Biased Architecture – Montana Kaimin

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Updated: November 18, 2022 @ 8:11 am
Skylar Tibbs sits at one of the entrances outside of her Montana History class on Oct. 7 in LA 11. The elevator was assumed to be fixed, but students still couldn’t use it from the first floor.
Keely Proebstel uses the Miller elevator to get to her dorm room. The elevator can take a long time to arrive and sometimes stops on the fourth floor for no reason, Proebstel said.
A pile of snow blocks one of the main pathways leading to the UC. Piles like these can cause powered-chairs to get stuck or high-center.
Skylar Tibbs works at her desk in her room. Her single room in Pantzer is outfitted for more accessibility with a powered door and more space.

Skylar Tibbs, a freshman psychology major, attended her Montana history class Oct. 7 from the top of a set of stairs at the entrance of the basement lecture hall, right inside the door. Her professor led the class out of view on the other side. 
All she could see was a sliver of students who kept looking up at her in confusion.
Skylar Tibbs sits at one of the entrances outside of her Montana History class on Oct. 7 in LA 11. The elevator was assumed to be fixed, but students still couldn’t use it from the first floor.
“I know that class period I didn’t soak in as much as I could have,” Tibbs, 18, said. “There was something that felt so degrading about having to sit there.”
Tibbs has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic disorder that affects the peripheral nervous system. She usually uses a powered wheelchair because walking is only an option for her on a good day. Even then, stairs can be a gamble. 
On Oct. 10, Tibbs’ friend and classmate, Keely Proebstel, 24, gave her a look when she arrived at the Liberal Arts building. Tibbs knew the elevator wasn’t working again. She descended the stairs that time, worrying the entire time about the potential to fall and the risk of leaving her $46,000 power chair at the top of the stairs. 
“I shouldn’t have to risk hurting myself to get the same things everybody else gets,” she said. 
The elevator didn’t respond to the button for the next class on Oct. 12. The Facilities Services work order desk told Tibbs the elevator had already been fixed. The elevator moved, but the buttons weren’t fully functional. 
Proebstel, who uses a cane to walk, was able to descend the stairs. Tibbs needed someone to press the button at the bottom of the elevator for her to attend class. By the time Proebstel reached the bottom of the stairs, the class’s teaching assistant figured out how to get the elevator moving.
It’s not the first time Tibbs has faced a barrier due to a broken elevator. 
“I’ve had issues with accessibility on campus from day one,” Tibbs said.
In the aging buildings on campus, elevators and lift breakdowns happen frequently. At least one elevator has been offline for the entire fall semester. This year, with replacement parts delayed by up to a year because of supply chain issues, mechanical problems are worse than ever.
For some on campus, the breakdowns are more than an inconvenience.
Keely Proebstel uses the Miller elevator to get to her dorm room. The elevator can take a long time to arrive and sometimes stops on the fourth floor for no reason, Proebstel said.
When Tibbs visited the University of Montana as a high school student, she got stuck in the Food Zoo lift for 45 minutes. This was a major factor to consider when she was choosing colleges, but she still ended up at UM.
“Bozeman is even worse,” Tibbs said. “There’s gonna be issues everywhere.”
Talking with Office of Disability Equity Director Amy Capolupo and hearing positive experiences with students in ODE made Tibbs feel that UM was still a place she could flourish.
But on her first day in the dorms this fall, Tibbs had to sleep in a first-floor guest suite. Her room was inaccessible because the Pantzer Hall elevator had been used so much during move-in day that the oil overheated, causing it to break down. 
“If this is only night one, what’s gonna happen other times throughout the year?” Tibbs recalled wondering that first night on campus.
Melina Peck, a student on the third floor of Pantzer with cerebral palsy and who uses a power chair, stayed with her parents in Florence the first week of school because of the elevator outage. Tibbs’ parents were farther down the Bitterroot Valley in her hometown of Corvallis.
On Tibbs’ second day on campus, she got stuck in Urey Lecture Hall for two hours during orientation because of a broken elevator. Her residence hall director, Lee Bodge, helped her contact facilities services and find a different exit. 
