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Handicapped Students Forced to Bear the Cold

Kim Powell | Staff Writer | 01/19/2011

Every morning, Samantha Hosch bundles up in layers and wraps a scarf around her face as she makes her way to class through the snow and icy weather in her electric wheelchair.

The majority of the tunnel system at BSU is not equipped with wheelchair ramps; it forces handicap students and faculty to travel outside while on campus. This is especially taxing during the winter months, while other students and staff can walk through the tunnels without worrying about cold, snow and rain.

“I can use the tunnels in small pieces, like from Tamarack to Walnut or from the Union to Sattgast for class,” said Hosch, a junior majoring in biology. “I live on campus by choice, so it would be nice if I could use the tunnels.”

Stairs are found in the tunnels near Decker, Birch, and Memorial Halls without the option of a wheelchair ramp or an elevator.

“Honestly, I am not happy about the way the tunnels are,” said Hosch.

The tunnels were built as each building was constructed to provide steam and electrical to the buildings and provide accessibility to the lines of servicing, according to Jeff Sande, the Physical Plant Manager.

“Our records show that the [initial] tunnels were built in the 1950s after an addition to the heating plant was completed in 1949,” said Sande. “Then tunnels were constructed from one building to the next as our campus expanded.”

During the time period the tunnels were built, society was not aware of accessibility challenges, and therefore the tunnels were not designed with the accessibility features that are preferred currently.

In 2004, the Student Association tackled the handicap accessibility problem, but it was determined to be unfeasible.

“It was found to be technically and financially challenging,” said Richard Marsolek, the Environmental Health and Safety coordinator. “Constructing the type and number of exits that would be needed to provide access and comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements was determined to be cost prohibitive.”

The expenses of installing the desired handicap ramps include the high cost of below-grade (below ground level) construction projects, the large number of utility lines running through the tunnels, and the disruption of campus operations during the anticipated long period construction, according to Marsolek.

“If I could change anything it would be that I could cross the street in the tunnels,” said Hosch. “In the day it’s fine, but it would be nice when coming from the library at 10 p.m..”

Title III of the ADA under the U.S Department of Justice, the Disability Rights section states that, “public accommodations must comply with basic nondiscrimination requirements that prohibit exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment.” But, BSU does not fall under this category as it is not a private school.

Instead, BSU is able to follow Title II of the ADA, which states, “each service, program, or activity must be operated so that, when viewed in its entirety, it is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, unless it would result in a fundamental alteration in that nature of a service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.”

“It is certainly the University’s intent and goal to provide a safe campus environment,” said Marsolek, “including convenient access for all of our campus community members and visitors, and to comply with all applicable laws and regulations. Accessibility is a priority consideration in the design and construction of all new buildings and also in all remodeling and renovation projects.”

While BSU will be undergoing maintenance in Birch Hall this spring, it is unclear if the tunnels will be renovated in that area as well. The school has been recently hit with a budget crisis, so the installation of wheelchair ramps may be put on hold even longer.

“It wouldn’t bug me as much if the sidewalks were kept clean. I’m paying just as much as anyone else,” said Hosch. “Today is only the third day of the term and I have gotten stuck in the snow at least five times, twice today, but who’s counting?”