Despite a Mountain of Challeges, Lehigh "Handicapped Friendly"
Michael Fusco L-SAW 2006
The summer after his
sophomore year at Lehigh, Brian Kaplun '06 was speeding down a trail in New Jersey's Chimney Rock Park on his mountain bike when he hit a rock, hurling him over
He sustained permanent
injuries to his spine and Kaplun would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest
of his life.
After two weeks in the
hospital, he began two months of rehabilitation, regaining strength to return
to Lehigh. Kaplun was taking things one day at a time. He wanted to return to
school to finish his degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Kaplun didn't seriously
consider the idea of transferring to a school that might be easier to navigate
on two wheels.
"This is where my
friends are and I wanted to finish my degree, so that's what I wanted to do,"
said Kaplun. "It's really just where I feel comfortable, I wanted to come back
to where my friends are because it's who I wanted to graduate college with."
Now, 17 months
after the accident, Kaplun is scheduled to graduate on time this June. He has
already landed a job in composite engineering with Lockheed Martin in Owego, N.Y.
can be attributed in part to the help he has had from Lehigh's staff, who have
afforded him the same educational opportunities other students are given. From
renovating antiquated entrances to relocating classes, Lehigh has a team of
experts working to make sure that the college perched on the side of a mountain
is "handicapped friendly."
Fourteen years prior to
Kaplun's accident, President H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with
Disabilities Act of 1990. Landmark legislation, it required most public
facilities to be accessible to persons with disabilities, including those in
Under the new law,
buildings at undergraduate institutions like Lehigh became defined as "public
accommodations." This means Lehigh could not deny activities like classroom
learning to handicapped students.
Lehigh responded by
identifying a group of campus administrators and support staff who would become
responsible for making sure Lehigh was "handicapped friendly," as the law
The committee included:
Pat Chase, director of Facilities Planning and Renovations; Dean Cheryl
Ashcroft, assistant dean for Support Services for Students with Disabilities;
Dean Susan Lantz, associate dean of students; representatives from each college
and support personnel including the registrar and media services.
"We just started
convening on our own, it's sort of a phone network," said Chase. "As soon as
anyone hears of anyone with any kind of disability they immediately call a
group of about three or four of us to say 'did you know, what are you doing
about it and what can I do to help.'"
One of the first things
the committee did when it got word of Kaplun's return was to find him suitable
housing. Kaplun wished to remain in Brodhead House.
"I was there sophomore
year and I wanted to go back because that is where my friends are," said
Kaplun, who lives in a quadruple suite with three other roommates.
Lehigh has a select
number of residence halls that are wheelchair accessible. This can be an
inconvenience for handicapped students wishing to visit friends in residence
halls that are not accessible.
"If a student in a
wheelchair is say in Brodhead House but he or she wants to go visit a friend in
Dravo and that friend is on the fifth floor, they're not going to get there,"
said Chase. "We're honest with people about that and so far it hasn't seemed to
be a problem."
Greek Life Issue
Lehigh has tried to
accommodate physically challenged students involved in Greek life in the past,
but "the hill" presents challenges.
For example, in the early
1990's, a fraternity brother fell, had a spinal cord injury and returned to
"He worked it out with
his brothers," explained Chase. "He would show up at the house and they would
pick him up and carry him in and he said that was fine."
Although Lehigh was not
required by law to make the house accessible, the university offered to provide
a ramp or comparable housing but the student declined.
Kaplun never had an
interest in joining a fraternity, even before his injury, so it did not present
a problem for him.
"To be honest with you,
I never went to fraternities before; I ain't going to do it now," said Kaplun.
"Would you be able to do it? Sure. Would it be inconvenient as all freaking
Chase said that
students who are physically disabled typically don't choose to live in Greek
housing because they know it is difficult. Handicapped students often need
special shower facilities and ramps at entrances that Lehigh's Greek houses do
not have. Also, in many of the houses the dining room is not on the same floor
as the bedrooms.
Currently no Greek
houses are entirely handicapped accessible, however accessibility features have
been added to houses that have had recent major renovations including Chi Psi,
Delta Gamma, Alpha Phi, Alpha Omicron Pi and Alpha Gamma Delta. Lehigh is
considering making Alpha Phi sorority completely handicapped accessible to
comply with standards set by the Pennsylvania Governors School, which uses the
facility during the summertime.
