Teamwork Puts Students With Disabilities in Accessible Buildings

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

The full impact of closing the campus core to build the planned Centennial Plaza will be felt next month as almost 23,000 students return to UTEP for the fall semester.

Many members of the Miner Nation have not been on campus since late May when contractors fenced off a large portion of the University bounded by Union West and the Administration, Psychology, and Geological Sciences buildings, and closed off a piece of University Avenue.Richard Boehler, a senior mechanical engineering major, is grateful that The University of Texas at El Paso has a system in place that shifts classes that include students with disabilities to campus buildings with better accessibility. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceRichard Boehler, a senior mechanical engineering major, is grateful that The University of Texas at El Paso has a system in place that shifts classes that include students with disabilities to campus buildings with better accessibility. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

The 15-month project has created a new normal for campus motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. When completed next fall, the grounds will emphasize accessibility, pedestrian safety and environmental stewardship. University leaders have promoted patience and planning for those who use the University during the Campus Transformation process to minimize any inconvenience.

For students such as Alina Arredondo, it helps that the University practices what it preaches. Several University offices are working together to help students and faculty with disabilities to use accessible classrooms.

“It already was tough to get around and (construction) was going to make it tougher,” said Arredondo, a senior psychology major enrolled in UTEP’s Law School Preparation Institute. She expects to graduate in December.

The effort is a great relief to Arredondo, who scoots around The University of Texas at El Paso in her motorized wheelchair. She said her fall 2013 schedule includes two classes in the Psychology Building, which the University now considers inaccessible for people with mobility issues during construction.

Arredondo, who is registered with UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services, said the CASS office is working with Registration and Records to find a classroom in a more accommodating building. Because of Arredondo’s CASS affiliation, the registrar’s office flagged her registration to ensure her classes were in accessible buildings.

University personnel studied every one of UTEP’s 464 classrooms and found that about 15 percent were inaccessible or had limited accessibility because of construction. Other buildings that have limited or no accessibility for people with disabilities are Old Main and Quinn, Graham, Prospect and Vowell halls.

The registration/accommodation system includes collaborations with academic departments. For example, a faculty member also could have mobility issues, so the University’s Equal Opportunity Office would get involved in weighing options. Officials will work to solve each situation before the start of fall classes Aug. 26.

Informational letters were sent out in May to students, faculty and staff from CASS, the dean of students and the Provost’s Office alerting them to the campus construction and the effort to accommodate people with disabilities.

“Many classes previously scheduled in rooms that are not fully accessible have been moved to meet known needs of students or faculty members,” Associate Provost John Wiebe, Ph.D., stated in a letter. “Information is being disseminated to the UTEP community using many different media, but we remain dependent upon those who need accommodations to self-identify.”

Barbara Schoen, Ph.D., assistant professor of health sciences, praised the University for its efforts to help individuals with disabilities during the transformation, but acknowledged that it might not be enough.

“You can’t plan for everything,” said Schoen, who injured her spine in a 1997 rollover accident and gets around in a motorized wheelchair. “Change is always messy. It’s part of growing pains. The keys are being informed and planning ahead.”

Schoen, whose office is in the Campbell Building off campus, comes to the main campus once or twice a week. She said the construction has been an inconvenience, but she understands it is a bump on UTEP’s road to becoming a more accessible and pedestrian-friendly University in 2014. She said individuals with disabilities owe it to themselves to seek help and avoid some of the possible struggles on campus.

Richard Boehler, senior mechanical engineering major, is registered with CASS and had a fall “Principles of Design” class in the Education Building. It was flagged and switched to the more accessible Classroom Building on Hawthorne Street.

“The University is really good about accommodations,” said Boehler, a nontraditional student who decided to get his degree after 30 years in construction. His right leg was amputated a few years ago stemming from a staph infection brought on by a construction accident, so he gets around in a motorized wheelchair. “CASS pushed us to register early and has worked really hard to avoid making things complex for (students).”

The system has worked smoothly during the summer in part because of the word of mouth from students, said Bill Dethlefs, Ph.D., CASS director. He is part of the University’s leadership team that has worked for about a year to mitigate the impact of transformation on the University’s 600 registered students with disabilities. He added that there are about 35 staff, students and faculty who use wheelchairs on campus on a daily basis.

Dethlefs urged students to study the University’s ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) map that is part of the On The Move website (onthemove.utep.edu) to learn the best travel routes around campus during the transformation. He also advised students to learn the street addresses of the different campus buildings to help taxis or paratransit services know where to go for pickup. The addresses are available on the CASS website (sa.utep.edu/cass).