suit his needs (in McCabe Hall) were going to be filled.
While ODS can be consulted in these situations, it’s up to the student to make sure their own needs are met. Wantuck wrote an email to the Office of Residence Life (ORL) outlining his needs for a room on a lower floor and tripping hazards eliminated. He had to research which dorms had triples and which ones had their own bathrooms.
Wantuck also noted that most of his classes were going to be in Cramer Hall, making McCabe a more convenient location, as he would not have to travel as far. He also made it clear he was willing to live in other dorms such as Straz Tower or Carpenter Tower, if necessary.
The office responded positively, saying he had viable claims and they would see to it he had more proper arrangements.
As a student, Wantuck said he appreciates the sense of independence and normalcy Marquette tries to provide for students with physical disabilities, but sometimes it would be nice to get more help.
“I haven’t been asked ‘how can we improve?’ I feel if they reached out to us, things could get better,” Wantuck said. “They’re trying to get you out of (ODS) as fast as they can to see everyone.”
When Shannon Webster, a sophomore in the College of Communication, arrived on campus last year, Johnston Hall did not have a handicap-accessible entrance. Since this spring, new construction allowed for Webster, who has cerebral palsy, to ride her Segway into the building through a back entrance.
Webster said she has had to get used to hunting for entrances into buildings.
“They’re kind of like a mystery to find,” Webster said. “They’re always in the back or around the corner where you have to ask where it is, and no one even knows where it is.”
This year Webster is living in McCabe, and she said it’s been a lot easier to manage than living in Cobeen Hall.
“I’m in one of the triples with the handicap bathroom so I get to not worry about falling when I’m showering, and I can hang onto the railing all around the shower, as before I would hang onto the little soap bar in Cobeen,” Webster said.
According to the ODS Policy and Procedure Handbook, there are specific services provided for students with physical disabilities. This includes making sure there is access to classrooms and residence halls, extensions for assignments to accommodate medical concerns and priority registration for classes in buildings in close proximity to each other.
However, according to Heidi Vering, coordinator of disability services and associate director for Student Educational Services, privacy laws prevent ODS from stepping forward to help without a student’s consent. According to Vering, on average, 120 new students annually provide documentation to ODS about their disabilities, but that does not necessarily mean they are receiving accommodations. Students have to request accommodations on their own — which is very different from in high school.
“High school parents can advocate for them and the school already knows their needs, but now they have to communicate their needs and that may be with more than one person on campus, so that’s a big transition to remember,” Vering said.
Karen Desotelle, director of Student Educational Services, said state schools receive more federal funding for building renovations than private colleges. According to the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, a group organized to help students and young adults with disabilities and their families, private postsecondary institutions that do not receive government funds are protected by Title III of the American Disabilities Act, which means these schools have more time to plan how they will become ADA compliant.
Any changes Marquette makes to its buildings must be paid for by the university, according to Desotelle. New stipulations made in 2010 for ADA compliance laws say nothing has to be done to update existing buildings built before the new standards were set in place in 1977, unless they are being renovated.
“As we move forward, the institution grows in its accessible buildings, but we have a lot of old buildings,” Desotelle said.
Regarding ODS’ current space in Marquette Hall, Vering said while it is not the most ideal location, it’s a temporary space and still accessible to students. She also said that there are a wide range of services for students to use, such as a testing center and more support staff for all students.
Sean Berthold, assistant dean for housing services, said in an email that, with the exception of O’Donnell Hall, all of the residence halls are wheelchair-accessible. Campus Town East and Humphrey Hall apartments are also accessible. He also said ORL works with ODS to identify special housing accommodation requests prior to a student’s arrival on campus.
In an Education.com article, the University of Illinois tops the list of best colleges for students with physical disabilities. The school has personal attendants (who are nursing students) who help students around campus. There are even “floater” students around the residence halls to assist with unexpected needs such as an extra trip to the bathroom or a shower.
Besides this, there is a special transportation system in place for disability students to take a bus to and from each one of their classes. U of I also has a wheelchair basketball program and a day of awareness when students in the physical disabilities program sit on a panel to talk about their experiences on campus.
“People will come to our floor and want to look around and see what things are like,” Griffin said. “You don’t feel like you have to blend in, you can be different but have your disability and find a way to do things.”
Other colleges cited in the list are University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which also has a unique transportation system for disabled students and assisting technology, and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which has a student medical services building on campus with staff trained to work with students with physical disabilities.
“(Students) often go to a more highly supported environment than a private institution,” Desotelle said. “We have the resources but it’s not at the level that some of the state schools have; which isn’t to say that they don’t come here, but there are some students that go through some hardship.”