"If a student were to
ever wish to live in Greek housing, we would do our best to accommodate them,"
said Dean Lantz. "My guess is that most handicapped students would prefer the
residence halls on account of their easy accessibility."
Kaplun also met with
Chase and Dean Lantz last winter to determine what needed to be done to make
sure he had access to all of his academic classes. This meant priority
registration and checking to make sure that all of his classes were in
handicapped accessible rooms.
"We meet with the
student to determine what his or her needs are and try to make sure that they
have access to all of their classes," said Lantz.
Lehigh works with
handicapped students individually to determine what they need, according to
"We try to meet with
them as early as possible to assess what their physical capabilities are and
what their major is and where does that mean their classes are likely to be and
can we get them easily in to those buildings and if not can we change the
locations of their classes," said Chase. "What we don't do is ever deny them
access to a class. You can't discriminate against them."
buildings are not handicapped accessible at all while others have been
renovated and now comply.
Drown Hall, home of the
English Department and the Learning Center, has at least three steps at every
entrance and no elevator access to the different floors. In comparison, Coppee
Hall, home of the Journalism Department and The Brown and White,
underwent a major renovation in 2003 and now is completely handicapped
accessible. The $3 million renovation of Coppee included adding a $200,000
elevator, access ramps, bathroom access and other details.
"Elevators will make it
more costly but I think we're doing that anyway more and more," said Chase.
"Just because we are lugging more equipment and it is the law."
Because of his major,
Kaplun spends most of his time in Packard Laboratory, home of the P.C. Rossin
College of Engineering and Applied Science. The building is handicapped accessible
and has an elevator that was renovated 5 years ago at a price tag of $250,000
to allow handicapped access. The handicapped entrance, however, is not through
the main doors facing the University Center.
"I don't want to have
to bust balls because I have to go around to the side of the building," said
Kaplun. "I don't want people knocking down walls and stuff. It's just not worth
it. You just go around the building, and that's what you do. I mean it takes an
extra 30 seconds but I don't want to cause major headaches with people just for
Linderman Library has
presented problems for handicapped students in the past, but those problems
will be resolved when the university completes a $17 million renovation in
January of 2007.
"There's like one
building on campus, Linderman Library, that I don't think I can get to," said
Kaplun. "But I believe they're even fixing that now."
Bruce Taggart, Vice
Provost of Library and Technology Services, is pleased that the building will be
completely accessible to the physically disabled.
"Before if you were
physically disabled you couldn't even know how to get in to Linderman," said
Taggart. "Now that will be taken care of and there will be a working elevator
that goes to all floors."
Taggart feels that it
will make Lehigh a more attractive choice for prospective students with
disabilities, resulting in a more diverse student body.
"The world we live in
has a number of people with physical challenges and we want to be as open and
accommodating as possible," said Taggart. "Making all of campus and our
buildings accessible is overall a good philosophy."
Other major campus
renovations including the Lamberton Diner and the Alumni Memorial Parking Deck
will also have complete handicapped access.
The University Center remains an area of concern for Kaplun, however, because of the awkward
"Getting in and out of
the U.C. could be better," said Kaplun. "I've got to go all the way around to
the back of Pandini's. I don't eat at the U.C. dining hall just because it
takes freakin' half an hour to get up there!"
Every year Lehigh has a
number of students who become temporarily injured and are on crutches or in
wheelchairs for a short period time. More often than not, according to
administrators, they are athletes with sports-related injuries.
"We are not required to
do anything for people with temporary disabilities, like if someone breaks a
leg," said Dean Lantz. "But we still try to make some arrangements."
Not surprisingly, one
of the most requested arrangements for temporarily disabled students is access
to handicapped parking. The university sometimes grants students temporary
parking passes if a physician recommends it.
Kaplun has a handicapped-parking
pass and uses it to park his GMC Sierra pickup truck near his classes and dorm.
"People are like, 'well
how are you going to be able to drive?'" said Kaplun, whose truck has hand
controlled accelerator and break pedals. "Well I can drive, I have a truck and
I drive all the time."
Kaplun admits that he
finds himself to be one of the few students on campus who has no complaints
about parking. He jokes that his friends always try to borrow his truck in
order to avoid getting fines from ticket-happy Parking Services.
Members of the A.D.A.
Advisory Committee also seek to help students with physical disabilities beyond
those in wheelchairs.
