Equal access: at the U. of C. some people just don't get it | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Equal access: at the U. of C. some people just don't get it 

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Two years ago Jacqui Lowman left a promising job in Connecticut and enrolled at the University of Chicago to dedicate her life to Assyriology--the study of ancient Assyria and Babylonia. She did not move for money or fame--the arcane field offers little of either--but because she felt a calling. "I was 40 years old and I felt the time had come to live my dream," says Lowman. "I wanted to do what was in my heart."

But instead of welcoming her to their campus, university officials have treated her with ignorance and indifference, making her feel unwelcome and burdensome, says Lowman. The problem is accessibility. Lowman suffers from a neurological disorder that prevents her from raising her arms. She can't pull open doors, lift books from shelves, or operate copy machines. "I have a hidden disability," says Lowman. "You wouldn't know I'm disabled from looking at me. I can walk; I pull my books along in a little trolley. But I can't do many tasks that most people take for granted."

For almost two years Lowman has asked campus officials to make accommodations, but the university has done almost nothing, she says. Many important campus buildings, including the central administration office, several computer facilities, her dean's office, the career counseling office, the student union, and the Mandel Hall auditorium, are off-limits to her because she can't open their front doors. Moreover, none of the bathrooms in the Oriental Institute, where she studies, are accessible.

"People have told me, "If I were you, I'd go away,"' says Lowman. "I try to deal with it with humor. I say, "I don't have a lot of options. I can't be a truck driver or a stevedore anymore.' I try not to take it personal. But it's hard."

The university's chief publicist directs calls on the matter to Ingrid Gould, an assistant to the provost, Geoffrey Stone. "I can't talk about Jacqui in particular," says Gould, who's in charge of disabled students. "Federal law prevents me from discussing an individual student. She has to be willing to sign a written release before I do that."

What's remarkable is that there's even an issue. The disabilities rights movement is well over 20 years old. The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed more than three years ago, requires colleges receiving federal funds--such as the University of Chicago--to make their campuses accessible to the disabled.

Accessibility, of course, is a relative term. It ranges from fitting buildings with wheelchair ramps and elevators to allowing more time on exams for students with learning disabilities. The University of Chicago, says Gould, complies with the law. "We have provided mouth readers for students with hearing impairments," she says. "We have walked through every building to review accessibility. I think we have already done what can be done to make all of our programs accessible."

But even a brief stroll through the campus shows this is not so. The prevailing architecture is collegiate Gothic, meaning an obstacle course of thick doors, steep steps, and courtyards traversed by cobblestone pathways only haphazardly cleared in the winter. "I don't know how a wheelchair can get over them," says Lowman. "Some new buildings have wheelchair ramps, but since they're rarely shoveled what good are they in the winter?"

The obstacles were obvious to Lowman when she arrived on campus in the fall of 1993. "I went to college in a convoluted way," she says. "I started in the 70s but had to leave after my father died." She returned to school in the mid-80s while working full-time as a technical writer for Simon & Schuster. "I took classes at Connecticut College," she says. "I juggled courses with my job by getting up at 4:30 in the morning."

When Lowman decided to go on to graduate school she was accepted at four of the six schools she applied to, including Harvard. Her first choice was Chicago, which offered her a fellowship.

By the time she moved to Chicago her disorder was getting worse. "I don't think of myself as a disabled person, but disability is part of who I am," she says. "My muscles and joints ache all the time. The doctors say it's a deteriorating neurological disorder that impairs my motoric functions--that makes it sound like I'm an engine that's not working. I was talking to someone in the neurology department who said, "It's frustrating for us because there are so many disorders without names.' I said, "If it's frustrating for you, it's worse for me.' I try not to feel sorry for myself. My hero is Stephen Hawking. It inspires me to realize what he has done."

