In 2011, VCU student Jenson Larrimore rolled down Cherry Street between Main Street and Floyd Avenue in his manual wheelchair. As usual, he found himself confronting one of the more difficult parts of his daily commute: the sidewalks on Cherry Street between Main Street and Floyd Avenue.
For years, tree roots had gnarled the sidewalk until Larrimore, a fourth-year VCU student, found it easier to roll his wheelchair down the street than to stay on the sidewalk.
Like many VCU students with disabilities, Larrimore has more on his mind than classes and tests. He has to face the daily rigors of simply getting to class on a campus that sometimes seems designed to defeat him.
“It’s little stuff like that,” Larrimore said. “Unless you’re in a wheelchair and live it on a daily basis, it’s hard to get a sense of it.”
With blocks of historic buildings and city property spread throughout the middle of campus, VCU creates special challenges for administrators trying to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and for students with disabilities trying to navigate the campus.
About 900 students on the Monroe Park Campus have some form of disability, says Joyce Knight, director of VCU’s Disability Support Services. On the MCV Campus, there are about 500 students with disabilities.
The figures are estimates because under federal law, the university cannot ask if a student has a disability during the admissions process or when the student enrolls. Estimations are based on the number of students who choose to seek regular assistance and services from the various offices that help with accommodations.
To help the university identify accessibility issues around campus, Larrimore created Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness (SDAA) to brainstorm possible solutions to problems students with disabilities face.
“(The university wants) to help us in any way that they can but they don’t know what our needs are unless we voice them,” Larrimore said. “A lot of times people with disabilities, when they’re on their own, they don’t want to cause waves (and) they don’t want to set themselves apart so a lot of times they wont voice what they really need.”
Regardless of how many students, faculty or staff who may need it, there is no central fund to pay for projects that make it easier for people with disabilities to move around campus.
After the federal government passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, government institutions, like universities, were supposed to have been renovated to make them more accessible for people with disabilities.
Most of the act focused on physical accessibility, to make it easier for people with needs similar to Larrimore’s, but there are provisions for all types of disabilities. Even though the ADA has been in effect for almost 22 years and the state previously funded ADA compliancy projects, there’s still more to be done. Funding from the government ran out in 2000 and since then, VCU has had to take on the full financial responsibility of compliancy projects.
It’s not an easy task — the urban campus requires cooperation from the city, which is already strapped for money and whose communication with the university has been irregular. Without a designated fund for ADA compliancy projects, VCU’s completion of projects is not always guaranteed. Departments usually fund ADA projects. VCU’s Facilities Management division keeps a contingency fund ready for emergencies and in the context of ADA, critical projects that can’t wait.
But ADA compliancy projects aren’t cheap. The university is mostly called upon to fix roads and install lifts, which can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $250,000, depending on the size and location.
The most expensive ADA projects often go unnoticed by able-bodied students, faculty and staff, but the ADA also calls for accommodations for people with temporary disabilities.
When the ADA was first passed in 1990, states granted certain agencies and institutions blocks of money to fulfill specific ADA-related projects that were considered priorities.
According to Mary Cox, a university architect who has worked with the school since 1992, there were five categories of projects Virginia funded: creating accessible routes; providing entrances to buildings; making sure there were exits; creating adequate rescue room in case of an emergency; and projects that allowed people with disabilities to function independently, such as creating access to bathrooms.
After those necessary projects were finished, Cox said any other compliancy projects are done when requested.
Cox said the amount the state granted the school varied year to year, but it was generally around $1 million. That money had to fund ongoing projects as well as smaller, discrete ones.
Money from the state to complete ADA projects stopped coming around 2000, when it was presumed most institutions would be updated and in compliance with the act’s guidelines.
By the time the university stopped receiving state funds, administrators had also created a transition plan that focused on organizational processes, such as hiring practices.
Even though VCU has money within its capital budget (the money used for construction projects, usually made up of state funds and private donations) for any unforeseen projects, like ADA compliancy projects, they don’t have enough to take on all the projects requested by VCU community members.
The most common projects Facilities Management now handles are requests for wheelchair lifts’ maintenance and installation and repairs to sidewalks. They are also called upon to try to fix the worn city property that is interspersed through VCU’s campus.
Larrimore has lived in Richmond all his life and spent time on the VCU campus before — but as an able-bodied teenager passing time. After a car accident in 2005 left him paralyzed from the waist down at age 16, he had to navigate VCU from a new, much more difficult position.
Harrison Street’s bumpy surface was bad enough when he could walk. Now he avoids it because it is too dangerous to roll on, with tree roots creating bumps in the sidewalk and old curb cuts that make it difficult to get off the sidewalk and into the designated crosswalk.
“The problem areas for me that are the most difficult just to get around campus are the city sidewalks,” Larrimore said. Because city roads and sidewalks run through VCU’s core campus but are not technically VCU’s property, the university doesn’t have direct control over sidewalk or road projects.
VCU is only responsible for its own property, which doesn’t include sidewalks or streets. The city of Richmond is legally and financially responsible for all sidewalks and streets that run through VCU’s campus, Cox said. For students like Larrimore, this means dealing with worn-down curb cuts and bumps is a challenge that is not going away.
“The clear line of demarcation is the property line. Anything that is inside VCU’s property line, we are clearly responsible for,” she said. “That’s usually right at the building face. … The city’s property starts at the sidewalk.”
Despite where the property lines lie, Cox said the city doesn’t always get around to completing requested projects. They usually say they don’t have enough money or add it to a growing list of projects, where they often are forgotten. When this happens, Cox said VCU usually steps in with their own money to complete projects.
VCU has repaired many roads and alleys that were previously difficult to use. Cox said the city has never offered to reimburse the university for the work they do on city property. Most recently, VCU repaved the alley behind the new West Grace South dorm.
Though the projects can take a long time to be completed, Cox said she recognizes that city officials have more than just VCU to provide for.
Katy Rosemond, the executive director of health sciences resources and planning on the MCV campus, agreed. “It’s just like with the state and what we face everyday, there’s so much more that needs to be done than there is money,” she said.
She acknowledged that Richmond could do more to partner with the university on accessibility.
“The campus coordinators do … attend regular meetings with the city and that sort of thing. They do that to improve communication and to help the city understand the university’s issues and needs and what we might be doing,” she said. “Often, at least from what I hear … it sounds like it’s kind of one-sided, that VCU provides more information than they come back with.”
The city did not respond to three interview requests about its work with VCU. Messages left with the city’s human resources office, press office and Department of Public Works were not returned.
Larrimore said he was recently put in touch with city’s Department of Public Works; a representative told him he would survey key places Larrimore pointed out as problem areas. CT
Part one in a two-part series on ADA compliance at VCU.