Building Bridges

This is a bridge nearly 40 years in the making . . .

When the Administration Building — now known as Enrollment Services — was constructed in 1972, it meant pedestrians coming from the main part of campus had to cross Osler Drive to reach it.  Almost immediately concerns about pedestrian safety were raised.

In an October 12, 1979 Towerlight article, it was reported that “between January 1977 and April 1979 there were 16 personal injuries and 21 property damage accidents at or in the immediate vicinity of the Osler pedestrian crosswalk.  And, neither a pedestrian bridge nor a traffic light has been installed.” At that point, the school had hired a crossing guard to be stationed at the spot during peak traffic hours.  And, interestingly, the “University has requested a protected crossing area for over ten years.”

But the main hurdle to a bridge, apparently, wasn’t just financial feasibility.  It was what could be done to ensure access for disabled persons.  A bridge, such as the one that crosses over Bosley Avenue, need not be installed with accessibility features so long as there was another “reasonable alternative” — which would be a crosswalk with ramps.  In the article, the director of campus planning is quoted as saying “if there is an acceptable convenient alternative crossing for use by the handicapped, then we’ll have others using it as well and we will be in much the same position as we are now.”

Concern about accessibility for the disabled was a fairly new topic not just at Towson but across the country.  As part of the Affirmative Action movements of the 1970s, the US government implemented the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which provided basic civil rights to people with physical and mental disabilities.  This meant that organizations that received federal money could not discriminate against those covered by the Act or risk losing their funding.
This was a sea-change for many institutions, and Towson was one of them.

Buried in the Maryland State Normal School Faculty Meeting notes of November 1922 is a sentence that reads as blatantly discriminatory to modern eyes:

The Faculty Meetings were the precursor to today’s University Senate.

In a November 1938 Tower Light issue, President M. Theresa Wiedefeld wrote an article titled “The Physical Fitness Required of a Teacher”.  In it she argues that students who cannot participate in physical education classes cannot be allowed to become teachers and therefore would not be able to remain at the State Teachers College at Towson.

“Poor eyesight which would make the handling of large groups of children difficulty, poor hearing which would prevent the conducting of effective group discussions, crippled hands which make writing or art work impossible or difficult, are all barriers which prevent a student from preparing himself for the teaching profession.

“Suppose the school allowed the physically weak students to stay on and even allowed them to graduate.  What then?  They can not pass the physical examination given by the medical board of the Retirement System and no person may teach in the State of Maryland who does not pass that examination required for acceptance into the Retirement System.”

By 1959, some of this had changed. If one entered the State Teachers College at Towson with the intention of becoming a teacher, one could request a modified Physical Education course, so long as whatever disability the student had did not prohibit him or her from qualifying as a teacher as outlined by the rules of the State of Maryland.  And by 1963, when the school became a liberal arts college and not just a teachers college, the rules relaxed even more — for some students: “Applicants for Arts and Sciences will not be required to pass the same physical examination as Teacher Education candidates.”

At about the same time, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established, and worked to stamp out discrimination on the job based on “race, creed, color, or national origin”.  The EEOC’s power has been established and expanded under a variety of acts, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Within this Act is Section 504, which states that organizations must create accessibility to programs either through physical alteration or other means.

Dr. Fisher, in the light-colored coat, leads administrators and others on a campus tour with wheelchairs during Handicapped Awareness Day.

At that point, Towson State College placed the concerns of disabled students under the Affirmative Action Office. 

To try and better understand the difficulties disabled students faced on campus, administrators and others participated in Handicapped Awareness Day events in 1976.  Participants were either blindfolded or confined to a wheelchair and given tasks to complete.

As the Towerlight reported, “One instruction on the itinerary sheet was just about impossible.  ‘Go to Room 100 in Van Bokkelen Hall.’ Yet there are no ramps for wheelchairs to enter the building.”

Later, “Many of those on the wheelchair tour capitulated and pushed their chairs up some of the steeper hills on campus.  These hills are not much of a problem for those of us who can walk, but they do pose difficulties for those who can’t.” 

A Rehabilitation Task Force was created to canvas the campus and see what physical adjustments would have to be made for the school to be in compliance with federal law.  It is also at this point that the language in the course catalog changes and students are encouraged to contact student services for needs including “special registration, reader service or other arrangements to effectively remove architectural, social or procedural barriers to their progress.”

By 1980, the Office of Assistance and Information for Disabled Students was established. Its name would change to the Office of Special Needs in 1982, then Handicapped Student Services in 1990, the Office for Students with Disabilities in 1994, and Disability Support Services in 2006.  

While growing the program to include more services and accommodations such as study skills assistance, note takers, help with conferences with instructors, and testing accommodations, the department also works to advocate more understanding from the community at large.

This month, Cook Library celebrates self-advocacy with a traveling exhibit from the Museum of DisABILITY entitled “Self Advocacy: A History of People Speaking Up for Themselves”. And Disability Support Services will host a book discussion with Andrew Solomon, author of “Far from the Tree”.

When you walk any part of the brick path from Newell Hall to the bridge that now crosses Osler over to West Village, remember that part of the reason it took so long to create such a necessary addition to our campus was so that all would be able to use it.

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