On the evening of Oct. 29, she and Proebstel spent 30 minutes in the Food Zoo elevator before the fire department rescued her. The elevator doors opened just fine — but only onto a floor where stairs were the only exit. 
“I never had a fear of elevators before this campus,” Tibbs said.
A pile of snow blocks one of the main pathways leading to the UC. Piles like these can cause powered-chairs to get stuck or high-center.
This year, elevators have been problematic.
“That hasn’t always been true,” said Capolupo, the director of the Office for Disability Equity.
When an elevator outage is reported to facilities services during business hours, it then lets ODE know, according to UM Facilities Services Director Paul Trumbley. ODE sends out an email to all students on the UM access updates mailing list. 
Since last November, 43 such emails have been sent out. This does not include outages on weekends or outside normal business hours. If an elevator breaks outside of those hours, it goes through UM Police dispatch and doesn’t end up in the emails. 
Plenty of breakages aren’t in those emails. There is no record of the Pantzer and Miller elevator outages that Tibbs and Proebstel encountered. There was never any email sent out about the Eck Hall basement outage, even though it took place during business hours.
Whenever the outage occurs, it’s handled by UM’s 24-hour on-call elevator technician from the Schindler Elevator Corporation, Larry Henley. In the case of the Urey elevator outage during orientation, he was called away from a dentist appointment. Servicing elevators requires certifications that no one at UM has. 
Each elevator is checked and serviced by Henley at least once a month. Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is expensive. That 1990 law bans discrimination based on disabilities. It’s even more expensive this year. With supply chain issues, parts are delayed. 
“In 20 years, this is the first time I’ve dealt with that, where we couldn’t get the parts,” Capolupo said.
After the Pantzer elevator overheated on move-in day, UM Housing decided to install a cooling system. UM Housing could not get the parts until the beginning of October, about six weeks later. Housing completed the $9,100 system around Oct. 14.
Housing did some additional work in Pantzer. Someone reported that the fire doors at the end of each hallway, which close during an alarm or drill, were troublesome for students in wheelchairs to open, according to Jameel Chaudhry, associate director of planning, design and construction for Facilities Services. Housing adjusted the door closures so they required less than five pounds of force to open. 
Early last spring, Facilities Services first logged that the elevator in the Social Sciences building was broken. It would be fixed in two to three days, according to an email sent on Feb. 23. Now, it’s down for the entire fall semester, due to supply chain issues, according to Facilities Services. 
“We’re at the mercy of the contractor and equipment world,” Paul Trumbley said.
Supply chain issues exacerbated the existing high cost of ADA upgrades. According to law, buildings built after 1991 need to be handicap accessible. Buildings built before 1991 need to be updated for accessibility, if that update can be reasonably accomplished without too much expense.
But a single elevator update can cost $1 million or more — and with the average age of a campus building hovering at 60 years old, there are plenty of elevators that need updating or buildings that don’t have elevators. 
“Funding has always been our weak point,” Chaudhry said. “If you gave us $10 million every two years we would blow through that easily.”
Every two years, Facilities Services submits funding requests to the state of Montana. It’s competing for limited money with other entities in the Montana University System, which makes up two-thirds of the square footage of state-owned buildings in Montana. 
Once UM gets its share, accessibility updates compete with other vital maintenance needs like fixing roofs or updating fire alarm systems. Some years, Facilities Services gets $1-$1.5 million. Sometimes the office gets nothing from the state, according to Chaudhry. There is no specific funding earmarked for ADA updates.
“The entirety of the Facilities Services operations budget can be available for this work,” Paula Short, associate vice president of campus preparedness and response, wrote in an email. “Additionally, we have funding avenues, such as the Long Range Building Program (LRBP), which provides for both major repair and capital development projects.”
Short said that the Clapp Building elevator modernization is funded through LRBP. There is also funding from bonds and the facilities fee. 
Reggie Herbert, a UM alumnus who is blind, found new buildings on campus to be more or less accessible. It’s the old buildings that cause issues. Herbert understands that they can’t all be redesigned, but said he finds it telling that many buildings require anyone who can’t use stairs to use back doors.
“The bias is implicit in the architecture,” Herbert said.