"You also have to
remember the law covers more than just people in wheelchairs, it also covers
the visually impaired and hearing impaired," said Chase.
Improvements for the
visually impaired include installing room number tags that can be read by touch
with both Braille as well as raised letters and numbers. Also, most fire alarms
now are equipped with flashing strobes to alert those who are hearing impaired.
Library and Technology
Services has committed to trying to make sure that the physically challenged
have access to their collections as well. This has involved a major investment
in new technologies that facilitate access for the disabled, including adaptive
technology devices that allow voice recognition as well as drag-and-dictate.
Taggart says that one
of the latest purchases is a Kurtzweil reader for the Fairchild-Martindale
Library that will dictate any scanned text to someone who is visually impaired.
"As different students
with different needs come along there may be other technologies that are
needed," said Taggart. "If there was I'd be getting it."
that Lehigh can be a difficult place for students with disabilities because of
"Built on the side of a
mountain, it is difficult," said Chase. "They know it is going to be a
difficult campus. The side of a hill, we're not going to level the mountain,
and in the winter it is pretty treacherous."
Kaplun is very
reasonable about the efforts Lehigh makes to help handicapped students.
"Me going from Brodhead
to Ulrich is a pain in the ass," he says. "But you're not going to level a
mountain. That's just the reality of the situation; going up hill is a pain in
the butt for me."
Chase sympathizes with
"You hate to even
complain when it is raining when somebody is in a wheelchair and you realize
that every day they have to get up and slide on the leaves and try to figure
out how to get to class and where am I going to put my books," said Chase.
"Life is so much more challenging that you hate to complain about when you have
a bad day."
Reality of Being Disabled: The Daily Routine
Kaplun feels one of the
only major differences in his life now is the amount of time it takes to do
"The thing is that you
can make the case that it didn't really change my life-I can do more or less
anything that I used to be able to do," said Kaplun. "There are a couple of
things that just to be realistic I can't, like walking down the stairs for
example. There's no big thing."
However, Kaplun admits
that certain activities in his daily routine, like getting coffee from Wawa,
take much longer than they used to.
"For me to get in to my
truck is about three minutes and to get out is about two and a half," said
Kaplun. "So, could I drive to Wawa, hop out, get a cup of coffee, get back in
to the truck and drive away? Sure. But now it's like a half an hour to forty-minute
exercise that before was just five minutes."
Kaplun has cut coffee
runs out of his routine because of the amount of time it would take him, but he
takes pride in the fact that he could if he wanted to.
"It's very much the
same thing getting around on Lehigh's campus and just in daily life," said
Kaplun. "I can do more or less everything that I used to be able to do, it's
just for a lot of it just takes a lot longer."
Kaplun, as well as
friends and family, have been upbeat about the process of learning to adapt to
his new condition. If anything, Kaplun himself seems to have the best sense of
humor about it.
When asked about the
reaction of friends to his condition after returning last spring he said, "the
first words out of their mouths were generally were something like, 'what the
hell did you do to yourself?'"
Kaplun and his friends
enjoy making "politically incorrect jokes" about his physical disability. In
particular, Kaplun has become a fan of the handicapped jokes on the popular
animated television shows "South Park" and "The Family Guy."
"I think it's freaking
hysterical," said Kaplun. "You know you got to laugh at things, because if you
don't you are going to be miserable whether you are sitting in a corner because
you can walk or sitting in the corner in a wheelchair and you are depressed.
It's the same thing either way-you're depressed."
Chase admires Kaplun's
motivation and spirit.
"He was great to work
with and has a good sense of humor," she said. "It really teaches you
As Kaplun prepares to
graduate, he has been approached by the university to make plans for
commencement. The university offered to build a special ramp on to stage in
order for Kaplun to receive his diploma but he refused the offer.
"I was like I'm going
to sit on the field with everybody else, I'll go up like everybody else and I
won't take it in the slightest as a slight to me if the dean or whoever is
shaking hands walks down three steps to shake mine and walks back up," said
Kaplun. "I could care less that he has to do that. I'd turn around, get my
diploma, and go back."
As Kaplun begins to
prepare for the working world, he is thankful for the support Lehigh has given
"Everyone (at Lehigh)
has been very nice, everything has worked out very well and it hasn't been a
problem," he said. "I can't say enough, they've all been very, very