For the most part, Lowman has no trouble getting from her house to campus. But she has difficulties getting in and out of buildings and bathrooms. "I can get into some bathrooms by pushing the door, but then I can't get out," she says. "There's a bathroom at the Oriental Institute where I wedge the door open with a book bag so I can hook my foot around it and yank it open. I'm afraid someone will trip over my book bag, but I can't work from nine to five without using the bathroom. There were times when I was knocking on the bathroom door, asking people to let me out. It's humiliating. People are wondering, "Who's this strange lady banging on the bathroom door?' This is a big city; I'm sure they think I'm part of a scam."

Some graduate students and employees, particularly the librarians and security guards at the Oriental Institute, have been helpful. "Jacqui's a wonderful friend and scholar," says Gregory Munson, a fellow graduate student. "I hope she keeps at it because she has a lot to offer."

Unable to take written notes, Lowman uses a laptop computer, which she says some of her professors have complained about. "They say the noise bothers them," says Lowman. "I'm reluctant to ask for help because I have been told that I was taking advantage of people. It makes me feel horribly guilty. I began to see myself as a terrible burden that others have to shoulder. I think some people are uncomfortable with my disorder. It brings them face-to-face with their own mortality. There's also a Darwinian sink-or-swim attitude--"If you can't make it here, get out."'

To her surprise, she has discovered that there are no counselors on campus to help disabled students. After arriving on campus she arranged a meeting with Thomas Thuerer, a dean of students. But the meeting was disappointing. "There are no courses in dealing with the disabled 101," says Lowman. "You have to be thick-skinned because people will say dumb things. When I told Thuerer my story, he said, "Yes, those doors are heavy. It must be tough. Keep me informed.' That was it. No plan, no strategy. I thought, "Hmm, this isn't going to be easy."'

Thuerer asked Lowman to write a letter to Gould detailing her needs. But there was no follow-up to that letter. After several flare-ups--including the laptop incidents--Lowman arranged other meetings with Thuerer. The first was held at the Oriental Institute, the second at Thuerer's office. "I can't get into his building because I can't open the door," Lowman says. "Thuerer told me to knock on his window and he would send out an assistant to let me in. That worked for the first meeting. But at our second meeting the blinds to his office were drawn. I stood in the cold knocking on his window, but he couldn't hear me 'cause he was on the phone. Finally after ten minutes he began to wonder about the strange knocking sound at his window and he sent out his assistant. I don't want to sound belligerent. The dean's a nice man, but this is a side issue to him. I'm going to cost the school money I'm sure they'd rather not spend."

A quick and dirty survey showed the University of Chicago falling far short of local rivals on matters of accessibility. At Northwestern, for example, disabled students can meet with a counselor at the start of every school year, according to Andreen Neukranz-Butler, director of Northwestern's affirmative action and disability services office.

"Accessibility means providing things to people," says Neukranz-Butler. "Students with disabilities meet with me at the start of the year and we go over their schedules to see what their needs are and what accommodations have to be made."

For example, a blind student at Northwestern was allowed to take an exam in his room and fax the test through his computer to his professor. The library pays assistants to help disabled students carry books from the stacks. All of the university's newer buildings have electronically controlled doors, elevators, and ramps, which are shoveled in the winter. "If a student has to take a class that's in a classroom on the third floor of an older building without an elevator, I'll ask the professor to move the class," says Neukranz-Butler. "We heard grumbling when we waited until the last minute to ask a professor to move. But most of our professors are very accommodating."

And what would you say to a professor who couldn't tolerate a student using a laptop computer in the classroom?

"I can't imagine such a thing."

Ingrid Gould, the University of Chicago official who comes closest to being that school's counterpart to Neukranz-Butler, has met with Lowman only once in two years, Lowman says, and has stopped returning her phone calls.

"They seem to want to deal with everything on a case by case basis," says Lowman. "They're talking about getting me a cellular phone so I can call ahead to have doors opened. But that won't help the next person out. Wider institutional changes are necessary. The issue's not going away. Maybe I'll go away. But someone else will come along."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bruce Powell.

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