Skylar Tibbs works at her desk in her room. Her single room in Pantzer is outfitted for more accessibility with a powered door and more space.
Proebstel, a sophomore elementary education major from Colorado Springs, uses a cane to walk. She has no concrete diagnosis, but has connective tissue issues — the tissue around her kneecaps is gone, which makes walking painful. Technically, she can take stairs, but they can be a risk.
On Sept. 6, a blaring fire alarm woke Proebstel from a nap in her room in Miller Hall. She thought there was a fire and rushed out of her dorm to the stairs without putting on her knee braces. Between her fast pace, her lack of braces and being knocked around into walls and students, she partially dislocated both her kneecaps.
Once she got outside, she learned the alarm had been a drill. The elevators would have technically been working, but fire doors automatically close in front of the elevator doors on each floor. 
She went back inside and found the first floor fire door was still closed. An RA told her that the elevator was working, and the second floor fire door should be open.
It was. But the elevator didn’t work. Proebstel went floor by floor on dislocated kneecaps, checking the elevator each time. The buttons didn’t light up. The elevator didn’t respond. 
According to Michael Harwood, director of fiscal and facility operations for UM housing, there was no reason that Proebstel would have been prevented from using the elevator during and after the drill. 
Residents are supposed to act as if a fire drill is a real alarm, where the elevator would return to the ground floor and become unresponsive, but elevators do not shut down during a drill. Harwood received no report of the Miller elevator being unresponsive afterward, and it didn’t appear in the duty log. 
Later, an errant fire alarm woke Tibbs in Pantzer Hall. Tibbs was in bed at the time, and made her way to the stairwell, where she was supposed to wait for rescue in the area of rescue assistance. 
“You are entirely dependent on other people to come and save you,” Tibbs said.
The only reason she didn’t panic was because she couldn’t smell smoke. She decided to make her way down the stairs and eventually cleared the building, worrying about a dangerous fall the whole time.
Since then, Tibbs has been working with housing and the Office of Disability Equity to get first-floor housing. But there just aren’t any unoccupied accessible first-floor dorms across campus. Housing has been particularly tight this year. According to Melissa Neidigh, UM Housing’s associate director of operations, it was harder than ever this year to get disabled students into accessible housing due to increased demand. 
“There’s nowhere on campus for me to go,” Tibbs said. She’s looking at moving into Lewis and Clark Villages.
In Pantzer and Miller, accessible rooms are located on every floor. Accessible living space on all floors is becoming standard practice in accessible construction, as it doesn’t limit disabled students to just the first floor and offers them more choice, according to Harwood. 
“It creates a more inclusive environment for students in wheelchairs,” Harwood said. 
Chaudhry has worked at UM for 27 years. For buildings with no elevators, Chaudhry wants to follow the example set by Facilities Services’ work on the mathematics building around 2002.
Before this work, the mathematics building, which is over a century old, had no elevator and its only bathrooms were in the inaccessible basement. Facilities cobbled together enough money to build a south end addition with an elevator and a bathroom on every floor. It cost $1.5 million. Today, Chaudhry said, it might cost three or four times more. 
Leanne Beers went to UM from 1992 to 1996. Her daughter, Jessica Beers, started in 2017 and graduated in 2020. They both use power chairs due to Dejerine-Sottas syndrome, a demyelination disease that falls under the umbrella of muscular dystrophy. Their experiences on campus were different.
“I hit a lot of walls with class and professors,” Leanne said. 
Leanne was once placed in a math class on the third floor of the Forestry Building, which has no elevator. When she asked to switch classrooms after missing classes due to inaccessibility, the professor told her to get her priorities straight and refused. Leanne dropped that class and had to retake it later. 
Now, there’s a system in place to ensure disabled students aren’t placed in inaccessible buildings, according to ADA Team co-chairs Kate Duran and Hilly McGahan. A tag is added to their IDs in Banner, and the Registrar’s Office can move class locations to ensure no mobility-impaired student ends up in a building without a working elevator. 
For example, if a mobility-impaired student ends up in a class on upper floors of Rankin Hall or the Forestry Building, that class would be moved. This year, upper and lower floors of the Social Sciences and Clapp buildings are also inaccessible. 
