Is BYU disability rights advocates’ approach effective?

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Current and former BYU students advocating for disability rights believe they are making a positive impact on disability access on campus. However, university administration believes a report the group created detailing recommendations for improvement is overstated and biased.

A group organizer has acknowledged some claims may have been exaggerated, “but the facts remain that disabled students are unable to access restrooms, have been denied accommodations, refused parking passes and left stranded in buildings during fire drills.”

The group, which calls itself the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission, issued a nearly 100-page report in April that outlines recommendations for making the university more accessible to students with disabilities and details anti-discrimination laws the commission believes BYU has violated. The report also includes statements from dozens of current and former BYU students who identify as disabled. 

What hasn’t come to light is that one of the group’s organizers is affiliated with a Utah company that manufactures disability access equipment. The group asked BYU administrators to install that company’s device on campus doors without sharing the connection that one organizer is the outreach coordinator for the company.

The report includes a statement criticizing BYU for not using student-created technology and mentions the company, Portal Entryways, by name.

Door accessibility

The report claims many students cannot use handicapped buttons, lacking the physical strength, motor control or full range of mobility to do so. Other buttons, it claims, have barriers blocking them, but the report does not specify what those barriers are. It also says that after the commission interviewed 479 people with disabilities, 84% said accessible door buttons are not truly accessible.

The Daily Universe newsroom staff checked buildings across campus on Feb. 28 and found 30 door access buttons out of 114 it tested were either broken, out of sync with the doors or obstructed by an object like a bench or a box.

“BYU should actively seek ways to help its students by implementing different doors systems that students have specified. This includes Portal Entryways or fob controlled doors, installed at Heritage Halls,” the report reads.

Recent BYU graduate Kendra Muller, one of the group’s leaders, is listed as head of outreach on the website for Portal Entryways, the company started by a group of BYU students in 2017 that originally operated under the name Piero, according to BYU News and Forbes. The company’s device attaches to the motor on automatic doors, and when wheelchair users download an app and have their phone in their pocket or backpack, the device opens the door automatically once the wheelchair user is within a five-foot radius. The company now operates out of Provo. BYU student Josh Horne, who helped develop the Portal Entryways app, recently won a $10,000 prize from MIT for his work, according to KSL.

This screenshot taken from the Portal Entryways website shows Kendra Muller listed as head of outreach for the company.

The Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission’s report says many students have shown their support for the disability community by creating interventions designed to increase access at BYU. While other colleges in Utah have “graciously” tested or implemented these accessibility features, it says, BYU has “failed” to do so.

“BYU is not upholding its mission to promote student development when it refuses to provide these student entrepreneurs with opportunities for growth,” the report reads. “Forcing students to go to other universities for experience and advisement stains BYU’s commitment to excellence. … A few of the student-led services include Portal, an inclusive way of opening doors, and Speech Cloud, an innovative software to decrease transcribing errors.”

Muller said her research with the commission has “nothing to do” with Portal Entryways. “There’s no overlap,” she told the Daily Universe.

Portal Entryways co-founder Sam Lew said he was aware Muller had been doing disability research at BYU, and said her research is separate from the work being done at Portal Entryways.

He also confirmed his company recently presented a proposal about its product to BYU’s vice-president of student affairs and vice-president of facilities management but said he was informed in an email that the university would not be using Portal Entryways. University Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins also confirmed the university saw a proposal from the company and said the university has not been aware that Muller is affiliated with Portal Entryways.

Jenkins said the university initiated a commercially sold system called Kindoo this spring that allows people to control any electric door from a smartphone, according to the company’s website. She said it is currently installed on 40 doors leading to major areas of campus and they are being installed according to the needs of students. If a student needs entry to a building where an entry system is not installed, Jenkins said, one can be installed “very quickly.”

“The system works well within our physical structure and does not require ongoing fees for maintenance and operation, which BYU Physical Facilities can provide,” Jenkins said. “The students we are serving have told us that it is working well.”

Student and alumni statements

The report’s compilation of statements from students and alumni begins with Muller’s statement about her personal experiences but does not acknowledge she is chief commissioner of the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission.

Another statement in the report by Megan McLaws also does not acknowledge that McLaws is a commissioner with the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission. Both Muller and McLaws are listed as members of the commission only toward the end of the report, where members signed it.

However, Muller said including her statement in this manner is not considered a conflict of interest in a “truth commission.”

 “The helpful part (of a truth commission) is that people who have actually been affected by this and also want to help out can provide a statement,” she said.

Acknowledgment of exaggerated statements

Muller wrote in an April 26 Facebook post in response to a Channel 2 News story that ran about the commission, “We apologize for any exaggerations that were present in student statements from our final report.”

This screenshot from Kendra Muller’s Facebook profile shows her apologizing for any exaggerations that may have been present in the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission’s report.

