More MS news articles for May 2001

Fighting for accessibility

By REBECCA COUDRET, Courier & Press staff writer
(812) 464-7509 or

The past couple of years have been difficult, exasperating times for Jim Saul. The once healthy, active policeman has watched his physical abilities dwindle on a fairly regular basis. Multiple sclerosis has robbed his body of health, strength, stamina and that lust for life most 50ish baby boomers enjoy.

Instead of working as a policeman, Saul is a graphic design student at the University of Southern Indiana, working on a degree he never expected to need in a field he never planned to pursue. MS has stolen his dreams. And his mobility.

Now, a trip to the grocery is a major outing. Instead of a quick stop at a “mini-mart” for bread or some soft drinks, the Indianapolis native visits the campus convenience store — and has had an accident on a ramp.

He has a “note taker,” Tammy Sensmeier, who takes notes for him in class, and he’s being fitted with a special hand-grip apparatus that will allow him to draw and paint.

For two years, he lived in a university apartment that couldn’t accommodate his wheelchair. “I couldn’t go through the door to the bathroom or bedroom. I slipped in the shower because there were no rails for me to grab onto.”

He tries to enter a classroom building — and finds he can’t reach the handicap-accessible button to open the door.

“My disability is immobility — but in some of the accessibility situations, even Craven (his service dog) can’t help me.”

And, Saul said, “far too often” the problem is not accessibility alone. It’s what he calls a “lack of awareness, lack of sensitivity” of the USI administration and staff.

“They’ve made life unbelievably difficult for me, and if it’s rough for me, I know it’s just as rough for other students with disabilities. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has been in effect since 1992. You’d think they’d get it right by now.”

John Byrd, vice president of student affairs at USI, said the university is in compliance with the ADA, but some circumstances need special consideration, plans and repairs.

“I don’t know of a single thing we’re not attempting to address,” Byrd said. “We’ve done everything from construction to sensitivity training of the staff. I think a part of Jim’s frustration is thinking changes should have come about more quickly. But some things take time.”

Such is the case for most things involving contractors. The university has to take bids, evaluate them and choose a contractor, issue purchase orders and then schedule the work.

“In some cases, we can have our physical plant make repairs. But some things have to be done by outside contractors, and that takes time.”

But Saul isn’t convinced time is the major problem. “One thing that makes me so fervent in continuing this is that I spent my career enforcing laws and protecting others’ rights. I just never thought I’d be in a position that my rights were being violated.

“When you pay for housing, you expect minimum standards to be met.”

Byrd said Saul’s concerns — and those of other students — have led to a number of improvements and repairs on campus, and an advisory committee meets to ensure improvements are made.

The university is awaiting installation of door openers for the art studio. Concrete paths are being installed to aid in access to telephones and “swipe readers” (for access into certain buildings). “Handicap” parking spaces have been set aside in the paid parking lot — but students using the spaces don’t have to pay to use the lot (which is closer to some buildings).

Automatic door openers are being installed or relocated.

“What we’re trying to do is continue work that has been done or already was planned. I don’t know of a single issue we’re not attempting to address.”

And, Byrd said, physically challenged students need to remember they aren’t the only ones needing consideration. “We have at least 200 students who have disabilities that fall under ADA guidelines. We’re trying to take care of all of them.”

Also, he said, work-order forms have been changed so they’re more prominent in a stack of dozens of requisitions and purchase orders. “It’s just another way to make sure, in a sea of projects, that they have our attention.”

Recently, Saul challenged Byrd to see campus as he sees it — from a wheelchair. Byrd was in a “manual” chair, so he had to rely on his arms to get him across campus.

“He said, ‘What if I run out of steam?’” Saul said. “I told him I have a tow strap, and if he couldn’t make it, I’d tow him.”

The trek was more than either imagined. First off, Saul said, “John’s knees wouldn’t fit under the desk, so he had a chance to see how I have to sit when I go to class — and I can’t lean forward the way he can.”

But on the way from the Liberal Arts building to the University Center, Saul’s chair slipped and he found himself out of his chair and among some “stubby trees.” The fall left him hospitalized for four days.

“To be honest, I don’t know what happened,” Saul said. “I think I hit on my left shoulder, but I don’t know. I just know I fell about a foot and a half off the walkway — and into the landscaping.”

Byrd said he was ahead of Saul and didn’t see the accident. “I looked back and Mr. Saul’s chair had suddenly veered off the sidewalk. I’m not sure what happened, but it didn’t have anything to do with accessibility to facilities on campus. It was simply an accident.

“We were moving in one direction, and suddenly he’d (fallen) 90 degrees in another direction.”

Despite some obvious tensions and frustrations over the past couple of years, Byrd said he and Saul “have developed a positive working relationship. We’ve both worked to understand and solve problems, and I think our talks have been beneficial to both of us. It’s in both of our best interests to be proactive about this.”