Duke Gets Praise For Agreement On Accessibility
by Vicki Cheng, The News & Observer, February 25, 2000

DURHAM - It might be hard to find someone who loves the Duke experience as much as Will Grimsley does. After all, he says God called him to the University - even though the Gothic halls of learning, many of them built in the 1920's and 1930's weren't designed with wheelchairs in mind.

Duke University But even Grimsley, who has cerebral palsy, is glad to see that Duke plans to spend millions to make the University more accessible to the disabled. Some think Duke is paving the way for other institutions to do the same.

"Things like a stairway - that hasn't limited me," said the Senior, who grew up in Durham and graduated from Riverside High. Still, there are places on campus, such as his friends' dorm rooms, that are difficult to get to.

Duke reached an agreement Wednesday with the US Department of Justice to make the changes after a 1997 Graduate, who used a wheelchair, filed a lawsuit saying that Duke was not accessible. Her name was not released.

John Wodatch, Chief of the Disability Rights Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said he's interested to find out whether the settlement means lawsuits at other campuses - or other kinds of private institutions - will follow.

"This is the first of it's kind," he said. "We think it is the beginning of the line."

Advocacy Groups for the disabled applauded the settlement.

"It's basically a harbinger of what's to come," said Bill Freeman, President of the American Disability Association, which has headquarters in Birmingham, Ala.

He thinks it will encourage other universities to remove barriers and help with the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title III of the Act requires that Privately Owned places of "public accommodation," including private colleges and universities, remove architectural barriers to access to avoid discrimination, according to the Justice Department.

The agreement covers more than just access to dorm rooms, libraries and classrooms. The 29-page document includes a list of things people might take for granted as being within reach, such as phones, lockers, ticket counters and elevator controls. Everything from the salad bar in the cafeteria to water fountains and vending machines scattered throughout campus must become accessible as well.

"We are looking at the whole range of activities: sports stadiums, assembly halls, all the nooks and crannies of a college or university," Wodatch said. "We are hopeful that other schools will see how Duke has approached this in terms of the commitment we had to making change."

Grimsley said he spent a great four years at Duke, where he's found a "spiritual family."

"They love me for who I am," he said. "They don't look at me and see, 'Oh, he's in a chair.'"

There are some inconveniences, such as the ancient elevator in the Sociology/Psychology Building, where you have to hold open a door and a gate to get in. Sometimes, it's hard to reach food in the cafeteria, or the electronic door openers don't work, or the bus lift is on the fritz.

And, when he visits his friend in the Southgate Residence Hall, Grimsley, who can walk with crutches, has to navigate the stairs while someone carries up his wheelchair.

Still, Grimsley loves his apartment, with it's lowered counters, wide doors and accessible showers. And he doesn't have to camp out for basketball tickets.

"No way," he said. "I get to sit on the floor... and I can take one person with me. I've loved my experience."

Staff Writer Vicki Cheng can be reached at (919) 956-2415 or bcheng@nando.com

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