by Leye Jeannette Chrzanowski
Selene Faer Dalton-Kumins believes she was the first undergraduate wheelchair user ever to attend Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in 1995. Instead of the carefree campus life most undergraduates experience, Dalton-Kumins' experience as a disabled student was so bad, she says, that she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The trouble began even before Dalton-Kumins set wheel on campus. "We were attempting to have fruitful discussions with Duke regarding course registration in the hopes of developing a first semester schedule that would require minimal accommodation and one that would make sense logistically," says her mother, Noel Kumins. But their initial questions were rarely answered by Duke's staff. That lack of response prompted Dalton-Kumins to write a letter of complaint to Duke's president shortly after her acceptance.
"Throughout the whole summer prior to her going there, all the messages sent to us [from Duke] were loud and clear--they didn't really want her there," contends Kumins, a single mother. She says a meeting of Duke officials originally scheduled to discuss Selene's accommodations was extended to cover other students when the mother and daughter asked to attend; the meeting remained closed.
Calls by this reporter to Duke University for comment were not returned.
Shortly after the meeting, says Kumins, a dean from Duke hand-delivered a letter to the Kumins home. It was from Richard A. White, vice provost for Undergraduate Education and dean. The August 14, 1995 letter noted the University had not received Dalton-Kumins' written acceptance of Duke's offer, a housing form and her immunization record. Both mother and daughter insist the school had received all of the required documents in either June or July.
Because of the paperwork "delay," the University stalled on housing arrangements. "We frankly don't know whether we can free one of the wheelchair-accessible dormitory rooms or Central Campus apartments in time for you to move in this fall," White wrote, noting other students would have to be moved to accommodate Dalton-Kumins.
More difficulties were pointed out. "It is clear that the campus bus system will not be a good means for transporting you to class. The buses are fitted to accommodate wheelchairs, but to operate the lift system and secure the chair takes approximately ten minutes. This process would disrupt the bus schedule for all students. . . ." In the letter, White offered to arrange point-to-point transportation which Dalton-Kumins later agreed to accept. But Kumins alleges that when her daughter finally began classes there was no point to-point system in place, and " no desire [on the part of Duke] to establish one" that could be used efficiently.
In his letter, White gave her just two days to register for classes Ĉin order for the Registrar to determine whether the courses you have selected are in accessible buildings and whether there is enough time between classes to allow for your transportation. . . ." White wrote that if her classes were not in buildings that were accessible, "the University will need to move entire classes to a new location."
The message between the lines was clear to the Kumins family. "We ask that you consider all the above issues with great care, taking in mind the very narrow time-frame we now have. . . ." cautioned White. "We have your best interests at heart. . . ." Dalton-Kumins felt she was being encouraged to seek her degree elsewhere.
Kumins recalls the head of Duke's health services telling her that the school couldn't assign a roommate to her daughter, who has spinal muscular atrophy. Kumins says she was told, "Can you imagine students coming down and wanting to go to Duke and finding her as their roommate?" Dalton-Kumins reports her attempts to obtain help in finding a personal assistant were also thwarted.
With no assistant and no available on-campus housing, Dalton-Kumins lived at home during her first semester at Duke. Accommodations for extra time for test-taking were listed on her transcripts as "incompletes"--even after she had completed the classes and received grades for the courses. "She had academic accommodations that were granted, then taken away from her," says Kumins. Dalton-Kumins earned an "A" in one class--and was even told that it was the best work they [the school] had ever seen--but due to the accommodation for extra time which was considered an "incomplete," the grade was changed to a "B."
Despite these and other roadblocks, Dalton-Kumins graduated from Duke in 1997 and is now a law student at Emory University in Atlanta.
Since Dalton-Kumins filed her complaint, Duke has installed ramps and made other changes to accommodate students with disabilities.
But attitudes on campus are still far from exemplary. The Duke campus newspaper The Chronicle reported last summer that after wheelchair user Marianne Marlo, a Duke graduate student, complained about lack of access to the Nelson Music Room, Duke considered closing the building for renovations to make it accessible, but protesters complained that proposed changes to the building would damage its acoustics and atmosphere. Now accessibility to the Nelson Music Room, says the paper, will be achieved by connecting it to a yet-to-be-built adjacent building, the Richard White Lecture Hall (named in honor of the vice provost who wrote to Dalton-Kumins in 1995).
University architect John Pearce told The Chronicle, "It's not difficult to make [physical accessibility] work, it just becomes expensive." In a national survey of U.S. colleges and universities, says The Chronicle, Duke University ranked fourth in donations, receiving $219.9 million during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1997.
© Copyright 1998 The Disability News Service, Inc.
Enforcement groups not idle