Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

December 4, 2003

Administrators detail commitment to those with special needs

Accommodating those with special needs on Pitt’s campus is never an afterthought, Facilities Management administrators told a University Senate committee last week.

Park Rankin and John Walluk told the plant utilization and planning (PUP) committee Nov. 24 that all construction and renovation projects have disability services built into their design stage and that, where possible, Pitt is going “above and beyond the requirements” of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

“We don’t have a set amount of funding in our budget directed specifically toward ADA-compliance,” said Rankin, who is University architect and senior manager of architecture. “And we don’t use the sales position that we’re 120 percent ADA-accessible to market our campus. What we are able to say is: We go above and beyond providing access to whoever needs it. And to say: If you have the academic stamina and qualifications, we’ll get you there, we’ll provide you access to the education that meets University standards. If we can offer in-kind service by rescheduling or relocating you, we’ll do that. If we can’t, we’ll find a way to get you the needed services. Facilities Management is one of the tools to make that happen.”

Other Pitt units involved in access issues include: Disability Resources and Services (DRS), which registers and evaluates disabled students; the Office of Affirmative Action, which fields and investigates accessibility complaints, and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, which coordinates emergency and evacuation plans, Rankin said.

In addition, the Registrar’s office oversees rescheduling classrooms and other facilities to accommodate special-needs students and faculty. “The cooperation among these units has been outstanding,” Rankin maintained.

ADA and its predecessor, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and require institutions to make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with a disability who request accommodations.

This fall, PUP and the Senate’s anti-discriminatory policies committee, responding to individuals’ complaints, are looking at disability-related issues on campus at the request of Faculty Assembly.

The Facilities Management discussion was a follow-up to an October PUP meeting, where the committee heard a presentation from Pitt’s Disability Resources and Services staff. See University Times Oct. 9.

Rankin said the University put some $5 million-$6 million toward ADA compliance in the first two-three years after the act’s establishment. “That program is ongoing, and has evolved into being part of every facilities project from upgrading elevators and restrooms, to classroom or laboratory renovations, to recovering space in buildings [to convert to other uses],” Rankin said. “Any new construction, I would say for at least the last five years, has mandated to make handicapped accessibility a design guideline.”

Walluk, who is Facilities Management senior administrator, added, “We don’t look at improvements only from aesthetics, but we include handicapped problems as part and parcel to what’s needed. Access is not an afterthought, it’s a forethought. In other words, we look at a project comprehensively, so we don’t have to go back and say we need to add this or that.”

Rankin explained that for budget purposes, the line of demarcation for Facilities Management is whether an area is for public use, such as a public corridor, lobby or restroom. “If it’s a public area, that’s our turf,” he pointed out. “Everything on the other side of ‘the wall’ is the department’s responsibility, budget-wise. But they can request some assistance when a new faculty or staff member with special needs comes on board. We can apply, for example, some restroom funds if there is an increase in the disabled population in a specific place.”

Some examples of extra effort that Rankin and Walluk cited include:

  • Student housing at Bouquet Gardens. “ADA requirements are for at least 10 percent of the units to be fully built out as ADA-accessible,” Rankin said. “On top of that, we provide another 15 percent as handicapped-adaptable,” meaning rooms that are easily convertible to full wheelchair access if needed.
  • Music Building library access. “At the Music Building, we have an entrance with clear access, but the library level was not accessible,” Rankin said. “We could have gone for a mechanized chair, but we put an elevator in,” at significantly higher cost.
  • Cathedral of Learning. Rankin said, “We probably get both more complaints and praise for that building. A lot of places are content to say, ‘We put a toilet on the first floor; we met the code, that’s what it says right here in the guidebook.’ And ‘Maybe the elevator buttons are too high, so I’ll give you this stick and you can use that to press the buttons.’

“Pitt doesn’t find that acceptable,” he said. Instead, as a general rule, the University cuts buildings into at least three parts, to provide accessible restrooms in every third of a building. In addition, elevators, as they are being upgraded, are retrofitted with accessible buttons, Rankin said.

  • Posvar Hall outdoor plaza renovations. The area between Hillman Library and Posvar Hall previously had cantilevered steps spread across the plaza. Now, following a recent re-pavement and reconfiguration, wheelchair accessibility is much greater, Walluk said.
  • Sennott Square automatic exterior doors. Rankin said that to accommodate students in mechanized wheelchairs with limited use of their arms, Facilities Management installed an infrared beam that opens the doors when the beam is disrupted; ADA requires only a touchpad system. Facilities Management also installed special automatic openers for Sennott Square’s computer lab doors to aid access.

Rankin acknowledged that every building on campus is not perfect. “Especially with our aging inventory of buildings, you can always find odd-ball buildings like Old Engineering Hall that give you trouble,” because such buildings were not designed to accommodate disabled individuals, he said. “It’s okay to want to renovate a restroom to accommodate a wheelchair, but if you don’t have a corridor or hallway wide enough to get to the restroom, like in some parts of Bellefield Hall, there’s not a lot you can do.”

Similarly, Benedum auditorium, with restrooms a half-level above the main floor, inhibit efforts to increase access, he said.

“I think it’s important to note that here on our campus in Oakland we have a tough terrain to accommodate. We often hear the complaint that an accessible route may really be a door that’s not the main door, but on a secondary side,” Rankin said. “That may be because that’s where there’s a [handicapped] parking space, or a van drop-off point, or a fairly level space to get a wheelchair out onto an area and into a building.” In addition, ADA requires 8 feet of ramp for every 1 inch rise in height, which is why wheelchair access routes often swing back and forth to reach a necessary height and can’t always be built at a main entrance, he said.

Regarding emergencies, Rankin recommended that faculty and staff with special needs register with Environmental Health and Safety (412/624-9505; which coordinates evacuation and other emergency procedures.

—Peter Hart                     


Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 8

Leave a Reply