San Francisco State Settles Disability Suit

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

San Francisco State University has settled a class-action lawsuit by disabled students and faculty, agreeing to spend more than $5 million to make the campus more accessible.

Advocates for the disabled described the settlement, which specifies a series of changes and improvements at the San Francisco campus, as a wake-up call for other Cal State campuses, as well as other universities.

"This will change the lives of hundreds of people, now and in the future," said Larry Paradis, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that represented the plaintiffs. "One of California's major academic institutions will finally be more accessible to people with disabilities."

In April, Disability Rights Advocates reached a significant settlement with Kaiser Permanente, which could dramatically change the way hospitals and clinics serve the disabled. Last month, it took on the state Department of Education in a class-action suit charging that the new high school exit exam discriminates against children with learning disabilities.

In recent years, Disability Rights Advocates has won other settlements with universities, including an agreement with UC Berkeley that requires the university to produce a comprehensive plan for removing barriers to the disabled by this fall.

The agreement with San Francisco State was reached June 7 in federal court in San Francisco but announced Wednesday.

Attorney Jack McCowan, who represented San Francisco State, said the settlement "reaffirmed the university's long-standing commitment to serving the needs of students and faculty members with disabilities" and a long-term program of improving accessibility.

The university did not concede liability or wrongdoing in the settlement, maintaining that its facilities and programs already were accessible to all.

"The university has always felt that it was in compliance [with federal law] and it has been making changes to improve access to the campus for more than 20 years," McCowan said.

Ligeia Polidora, a university spokesman, said San Francisco State has spent at least $10 million over that period to improve accessibility for the disabled.

But Paradis and other representatives for disabled students, staff and faculty at the university said many of those changes have come about only since the lawsuit was filed in 1997.

Teri Smith, now a special education teacher in Foster City, was one of those affected.

Smith, 41, said she dropped out of San Francisco State--two courses short of her master's degree--after years of frustration at the difficulty of navigating the campus in her wheelchair. Smith has multiple sclerosis, a chronic nerve disease.

"I was so fed up, I said that was enough for me and I dropped out. I couldn't do it anymore," Smith said.

She said she had complained for years, to no avail, about a variety of barriers, including heavy doors, buildings without elevators and the lack of restrooms accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Paradis and his co-counsel, attorney Guy Wallace, said the plaintiffs included 200 current and former students, faculty and staff.

In the settlement, the university agreed to a schedule of improvements--many of which have already been made--to restrooms, entrances, elevators and signage throughout the 91-acre campus. Many of the buildings are at least 30 years old, officials said.

In addition, it agreed to spend $5 million to remove physical barriers, make other renovations and purchase equipment to make the university accessible to people with mobility and vision disabilities.

"We think this is a model that we hope the whole [Cal State] system will look at and act on," Paradis said.

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