Monday, April 11, 2011

Oklahoma aims for more accessible colleges

From The Oklahoman:

A woman smacked Steve Stokes (pictured) in the head with her purse, knocking him out of his wheelchair. She told him he shouldn't be out in public, that he belonged in a nursing home.

Oklahoma colleges improve accessibility, services for students with disabilities Stokes was a college student in the late 1960s, a time when disabled people often were treated as outcasts. Accessibility on college campuses virtually was nonexistent.

“I was trying to prove my ability to adapt to an able-bodied world, that I was as able-bodied as anyone else,” said Stokes, who now serves as director of the Oklahoma Office of Disability Concerns. “And they were testing me.”

Federal rules require campuses to be more accessible today, but still disabled Oklahomans are less likely to be in college than their peers.

Nearly 16 percent of Oklahomans have a disability, according to the U.S. Census. But only 1.5 percent of students attending public Oklahoma colleges request services or accommodations for a disability, according to the State Regents for Higher Education.

About 9 percent of Oklahomans have mobility problems; about 0.08 percent of college students do.

But improved attitudes and improved facilities are improving the climate for disabled college students.

“You must look to the past and note where you have come from,” Stokes said. “We're far better off, not to say we're perfect.”

Stokes dreamed of attending law school or becoming a musician. Those plans changed after he broke his neck in a diving accident the summer before his senior year of high school in 1967.

Stokes eventually attended East Central University in Ada. He said his teachers and classmates were supportive, but many people in the community were shocked that students with disabilities were attending college. Some people stuffed coins or dollar bills in his pockets, telling him he'd never be able to get a job.

Gradually, those attitudes changed and new laws promoted social reform.

In 1975, Congress passed the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which required public schools to provide a free, “appropriate” education for all children with disabilities. The act also required schools to develop Individualized Education Programs for each student with a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the areas of employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunications.

People with disabilities still are fighting attitude barriers, said Regina Robertson, an associate professor and coordinator of the human services counseling and rehabilitation program at ECU.

Many people look at individuals with disabilities and see what they can't do, rather than what they are capable of, she said.

About 1 in 6 Oklahomans have a disability of some sort, but many colleges report they have relatively few, if any, students with physical disabilities living on campus. Not all students with disabilities seek help or register with their school's disability services office.

During the fall 2009 semester, 2,823 students within Oklahoma's state system of higher education received a service or accommodation for a disability, according to the State Regents for Higher Education. About 5.6 percent of those students served had mobility impairments.

Oklahoma college campuses are open for students with disabilities, said Mark Kinnison, division administrator for Vocational Rehabilitation Division of the state Department of Rehabilitative Services.

“The public is becoming more and more aware of individuals with disabilities and the need for accessibility,” he said. “I haven't received a lot of complaints on any particular institutions that aren't being accommodating.”

Oklahoma colleges reported spending $15.6 million on ADA compliance, assistive technology, program services and salaries and benefits related to disability services in the 2009-10 school year.

Stokes enrolled in East Central University in 1969. The university had just received a federal grant to serve as a demonstration site for the removal of architectural barriers. Stokes and two other students with disabilities — one who was blind and another who used crutches — helped pioneer the project.

“We were kind of the shock troops for all the people after us,” Stokes said.

Schools throughout the nation weren't equipped to handle students with disabilities, said O.J. Collins, a former ECU employee who helped lead the barrier removal project.

Before ECU started making improvements, members of the football team carried students in wheelchairs up the steps to their second story classrooms, Collins said.

“That was our program,” Collins said. “That was a program everybody had.”

Slowly, ECU started making modifications to buildings and adding services such as interpreters and elevators.

The school became a leader for barrier removal efforts not only in the state, but also in the nation, Collins said. He and the disabled students traveled to other states to talk to school administrators and civic leaders. Other schools started to follow ECU's example.

Nick Clemmons, a senior at Putnam City West High School, hopes to attend the University of Central Oklahoma in the fall. Clemmons uses a power wheelchair because he has Duchenne MS, a severe form of Muscular Dystrophy. He used to think college wasn't an option for him because maneuvering across a college campus would be too difficult.

Then he visited several metro-area campuses and decided otherwise. Some campuses were more accessible than others, Clemmons said, but students and staff at UCO were helpful and accommodating.

Stokes continues to advocate for students with disabilities.

Schools today are much more accessible both in physical access and services, he said. Awareness is also much better, but schools have more improvements to make.

“We still live in an able-bodied world,” Stokes said. “I think the challenge for people today is they have to make their own stand.”