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Heavy doors, tight spaces: Students say new law center doesn’t comply with ADA

“This is a brand new building, it is required to comply with the full specifications of the ADA,” said the President of the Disability Law Society and second-year UHLC student Jane Foreman,  “It’s not like they’re renovating an old building, and having renovation issues, but because it was built two years ago after the passage of the ADA, it’s required to be compliant.” | Raphael Fernandez/The Cougar

The University’s newly constructed John M. O’Quinn building is recognized as one of Texas’s newest law buildings. The structure, despite its architectural beauty and amenities, lacks attention to safety and accessibility for students experiencing physical disabilities, according to student advocacy groups.

Members of the Disability Law Society, an advocacy group at the Law Center that attempts to ensure problems regarding accessibility and inclusivity are being appropriately met by the administration, have addressed issues within the building that could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some of the most notable problems include accessibility entering buildings, classrooms and bathrooms, and fire safety issues that were exposed during an incident in January. After initial progress and meetings, communication between students and administration has suddenly halted creating concerns among members of the organization. 

“This is a brand new building, it is required to comply with the full specifications of the ADA,” said the President of the Disability Law Society and second-year law student Jane Foreman,  “It’s not like they’re renovating an old building, and having renovation issues, but because it was built two years ago after the passage of the ADA, it’s required to be compliant.” 

During a committee meeting, a key issue highlighted was the lack of accessibility to certain building entrances, classrooms and restrooms due to doors not meeting ADA standards – the set of architectural regulations mandated by the U.S. Access Board for ensuring building accessibility.

Committee members spent countless hours gathering information and taking measurements in an ongoing project that has been in progress since July of 2022. Their research found that doors in the building’s foundational classrooms require four times as much force to open than the ADA requirement. The ADA requires that doors require no more than five pounds of force to open, yet the doors in the Law Center require 20 pounds, Foreman said.

Students with physical disabilities who can’t exert enough force to open heavy doors struggle to reach classes because of these issues.

“It became clear from my personal experience, and the experience of many students in our group, we were having physical difficulties getting into classes at the law school,” Foreman said. 

In October, DLS created a detailed three-page article of recommendations that it presented to administrators addressing areas of improvement with sections focusing on door weight adjustments and some suggested areas for automated doors.

Committee members aren’t requesting to fix all the doors, just high volume and high capacity spaces like the large lecture halls on the first floor, bathrooms and medical privacy areas – private spaces where people can care to medical needs. Students would also like to explore adding automated door openers in some of these high-volume areas, according to Foreman.  

DLS committee members suggest assigning a compliance expert to verify their measurements and someone with competence in accessibility issues, Foreman said.

On any given day, approximately 300 first-year students occupy the primary classrooms on the first level of the Law Center, with hundreds cycling through courses at all hours, according to members of the committee.

In January, a fire alarm was triggered at the UHLC due to smoke coming from the meditation room, revealing additional deficiencies in the building and its protocols. It became clear that there were no adequate evacuation plans in place, raising safety concerns.

“It was chaos for everybody because there wasn’t a plan and there wasn’t any direction. Nobody knew what to do, not even the staff,” said first-year law student and Accessibility Committee member for DLS Duncan Reedyk.

In their articles of recommendation, the committee argued that a person with disabilities should not be required to search for help in an emergency. Instead, there should be a set rule of procedures in place to ensure assistance in safely evacuating. 

Suggestions also included identifying and assisting individuals needing aid, establishing a signup and communication system for locating help, designating areas of refuge with clear egress routes and two-way communication if exits are one or more stories above the place of refuge.. 

In addition to the doors and safety issues, another significant concern raised during the committee meeting included the furniture arrangement inside the building creating maneuverability issues in classrooms and other common areas.  

According to Foreman, the furniture arrangement inside the building’s common areas and classrooms lacks adequate clearance for individuals with mobility impairments. Some noticed front-row tables in classrooms were positioned too closely to lecturers making it difficult for students with mobility impairments to appropriately maneuver across the classroom. 

The committee recommended the Law Center make modifications to meet ADA requirements and create accessible spots that are obvious for individuals using a wheelchair. 

Some suggestions to help meet federal requirements included providing classrooms with at least one designated area for wheelchair access, ensuring more than one study room on each floor for a person in a wheelchair and providing multiple accessible long-table spots in the UHLC library for wheelchair users.

The oversights contributing to these issues are not the product of deliberate discrimination, but instead stem from a lack of knowledge or expertise in accessibility issues when making basic decisions, Foreman said.

“It doesn’t take someone intentionally deciding to discriminate against someone with a disability to generate furniture or architectural arrangement that’s not accessible,” Foreman said. “The reason you can’t maneuver within a classroom is not to exclude a person with disabilities but because people who haven’t experienced those access barriers don’t immediately think of them.”

Since these issues have been addressed members of DLS have met with deans, the Facilities and Maintenance team and administrators to propose their specific list of recommendations, as the administration requested for budget evaluations. 

Since their formal meeting with UH officials Dec. 18, recommendations that were requested shortly after on Dec. 28, and another meeting in January, DLS has been left in the dark on any progress of their proposed action plan, according to Reedyk.  

Although the committee understands these processes can’t be completed overnight, they still hope for some inclusion and transparency of developments in the project.

”We’re just asking to be kept in the conversation, if there’s progress being made we want to know that,” Reedyk said. 

Similar issues could be prevalent elsewhere in the UH System, yet students may not fully grasp the impact of speaking out and highlighting these concerns to drive change effectively. 

Reedyk and Foreman hope this conversation raises awareness of the power of student advocacy and hope to have an impact on other individuals and communities empowering them to address similar issues with confidence. 

“This isn’t just something that affects one building it affects the entire community,” Reedyk said.  “If it affects one it affects all.” 

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