VCU struggles to make progress with ADA compliance

Part two in a two-part series on ADA at VCU

Part one can be read here

Mechelle Hankerson
Executive Editor

Ray Bonis, the archives coordinator at James Branch Cabell Library, was a student at VCU in the early ’80s before he began working at the university in 1989. He’s been a wheelchair user since he injured his spine in an accident at 16 and has seen the university before the Americans with Disabilities act was passed and after the ADA was passed.

“It’s better than it was, but it could be a whole lot better,” he said. “VCU was always improving, things were getting better, but it’s just taking so long.”

When Bonis was a student, he recalls offices and departments on Franklin Street were particularly difficult to access. He said he remembers one of his friends, also a wheelchair user, had to complete her last two years of her art program during her freshman and sophomore years and then go back to do the introductory art foundations program during the end of her college career. Art foundation classes were held in Franklin Terrace and during her first two years, the building had no way for students with disabilities requiring the use of a wheelchair to enter the building.

Now, most of the buildings on Franklin Street are accessible either by a ramp or a lift, but not all floors of all the houses are accessible.

According to the ADA, historic buildings are exempt from all the expectations and policies in the act. As a way to preserve the history of buildings, the ADA only requires historic buildings to be as accessible as possible without compromising the historical aesthetic of the building.

“I don’t want them to destroy the buildings on Franklin Street,” Bonis said. But he added there are still problems with accessing other floors of those historic buildings because not all have been outfitted with an elevator.

Bonis said the ADA has helped people with disabilities have access to the same college experience as everyone else. When he was a student at VCU, he recalled there were advising offices and student lounges that he couldn’t get to. Now, many major buildings are more accessible because of the implementation of the ADA.

But barriers remain.

Bonis attended a Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness meeting last semester and was surprised to find that current students deal with some of the same challenges he had when he was a student in the early ’80s.

“I’m 20 years older than these people and I felt sorry for them,” he said. “They were talking about some of the same problems I had back in the ’80s, which is just crazy.”


Without much help from the city and no federal or state funding, VCU is more or less on its own trying to take care of ADA compliancy issues.

The school doesn’t have a designated fund for ADA projects anymore and has to turn to individual departments for funding when projects need to be completed.

Some projects that have long been troublesome for students with disabilities have been addressed, university officials say.

For example: two chair lifts outside the corner classrooms in Hibbs Hall. On the third and fourth floors of Hibbs, large circular classrooms have steps at their entrances. The building has wheelchair lifts, but they tend to break down.

Margaret Kelland, who as Monroe Park Campus coordinator is responsible for fixing problems on the campus, said Facilities Management fixed those lifts over winter break.

Facilities Management has begun taking the lead on such projects rather than the previous policy of having departments handle them individually, she said.

Kelland also said Facilities Management will begin taking all requests for assistance with any chair lifts or other accessibility issues. The department has a functioning phone number for all requests, although they have not yet distributed the number. Currently, people seeking assistance on accessibility issues often go through a long line of departments before finally getting to Facilities Management. VCU will be able to use the accessibility hotline as soon as Kelland’s office finishes designing and printing informational cards with the number on it.

Facilities Management also brought on a student worker who checks the campus’s automatic doors and chair lifts every week. Kelland said they are also talking about implementing a program for lift users to learn how to properly use them. Lifts are in place for student, faculty and staff with permanent disabilities who may have encountered lifts before, but students with temporary disabilities — like a broken leg, for example—may not know how to properly use a lift.

To help consolidate some of the responsibilities of various disability offices and oversee any issues with ADA compliance, in September 2012, VCU announced the appointment of Wanda Mitchell, the university’s first vice president for equity and diversity. She’ll be responsible for making sure university offices work together to more efficiently address students’ needs.

In an interview, Mitchell said that as a founding vice president, she’ll have to build a staff. She made one of her first major hires this semester, making Paula McMahon VCU’s new ADA coordinator. McMahon took her position on April 1, coming from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College as their Coordinator for Adults in Vocational Education.

“(The ADA coordinator) will be the person who walks around and assesses the campus, talks with students, talks with faculty and staff and (makes sure) we’re proactive about some things,” Mitchell explained.

Even still, Larrimore said, people with disabilities must know how to help the university.

“The university itself is very understanding and they want to help us in any way that they can, but they don’t know what our needs are unless we voice them.”

VCU’s government-funded ADA projects from 1992-1998

View ADA projects 1992-1998 in a larger map

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