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Van accessibility a problem

Halie Johnson

On the morning of Friday, Nov. 10, Mary Taloff, a junior at Mills and a wheelchair user, was temporarily denied access to the Mills van.

The driver did not have access to the key that unlocks the door to the wheelchair lift, causing a delay of 45 minutes while he attempted to locate the key.

“All drivers are provided with a key to the lift,” said Michael Lopez, director of public safety. “But the drivers like to have their own key rings, so who knows how long the lift key had been off.”

“The driver, Claudio, handled the situation very well,” said Taloff, “but the response and support he received from public safety was slow and inadequate. Communication between the different people involved in finding and using the key seemed disorganized.”

Taloff said that it took 20 minutes for the people at the gatehouse, with whom the driver was communicating on his radio, to understand that a wheelchair user was waiting to use the van. Another 20 minutes elapsed before security suggested that the driver instead use the newer Mills van with an easily accessible lift.

This was the fifth such incident experienced by Taloff, though the first reported to public safety.

“The delay hadn’t been to that degree before, and generally I don’t like to cause that big of a stink if it’s not a big deal,” she said.

According to Lopez, who said he was in his office all day Friday, neither he nor anyone else at public safety was made aware of the access problem until the following Tuesday, when they received the e-mail that Taloff sent Friday night.

He said that the people at the gatehouse, who respond to the drivers’ radios, are not employees of public safety, but of Guardsmark, a private security firm that Mills previously decided to phase out as a contractor.

Lopez said that he was not made aware sooner because of issues within his department which he says he is in the process of fixing but would not elaborate on.

“I profusely apologize to Mary,” he said. “Students with accessibility issues are my highest priority on this campus.”

The key rings are now all equipped with keys to the lift, and have been soldered to prevent the keys from being removed. Public safety will oversee the training of new drivers in operating the lifts, Lopez said.

Students with disabilities and their allies on campus believe that this problem affects the entire Mills community.

“This does not foster healthy interactions between disabled and non-disabled members of our community because some people are inclined to blame students in wheelchairs for the delay,” said Taloff.

“The broader community might feel like they shouldn’t be penalized because students with disabilities need quote unquote ‘special treatment,’ when in fact we shouldn’t be held responsible for the fact that the College can’t get it together enough,” said senior Lauren Steinberg, president of the Mills Disability Alliance. She has been denied access to the shuttle twice, which prevented her, on one occasion, from visiting Berkeley with her friends.

“I find it upsetting to see this kind of thing go on because the school chose to use an inaccessible van,” said Hannah Peragine, a sophomore. “It seems the issue wasn’t thought about.”

According to Jess Miller, director of Services For Students With Disabilities, her department will play an important role in instituting change in the matter of shuttle accessibility. “I would hope that whenever something goes wrong with issues of accessibility, I am contacted immediately, so that I am aware at the same time as public safety, so I can make sure that change happens,” said Miller.

Miller hopes that non-disabled students consider what it means not to have what is accorded everyone else on campus, and she said that it was incumbent upon Mills to time the servicing of the van so that no one is inconvenienced.