Classes can also be moved if an elevator goes down mid-semester for an extended period of time or a student becomes newly disabled, like if they break a leg, Capolupo said. 
Leanne described her online Ph.D. through Walden University from 2015 to 2017 as “like night and day” in terms of accessibility. When she had to go to conferences, they ensured that all her accommodations and events were accessible with room for a care attendant.
Jessica Beers lived on campus for her first year at UM, and had a far smoother experience than her mother. 
Overall, Jessica enjoyed her experience at UM. She found the campus to be fairly accessible, especially newer buildings, though she ran across some barriers. “Looking back, it’s all small potatoes,” Jessica said. 
During her campus tour, Jessica, accompanied by her mom, wasn’t shown fully accessible rooms. They ran into someone from housing by the Food Zoo. When Leanne commented that the bathrooms were inaccessible, that person offered to show them the accessible bathroom and laundry rooms. 
“The accessibility is getting better, but there’s still a lack of communication,” Leanne said.
All tours are supposed to show accessible rooms, regardless of if the students taking the tours are disabled or not, according to Capolupo, the ODE director.
“This is the most accessible place I’ve ever been,” said Nicolas Kuster, a senior studying political science with a minor in journalism. Kuster has cerebral palsy and uses a power chair. 
A pile of snow blocks one of the main pathways leading to the UC. Piles like these can cause powered-chairs to get stuck or high-center.
When snow clogs the pathways, the grounds crew clears priority routes first. Snow can be a barrier to anyone traversing UM’s campus with mobility impairments. 
“It’s the small things that make the big difference,” Leanne Beers said. 
On Nov. 9, Tibbs’ wheelchair got stuck in the snow outside Eck Hall, on a sidewalk that’s marked as a priority snow removal route. She got stuck again outside Lommasson Center a few minutes later. Both times, she sought the help of passing students to dislodge her chair. 
Tibbs remarked that getting stuck in the snow shows her both the good and bad of UM’s student body. Some people will stop to push her out, but some will just walk by. On Nov. 9, one person even took photos of her without her permission while she was stuck. 
On Nov. 10, Tibbs was 10 minutes late to a test in ODE’s accessible testing location in Aber because she got stuck in the snow outside the Mansfield Library. 
Kuster said that he also gets stuck in the snow sometimes, but is able to flag students down to help push him out.
Even when snow is cleared, there can be issues. Even a small amount of snow on a ramp or hill can cause the small wheels on the back of a power chair to spin out, according to Bonnie Kelley, a UM graduate who uses a power chair and works for the Rule Institute. Even a little bit of snow left at the junction of a sidewalk and ramp can ice over into a barrier inches thick. 
Bathrooms are also a barrier. Leanne Beers said she’s rarely been in a bathroom where she can actually close the stall door. 
Many “accessible” bathrooms at UM aren’t truly accessible, according to Tibbs. Some Duniway, Aber, Miller and Mansfield Library bathrooms are hard for her to use in her wheelchair. She can’t easily open the Eck Hall bathrooms, and has hurt herself a few times doing so. 
She just barely fits in the Urey bathroom. Sometimes, she struggles to use the bathroom locks, and says they might be hard for someone with low dexterity. 
“Our archnemesis is doors,” Tibbs said. 
When Leanne Beers was at UM, the bricks on the Oval were inaccessible for her wheelchair. The same went for Jessica Beers, as her casters could catch on loose bricks, but those were leveled while she was at UM. Kelley still cannot drive her power chair over the Oval bricks. 
“I drive with reckless abandonment so I just don’t care,” Kuster said.
Leanne and Jessica Beers both said that people will often place things in front of the accessible door buttons. Leanne said that there’s often a garbage can in front of the Eck door button. 
This year, Tibbs and Proebstel could not attend homecoming because the accessible door to the Schreiber Gym was locked. 
“There’s a lot of things that people don’t think about until something comes up, because they simply don’t have to deal with that problem,” Kuster said.
But invisibility isn’t the worst-case scenario. Sometimes malice is the problem, not ignorance. 