Jenkins said some of the facts and opinions asserted by the commission are inaccurate, and one student in the group even told her some of the information in their written feedback may not be correct.

“As any researcher would tell you, it is imperative that data be accurate and gathered in an unbiased manner,” she said.

What are truth commissions, and are they reliable?

Muller said the commission’s research is tailored after truth commissions, which she said involves collecting statements from people and then making recommendations for change based on those statements.

The United States Institute of Peace website says truth commissions are established to research and report on abuses of human rights and humanitarian law over a particular period of time in a specific country or in relation to a particular conflict. They are usually formed by quasi-governmental organizations.

Their mandates are often adapted to the specific needs of the society, and though they are non-judicial bodies, they are in some cases granted the ability to refer case information to courts or tribunals. Generally, the website continues, recommendations of a commission push for reforms within the government and other social structures that perpetuated abuse.

The United States Institute of Peace also runs the Truth Commissions Digital Collection, which contains profiles of truth commissions from nations around the world, including Germany, Ecuador, Rwanda and South Korea.

“You will see that our final report methods are modeled (after those of truth commissions) if you look at multiple truth commissions,” Muller said. “They are a valid research technique.”

However, in a 2007 article on truth commissions published in the International Studies Perspectives journal, scholar Eric Brahm writes that while there is a growing interest in examining what long-term impact truth commissions have on society, “our understanding has been hampered by a number of empirical problems.”

Specifically, he writes, most truth commissions focus on a small biased subsample of cases and rely on anecdotal evidence. There is also a wide range of purposes for truth commissions, but “little consensus” on the criteria for assessing those purposes.

“The nature of the mandate given to the commission can limit the scope of crimes open to investigation and consequently the ‘truth’ produced,” Brahm writes. “We are left with little sense as to whether truth commissions are a mere blip historically or help put society on a new trajectory.”

According to the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission’s report, truth commissions are “a widely-used method of reconciliation around the world” which “seek to provide truth, justice, reconciliation, reparations and non-recurrence.”

The report’s methodology statement says all student and alumni statements were gathered over a period of 14 days through a variety of channels including in-person interviews, audio recording, email and social media. BYU students and alumni who identified as disabled were asked to speak about their experiences on campus and if they had any solutions they felt would benefit the university.

They were also advised to avoid demeaning the university and were given the option of remaining anonymous. All in-person interviews were transcribed and the statements sent to the student or alumni for clarification before being published.

Jenkins said the university recognizes students with disabilities face physical, academic and social challenges, in addition to the substantial challenges already faced by every college student, and BYU is open to suggestions for improving accessibility and accommodations. She said the university has met with the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission to hear their concerns and has referred their recommendations to BYU’s Disability Standards Compliance Committee for evaluation.

However, she said the commission is not a governmental or otherwise official entity, and although BYU appreciates much of the feedback expressed by the students, “the information appears to have been gathered through an approach that was likely biased.”

Other issues

The report says handicap buttons and other accessible features should be fixed promptly, and the University Accessibility Center should follow up regularly to ensure maintenance is occurring.

“Maintenance workers should be trained to know safety and accessibility are top priorities,” the report reads. “A daily safety check label, which is available through door manufacturers and service providers, should be installed on or near all automatic door equipment.”

However, Jenkins said students can report issues such as broken door buttons to Access Services, or if they contact the University Accessibility Center, the center will report issues to Access Services. Instructions to call Access Services if a door button is malfunctioning are posted on the University Accessibility Center’s website.

The report also says an accessibility map project has been stalled since 2015 and asks that maps with the locations of wheelchair accessible bathrooms be uploaded to the BYU app and online.

The University Accessibility Website includes downloadable accessibility maps of every building on campus, showing where accessible bathrooms, doors, drinking fountains, ramps, elevators and emergency evacuation chairs are located.

We are currently updating our campus accessibility maps for your convenience,” the website says, but it is unclear if these updates began before or after the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission released its report.

Future of the commission

Muller said BYU is not the focus of the commission, which has a broader goal of creating equal access in higher education for students with disabilities. She said BYU’s
“case is closed,” and the commission is moving on to looking at other universities.

When asked what universities the commission is looking at, Muller responded, “We’re looking at multiple (universities) across the country.”

She also said the commission is hoping to present its work at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference in August and said the group is working on a bipartisan law with a few members of the House of Representatives.

A “huge focus” of the commission after the group’s case studies, Muller added, will be to “provide a better system for those with disabilities” and to “make sure disabilities are seen in a positive light.”

Muller said it’s been “remarkable” to see professors contact the commission to ask how they can better their classrooms, and BYU has “already improved a lot through the research we have done.”

She also said some of the statements in the report may make people uncomfortable, “but if they were never brought up then they would never be fixed.”

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