The University Record, December 7, 1998

Campus, community show changes in attitude toward those with disabilities

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Brent Baribeau didn’t plan on coming back to the University for his second year paralyzed from the chest down.

He planned on coming back to resume his position on the golf team and continue his academic course of study with a full load. But in June, a diving accident damaged three vertebrae in his spine, leaving him unable to use his legs, hands or fingers.

Eleven weeks later, Baribeau was back at the U-M, settling into his South Quad room and getting ready for class.

Nobody plans on being disabled, says Ed Loyer, chair of the Council for Disability Concerns. And while Baribeau’s case shows his remarkable determination to continue his education and participate actively in campus life, it also shows the distance that the U-M campus and surrounding community have come since 1983.

The U-M had two weeks to get prepare for Baribeau’s arrival—including making sure his residence hall and room were accessible in any and all ways he would need. Baribeau uses voice-activated telephone and computer systems, a wheelchair and lift, and relies on public transportation to get to and from classes and therapy sessions.

In 1983, when the Council for Disability Concerns (CDC) first formed, it probably would have taken at least a full semester to ready a room for someone like Baribeau, Loyer says. But in the 15 years since, the University and the nation have made gigantic strides in making education, buildings and services accessible not only to visibly disabled people, but to those who have hearing and vision limitations, learning disabilities and other “invisible” limitations.

Now affiliated with the Office of Equity and Diversity Servies in the Office of Human Resources and Affirmative Action, the Council has grown from two people to 30. Most of its work is done by three task forces—the Accessibility Task Force, the Education Task Force and the Employment Task Force.

The Accessibility Task Force has identified and made known problems with access to buildings and walkways across campus. Many of the problems have been addressed and there are fewer of them as buildings are renovated and new ones built to follow guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Education Task Force has been responsible for addressing the situations encountered by students with disabilities related to academic work and University programs. This includes special needs of students who have emotional, psychiatric or learning disabilities, and ensuring access to computers and computer programs designed to assist them. Members of this task force worked with the Information Technology Division, staff at Shapiro Undergraduate Library, the Office of Student Affairs and a design firm to create the Adaptive Technology Computing Site, housed in the basement of the library. It features computers and software specially designed to assist visually and physically disabled faculty, staff and students.

The Employment Task Force has been most active in the past few years. Its focus is training and education for supervisors about the Americans with Disabilities Act and the abundant stereotypes regarding people with disabilities. Most recently, a task force team with expertise in ergonomics is designing a brochure and Web site that educates both supervisors and employees about preventing injuries in the workplace.

“Many of the issues we address now cross over from one task force to the others,” Loyer says. “In the future, there may be a single group to identify the projects and issues.”

Does this mean that the Council itself has reached the end of its usefulness?

“That’s one of the questions we ask every year,” Loyer says. “From day one, my goal has been to go out of business. When that happens, it will mean that there is no need for us, that all the issues are mainstream.”

That means, he says, that changes that happen at the U-M and surrounding areas will automatically include accessibility, ergonomic and educational needs in their planning stages. Designers, architects and planners will look at automatic doors, “talking” elevators and voice-activation programs as a matter of course.

That most people take these for upgrades that improve conditions for everyone is an indication that the Council and its task forces are working well, says Brian Clapham, the University’s coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act. “An elevator that tells you what floor you are on was designed for people who can’t see the floor number on the elevator,” Clapham notes, “but it works equally well for people who are busy talking to each other and forget to look.”

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