Stony Brook University Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Richard Gatteau spoke at an Undergraduate Student Government Senate meeting on Thursday, April 18, to address concerns about accessibility issues on campus brought to light by student activists. Gatteau claimed that every handicap accessibility button on campus had been repaired in the weeks following the student-led campaign.
“When we became aware of the concern about the accessibility buttons three weeks ago, I was informed that the facilities team did a check across the entire campus, and at that time, repaired those that were malfunctioning and reported that all were operational at that time,” Gatteau said.
That claim is categorically false. Anybody who spends even a small amount of time on campus can recognize that.
Many of the handicap accessibility buttons around campus are busted, in addition to a legion of other violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) around the school. We’ve written about it; there’s been a demonstration. Here’s a video from Thursday of a broken accessibility button outside an entrance to the Melville Library.
In all fairness, that door may well have been broken after Gatteau made his claim, so here’s a photo from the back-door entrance of Frey taken last week.
I walk past that button twice a week to get to one of my classes. It’s completely non functional, and it’s been busted for a month at least. It’s not the only one.
If this seems like a minor issue, it’s important to remember that what might be a small convenience to an able-bodied student is a major obstacle to anybody in a wheelchair or walking with crutches. For people with a physical disability, a door without a working handicap button might as well not be there.
This issue is much, much bigger than just one button.
Whether the dean knew his statement was untrue and lied or merely did not do the requisite amount of research to find out is irrelevant. It would be easy to fling blame at him or his office, to call them callous or careless. But this issue isn’t about one man who may not have been properly armed with the facts when he set off to defend his employers. It’s about a broken system at a university that likes to talk the talk about inclusivity, yet so often falls short.
A lot of people are privileged enough that they can ignore what this problem really is: a civil rights issue.
The whole purpose of the ADA is to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. If the facilities and resources available to disabled students, like handicap-accessible doors and parking spaces, aren’t working properly, then those students are being treated like second-class citizens. Take West Apartments’ new J building, for example. West J has a row of handicapped parking spaced right by the front entrance, but doesn’t have a single elevator to bring students to its upper floors. If your first thought there is “students with disabilities can just live on the first floor” then you’re part of the problem. What if a disabled student has a friend on the second floor? What if their classmates are meeting to study for a test?
We tend to use the word “segregation” as shorthand for racial segregation in this country. But that’s exactly what SBU’s failure to provide accessible facilities and resources creates: a system of segregation by mobility.
This is a moral outrage, not to mention a legal landmine that’s led to lawsuits at colleges across the country. So the question that Stony Brook has to answer is simple: do you want to treat disabled students with dignity before the shame of a lawsuit, or after?
Falsehoods spoken to the student government will not do. Empty platitudes designed to defend and mitigate rather than acknowledge and treat will not suffice. There is one solution to the problem the school faces: deal with it.