Tibbs said she’s sometimes accused of faking her disability when she gets out of her power chair or walks in front of other people. 
On Oct. 23, while walking to the Food Zoo, Proebstel passed a man who was huffing and glaring at her. She gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was having a bad day. As they passed each other, she felt him spit in her hair.
Proebstel was in shock. She got into the Food Zoo elevator and forgot to press the button as she searched for an explanation. People had made rude comments to her about her cane before, but they’d never done something this egregious.
“It was really dehumanizing,” Proebstel said. 
She reported it to UMPD, not wanting to believe it was because of her cane, but they said it likely was. UMPD was unable to find the culprit. Proebstel found out they’d closed the case. It was logged as assault with bodily fluid.
“I went through about a two-week period where I was talking to my mom about wanting to shave my head,” Proebstel said. 
For a while, whenever she was around people she didn’t trust, Proebstel put her hood up and hid her hair. 
Proebstel now works at the Food Zoo. She’s seen the spitter since — she has to swipe him in for meals. She said he doesn’t seem to recognize her. 
“Here’s what I’ll say: There’s always room for improvement when you live in a world that’s made for people that can walk on two feet, that is built by people who can walk on two feet, because most people in the world can walk on two feet,” Kuster said.
If Capolupo had infinite money, she’d upgrade all the old buildings and make sure every building had at least two elevators. 
“If we design a new residence hall, we will have at least two elevators in the building,” Harwood said.
Capolupo would also like to see the University do a self-evaluation and transition plan for ADA compliance. A plan like this was last done in 2004. Capolupo has requested another one from the ADA Team, which serves as the ADA coordinator for UM. Every government organization is required to have one. 
Accessibility is tackled by many organizations across campus — ODE, Facilities Services, the ADA Team and individual professors. ODE works with about 1,500 students, with three coordinators. Capolupo also takes on a limited caseload. 
Every disabled student and recent alum the Kaimin talked to said they have had positive experiences with ODE. 
“Disability services has a thousand times improved since I was here,” Leanne Beers said.
But 1,500 students is a lot for four people. Tibbs said it could take her weeks to get an appointment with her coordinator, and there’s only so much a small team with limited resources can do. 
Herbert, the blind UM graduate, said that ODE absolutely doesn’t have enough resources, funding, staffing and University support.
“They don’t have enough recognition for the services they provide,” Herbert said. 
Facilities Services has some plans for the immediate future. They’re working on an upgrade to the Clapp Building. The current Clapp Building elevator is currently freight-only, as it’s built with outdated technology that’s no longer safe for passengers, Trumbley said. 
The only Clapp bathroom isn’t accessible without an elevator. The plan is to update the Clapp Building elevator and install a single-stall ADA compliant gender-neutral bathroom on the first floor.
Chaudhry said that a few elevators need modernization, like lifts that use steel accordion doors, for example, in the music building. The Fine Arts and Health Sciences buildings elevators are also out of date. The Mansfield Library is also on the list, as its parts are no longer manufactured. Facility Services currently has to send those elevator parts to be refurbished. 
The ADA team is working on improving digital accessibility. For example, they’re currently working with contractors to make vending machines accessible for those with low vision, following a barrier report made through its website. The team is also working to make sure any information on digital signs is made accessible. 
“Nothing is going to be completely accessible,” Duran said, a sentiment echoed by Jessica Beers. In a world built mostly by and for the able-bodied person, true equal access may be an unattainable goal. 
The elevator in the Eck Hall basement is still finicky. On Oct. 24, it took Proebstel a few tries to get out of it. 
Tibbs said she sometimes doubts if she made the right choice coming to UM. She thinks so, but sometimes doubts the University and herself. But she’s grateful to the housing staff and ODE that have helped secure accommodations for her. 
Proebstel said she feels that UM has tried to keep the promises they made before she came to campus, such as accessible housing and not capping her credits. 
Tibbs has made sure she’ll be notified about future fire drills. But she still fears not making it out of an emergency situation, and has had to reckon with that possibility.
“All we are guaranteed is birth, memories and death,” Tibbs said.
“And taxes,” Proebstel added.
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