Published: Friday, January 23, 2004
Embarrassed and angry, sophomore psychology major Ayo Vanterpool looked out the window of an empty shuttle. The sidewalk is full of scowling students who had to leave the bus and now wait outside for the driver to use the wheelchair lift to get her on.
The driver’s inability to assist Vanterpool angers her and she feels embarrassed because the students’ scowls are directed at her.
Vanterpool is just one of over 300 students at Howard University who face both typical Howard problems and life-altering disabilities.
“I have continued to address any problems I have with the people who should be able to help, but I have seen little or no improvement,” Vanterpool said. “I am left out in the cold, my room is not wheelchair accessible, and I am still struggling for my accommodation letters to give to my professor.”
The Office for Special Student Services accommodates students with documented disabilities. However, due to under staffing, they are often unable to meet the students’ needs.
“With three full time employees we are still doing the best we can, while trying to make personal accommodations for over 300 students. We work with great diligence for these students,” Terrance Samuels, Assistant Dean for Special Student Services, said.
Tiffany Green, a senior human development major, has a different perspective.
Green, who was born blind, says books have been one of her biggest problems because it is time-consuming for Special Student Services to transpose them into Braille.
“I do my part by trying to contact my professors early, and get the books to Student Services to be turned into Braille,” she said. “I still get them late and it heavily impacts my academic performance. My experiences have really taught me to be more self-sufficient. Now I don’t expect student services to really help. I struggle, but at least I know it will get done, if I do it myself.”
Green is now battling with an incomplete grade that is in danger of becoming an ‘F’ for her statistics class, after not being provided with a note taker, which the University supplements.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) has made its way into the syllabi of most classes of the University, explaining that students with disabilities should speak with their professors and provide documentation of disability, in return for certain accommodations to gain equal access.
African-American studies professor Lavonne Jackson admires disabled students for overcoming their challenges.
“Students in this category tend to be more adaptable and perform on a high scale,” Jackson said. “Once I am informed, I haven’t had any problems. I have two students with disabilities in this class.”
Vanterpool received her accommodation letter and gave it to Jackson earlier this week, for a semester that began more than two weeks ago.
“I am just trying to be treated as a normal person, but I do not have a level playing field,” Vanterpool said. “If Howard knew they couldn’t accommodate me then they shouldn’t have accepted me. If I have to fight until the day I graduate, I will.”
Students like Sarah Freeman, a sophomore political science major, know of Vanterpool’s daily struggles.
“Only specific shuttles can take Ayo and half of the drivers don’t know how to work the wheelchair lift. Her teachers are not always understanding either,” Freeman said. “It makes me upset to see us well-bodied people take so much for granted.”
Richard Kane, president and CEO of International Limousine services, the contracted shuttle provider for Howard University said his company does what it can to provide adequate services for disabled students.
“All of our drivers are required to attend ADA training, which is given directly from the state of Maryland. The challenge is you can train people on how to accommodate those with disabilities, but then you have to make sure equipment is also maintained,” Kane said. “We have monthly meetings with our staff and the key thing is that if any ongoing problems arise, they can be addressed and muted.”
Students with disabilities are not to be treated special, but are by law required to have equal access. Said Green, “I am trying to set a standard by setting an example that students with disabilities can excel. There definitely needs to be more awareness. Many misconceptions are held by both students and staff. The real test is action on what is done.”
Green and Vanterpool say they are not alone in their struggle and know they are just a few of the many students on campus with disabilities who do not receive adequate services. Neither woman regrets attending Howard, but say they want what they deserve — a level playing field.