Josie Nielson, a former BYU student, is legally blind. Her last three classes in the music program required her to analyze music scores that were so small they were impossible to see. So she quit school and decided to pursue her dreams without a degree.
Today’s focus may be on equal rights for the LGBT community, but in the 1980s and 90s, people with disabilities felt oppressed. The struggle for equal accessibility for people with disabilities continues today. Part of this struggle comes from varying beliefs on reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. It functions much like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but gives protection to people with disabilities. These protections deal with making public entities and buildings accessible to people with disabilities and resolving employment/housing discrimination.
According to the 2010 Census, 12 percent of the U.S. population, or about 36 million people, has a disability. The number is slightly less in Utah at 9 percent, or about around 259,000 people. This translates to about 10,000 people in Provo living with a disability.
“(In a) city of 115,000, there are probably 15,000 definitions of what a reasonable accommodation is,” said Corey Norman, Provo deputy mayor. “We try and be friendly and understand everyone is an individual.”
Many buildings in Provo are not yet brought up to the standards set by the ADA, because it does not require that buildings built before 1990 be brought up to these standards until the building is remodeled.
One example of such a building is the Provo City Center Building. The main entrance is full of stairs. The entrances for people with movement disabilities are on the south and west entrances of the building — an inconvenience for people with disabilities. But once Provo decides to renovate a building, it does everything necessary to accommodate people with disabilities.
“We pride ourselves on ‘plus-one customer service,'” Norman said. “We don’t want to be the minimum service municipality. We give them the maximum service possible and make it as easy as possible.”
Provo city officials said every resident should have access to government and elected officials. This means they install elevators in buildings, make wheelchair-accessible customer service counters and could even provide an ASL interpreter for deaf residents, according to Norman.
Norman said the biggest thing that impedes them from making all buildings accessible is money. It costs the city a lot of money to renovate a building, and even more to provide the necessary accommodations. Just the metal grate at the end of a sidewalk that allows blind people to know the sidewalk is ending costs $200. It is for this reason that the modifications are coming slowly but surely.
At BYU, 900 students qualify for help through the Accessibility Center on campus. The Accessibility Center helps these students create plans in which they can excel in their classes the same as other students. These plans could include extra time for tests, textbooks on audio, leniency with absences and many other accommodations, according to the University Accessibility Center website.
Michael Brooks, director of the University Accessibility Center, said, “Our mission is to provide equal access to educational opportunities for students with disabilities. We want all our students to be successful, but we cannot guarantee success, and sometimes a student may feel that (their) struggles are evidence that we are not doing enough.”
Brooks also said the accommodations provided cannot alter the fundamental requirements for the class. It is for this reason that Nielson had to quit school. The requirements for the music program could not be changed to accommodate her vision disability.
“I think there could’ve been something that could’ve been done. It would’ve taken more work on the professors’ part to write a new curriculum, and it would’ve been work, but it could’ve been done,” Nielson said. “I’m with the National Federation of the Blind, and I know blind musicians that have graduated; they had more technology and other things. You have to be creative and step out of the box a little bit, but that wasn’t done, because it was only one person, only me.”
Shelby Hintze, a senior majoring in communications, is in a wheelchair and receives accommodations through the Accessibility Center. She said the key to working with the center is constantly looking for your own solutions.
“Any disability you have you’re going to have to try harder and stand up for yourself. … You’re going to have to do it,” Hintze said.
While things remain difficult for those with disabilities, they continue to work and prove that they can achieve their goals no matter the difficulties. Hintze just graduated with a degree in public relations at the end of this semester and will enter the work force. Nielson is moving to Southern California to open her own violin studio and release a solo album.