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30 years after Americans with Disabilities Act, college students with disabilities say law is not enough

“It's about going beyond compliance in terms of what the ADA really means and what it means in terms of disability and inclusivity,” one expert said.

Kyle Cox was on his way to class during an ice storm in January 2019 when an outdoor wheelchair elevator at Texas A&M University malfunctioned.

For 30 minutes, Cox, a graduate student, was trapped outside with sleet pelting him on an unseasonably frigid day in College Station. Building staff draped him in blankets and coats while they worked to free him from the handicap accessible lift designed to help disabled students access the building with ease.

By the time he had cleaned up and composed himself, class was over.

Cox, 24, of El Paso, Texas, who is pursuing a master's in public administration, is hearing impaired and has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which requires him to use a wheelchair.

While school officials work to make Texas A&M accessible to people with disabilities, Cox says he still faces challenges navigating the campus.

Image: Kyle Cox with his service dog, Amber.
Kyle Cox with his service dog, Amber.Courtesy of Kyle Cox

“Problems like this do happen on campus and I end up missing class or getting there late even when I leave sometimes up to an hour before class to give myself enough time to make it.” he said.

The school said in a statement that it strives to be welcoming to people with disabilities, saying it works to be “proactive in addressing accessibility needs as well as to respond as quickly as possible when individuals report problems.”

But Cox says there’s more to be done. “Yes, there’s an elevator for wheelchair users but it doesn’t help if it’s broken, or if paths are blocked, or if I’m sitting in the wheelchair seating in the back during a speech which I can’t hear because of my hearing impairment.”

This year marks 30 years since the Americans’ with Disabilities Act was enacted and while significant strides have been made to accommodate students with disabilities at colleges and universities across the country, some students and disability advocates say the law doesn’t go far enough to meet the needs of the disabled.

The number of college students with disabilities has steadily increased over the years, and now makes up a significant population of the national student body. Nearly 20 percent of undergraduates reported having a disability in 2016, and nearly 90 percent of colleges and universities reported enrolling students with disabilities in 2011.

Under the ADA, public and private colleges and universities must provide equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities, but there is room for interpretation. If an institution can prove that making the accommodations and modifications would constitute an undue financial or administrative burden, the alterations aren’t required.

Every institution of higher education provides disability services and accommodations in its own way, with its own interpretation of laws, said Wendy Harbour, associate executive director for programs and development at the Association on Higher Education And Disability.

“A student might be disabled at one college but not another, based on how they use documentation of students’ disabilities," Harbour said. "Or one campus may offer tutoring or special programs for students with some disabilities, and others don’t.

“There is no national training, certification or licensure for professionals providing disability services and accommodations,” she continued.

Students with disabilities at several institutions across the country, including Princeton, the University of Maryland, the University of Georgia and the University of Minnesota, have reported a wide array of challenges.

NBC News spoke with over a dozen college students with various disabilities who said that they have faced significant difficulty with accessibility and accommodation beyond just physical barriers, and that this has affected their sense of belonging on campus.

Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore follows the guidelines of ADA by labeling room numbers in Braille to accommodate blind students, but freshman McClain Hermes says that without including the office names, the accommodation is of little help.

Hermes, who is blind as the result of a genetic disorder, said the signs are so inadequate that it’s led to several “embarrassing mix-ups.” She’s walked into the wrong dorm room several times and once ended up inside the university president’s office while looking for the campus counseling center.

“Am I expected to memorize every single room number and who is in them on the entire campus while my sighted peers can simply look at the sign and know where they are going?” Hermes said. “I’m very grateful that I live in a time period where ADA is a thing. But there's still so much advocacy that needs to be done for students with disabilities, and schools really should be going above and beyond the basic minimum."

Image: McClain Hermes, student at Loyola University Maryland.
McClain Hermes, student at Loyola University Maryland.Courtesy of McClain Hermes

The university maintains that it is in compliance with ADA. "The standards require that signs that designate permanent rooms and spaces, such as men’s and women’s restrooms, room numbers, floor numbers and exit signs, include braille," Loyola University Maryland said in a statement.

Harbour says that the problem isn’t that schools aren’t following the letter of the law but that they often don’t go beyond compliance. Disabled students may have dorm rooms that are accessible, but they can’t visit any other student on campus, or students in need of interpreters or notetakers might receive one of poor quality, or a building might have just one accessible bathroom or only one elevator.

“In all these cases, the campus is meeting the accommodation request and is in compliance, but they really aren’t following the spirit of the law or helping students with disabilities feel welcome.”

If you can’t get to your classroom or you don't have an environment that is conducive to learning when you have a disability, it is a huge challenge, according to Beth Myers, a professor of inclusive education at Syracuse University.

“It's about going beyond compliance in terms of what the ADA really means and what it means in terms of disability and inclusivity,” she said.

Colleges need to approach this not as a legal check mark but as a diversity initiative, otherwise schools are not providing a welcoming space for all students. Students need a wider range of support than was originally thought when the ADA was first implemented, Myers said.

“The ADA is an important law and it has come far, but there is still much to think about when it comes to true equitable access to a college space,” Myers said.

Some students have taken matters into their own hands.

Anna Landre, a junior at Georgetown University, said she spends hours every week on meetings and emails with administrators to push for better accommodation.

Landre, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair, said she has repeatedly dealt with broken elevators, inaccessible push plates and dilapidated ramps that would take her through dark alleys.

Image: Anna Landre, student at Georgetown University.
Anna Landre, student at Georgetown University.Courtesy of Anna Landre

“Sometimes it's a real fight to get accommodations implemented,” she said. “And even if changes are made, there continues to be a disconnect. It’s really difficult for me from a standpoint of feeling like a part of this community.”

The onus of navigating this has cost her countless hours of studying and socializing, she said. It becomes emotionally draining at times.

“Georgetown is committed to ensuring that our campus is accessible and inclusive. With a 200-year-old campus on hilly terrain, we have faced a number of accessibility challenges over the years, but we are continuing facility enhancements across campus to ensure ADA compliance,” a university spokesperson said in a statement. “We have made significant progress expanding accessibility and it remains at the forefront of campus planning for facility improvements and construction.”

Any barriers, physical or otherwise, can bring up feelings of exclusion, said Christa Bialka, a professor of special education at Villanova University.

“When you look at students with disabilities, even if they are feeling academically capable, if they are not feeling socially integrated that could cause them to feel withdrawn and could potentially increase the likelihood that they could drop out of school.”

According to federal data, only a third of students with disabilities who enroll in a four-year college or university graduate within eight years. At a two-year school, less than 42 percent graduate.

Over the ADA's 30 years, the definition of disability has evolved, as have the needs of those with disabilities.

“We need to revisit what we see accessibility meaning and push back our initial understanding of what it means to have an accessible space,” Bialka said. “It’s understanding that it's physical and it’s mental. It's invisible and visible, it’s so many different things.”

While Kyle Cox said he has seen improvements at Texas A&M University, he believes there is always room to do better for students with disabilities, not just at his school but at all schools.

“The focus should be making people feel more included, like they are a part of the larger society,” he said. “Not about just helping them get by.”