Complaint Against CUNY Law Alleges School Refused To Address Accessibility Issues
BY TRISHA SAKHUJA
A group of students with disabilities attending CUNY School of Law in Long Island City have filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Education, taking the school’s administration to task for what they felt was a refusal to provide them with reasonable accommodations.
Despite several meetings with school administrators and the submission of a petition, a group of students were dissatisfied with the results. In October 2012, the group lodged a complaint with the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights.
The complaint cites the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which protects an individual with physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The determination of whether any particular condition is considered a disability is made on a case by case basis.
According to the complaint, the three plaintiffs alleged that the newly-built CUNY Law building at 2 Court Square in Long Island City – which opened in September 2012 – is not accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The complaint alleges a number of violations to the rights of disabled students, including inaccessible routes and inappropriate or insufficient signage. Other students noted that they were not provided with sufficient means to take notes during class lectures.
Perhaps the most egregious violation, according to the students who filed the complaint, is the administration’s reaction to the complaints. During a meeting with administrators, the complaint alleges that students were yelled at and spoken down to in response.
Despite filing the claim more than a year ago, the students are still waiting for issues to be resolved.
Caitlin Parton, one of the plaintiffs and a third-year student at CUNY Law, said the situation is not improving.
“It feels like they are waiting for us to graduate and not make any real substantial changes,” she said. “There has been no change in official policy and there is still no faculty and staff training on the standards of students with disabilities in the classrooms.”
Parton, 28, said the administration has been defensive and not proactive. She noted that the school resisted making changes unless they were forced to do so.
“It’s been a very disillusioning and a very disappointing three years,” she said. “After all, CUNY is the number one public interest law school in the country.”
Parton, who is deaf, relies on a Communications Access Realtime Translation system, which uses a writer to transcribe speech into text. The student said, in one classroom this semester, she requested a five-minute break to accommodate her transcriber, because the subject matter is “very intense.”
“It’s a lot of work to be writing for two hours, both for myself and for the CART reporter,” she added.
The professor refused. Parton alleged that after making that request, among a couple more, and speaking to the administration, it was apparent that the professor was openly hostile.
“The school’s response to a lot of it was ‘that’s how this professor is,’” she said.
Parton said since she was not able to handle the anxiety and hostile environment, she requested a proper transfer to a class taught by a different professor after the official add/drop period, but her request was met with resistance.
The request was initially denied by the administration, despite Parton meeting all the requirements for the transfer.
“They did not feel the transfer was necessary as a reasonable accommodation for me,” Parton said. “But I didn’t feel safe in this class and it’s in the handbook that students are allowed to transfer classes even after the add/drop period.”
After much back and forth, Parton said she was granted the transfer, but she said “it did not logically make sense as to why they wouldn’t let me switch.” “If someone else without special needs had requested this transfer, would they have treated it the same way?” she added. “I don’t think so.”
New Building, New Problems
Kunal Sharma, a 2013 CUNY Law alum and a former member of the Student Government, was part of a committee responsible for making sure the new building provided proper accommodations.
“We weren’t part of the decision-making process, but I was told that these issues would be resolved in the new building,” Sharma said.
After moving to the new building, Sharma said, “It had become fairly apparent that the administration had failed to ensure that the physical environment of the six floors were accessible to students with disabilities.”
For example, Sharma said, in order for the remote CART to properly work, the professor and the students must wear microphones, but sometimes they do not. However, the times they do wear microphones, they only work intermittingly.
Sharma said he and the three students tried to speak to the administrators on numerous occasions about their concerns, behind closed doors and at public forums during the semester.
Sharma and Parton recalled a meeting in September 2012, before they filed the complaint, which to their surprise quickly became a hostile environment.
“We thought this was a no-brainer,” Parton said. “But the response was so hostile and negative within the first 10 minutes.”
Parton went on to say the meeting “was just flabbergasting.”
“I was the one who had to stop [Associate Dean of Student Affairs] Cheryl Howard from yelling at us,” she said.
During one of the very last meetings the students held with the administration, Sharma said one of the plaintiffs did not attend because she felt attacked at a prior meeting.
When the absent student’s situation was being discussed, Sharma alleged that one of the deans present at the meeting said that particular student’s situation cannot be discussed without their consent. Sharma alleged that the Dean went on to say, “[The student’s] declining academic performance is not due to the administration’s failure to provide [the student] with requested accommodations, but because of [the student’s] own personal turmoil of having to deal with [the student’s] impairment.”
The other two students who filed the complaint declined to comment for this article.
Howard said, according to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, she is not allowed to discuss specific information to any third party without their written consent, therefore she was limited in what she could say.
“We do accommodate the students and our accommodations are often far beyond what is legally required, including technical assistance and we work with them very personally,” she said.
”As far as the building is concerned, the building does meet legal standards to the extent that we know,” Howard added.
Howard said the school has provided the OCR with all the information that they have requested. She said representatives from the OCR also visited the school, but they have not heard of any type of resolution as of yet.
Look to the Future
Sharma said the school “needs clear practices about how accommodations are received, processed, accepted and then implemented.”
“It is always a constant battle and confusion that leads to fear or sense of negligence from the administration,” he added.
Parton said she is disappointed to see many of their problems and requests have been “shoved under the rug,” but hopes that will change for the incoming students with disabilities.
“It’s not just physical and cosmetic changes that need to be made,” she said. “It’s the attitude that needs to be changed. There needs to be training and openness and preparedness that we are not isolated instances that will go away after three or four years.”
Reach Trisha Sakhuja at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Tsakhuja13.