SU settles lawsuit over accessibility complaints

Southern University settled a lawsuit over the Baton Rouge campus’ failure to accommodate disabled students, agreeing to make several upgrades that are expected to cost the cash-strapped college millions over the next five years.

The Southern University System Board of Supervisors at its most recent meeting agreed to the lawsuit settlement, along with the university’s plan to address concerns that programs at the university are not accessible to people who rely on wheelchairs for mobility, as required under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, called ADA. The lawsuit, initially filed by Southern student Kayla Williams in 2011 and amended the following year, took particular issue with the lack of accessible restrooms, elevators and ramps with adequate slope at athletic venues, among other problems.

According to the agreed-upon settlement, an undisclosed amount — covering damages, attorney’s fees and costs of the lawsuit — also will be paid to Williams, a Baton Rouge native who has paraplegia because of spinal cord injuries from a 2000 shooting.

Williams claimed in her lawsuit that classroom desks weren’t suitable for wheelchairs and she couldn’t access the restrooms in the building where most of her classes were held to empty her catheter bag because they did not accommodate wheelchairs. Williams’ attorney, Nell Hahn, of the Louisiana-based Advocacy Center, was on vacation and did not respond to requests for comment on the settlement this week.

Williams’ lawsuit also claimed that she couldn’t attend sporting events at Southern’s Mini-Dome and Mumford Stadium because those facilities aren’t wheelchair-accessible.

The SU System Board went into executive session before approving the settlement without public discussion Friday.

The school already is facing financial struggles, and it’s unclear how much the ADA-related upgrades could cost, though a Southern spokesman said the price tag is expected to be “several millions of dollars” over five years. Leaders have said the SU system has been pulling millions from reserves to prop up its general budget in recent years, amid six years of state funding cuts. More recently, three of the SU system’s campuses, including the flagship in Baton Rouge, failed to meet state benchmarks required to increase tuition and bring more money into their budgets.

Southern University had no formal comment on the lawsuit or settlement this week, aside from noting that the public historically black university will seek money from the state Legislature to cover the costs.

“We think the government will agree that this is a critical need that justifies its assistance,” Southern spokesman Ed Pratt said in an email.

In the lawsuit, Williams claimed she suffered “embarrassment, humiliation and inability to participate in classroom instruction to the same degree as students without disabilities” because campus facilities are not ADA-compliant.

The settlement outlines 34 physical upgrades that must be made on campus through 2019, as well as other requirements, including public self-evaluation of ADA compliance measures.

Listed among the required campus upgrades at the football stadium, which was built in the 1940s, according to the lawsuit:

  • Ramps will be rebuilt to accommodate wheelchairs.
  • More than 100 wheelchair-accessible and companion seas will be added.
  • Accessible counters will be installed at concession stands.
  • Restroom doors will be modified to accommodate wheelchairs.

Upgrades at the basketball arena built in the 1970s will include:

  • More wheelchair-accessible seating will be added.
  • Fully accessible men’s and women’s restrooms will be built, or existing restrooms on the concourse will be converted to accommodate wheelchairs.
  • Water fountains will be replaced with ADA-compliant ones.

And at T.T. Allain Hall, a 1950s-era academic building where Williams had most of her courses, upgrades are to include:

  • Additional accessible parking spaces will be located near the elevators.
  • Surfaces and paths of travel to the building will be smoothed to the appropriate slope.
  • Elevators will be made more accessible after hours for night classes.

Southern said in court documents that some additional upgrades to Allain Hall already have been made.

Overall, Southern, in the settlement, promises to “maintain in operable working condition those features of facilities and equipment that are required to provide access to individuals with disabilities.”

Williams, who received her master’s degree in business administration this year, had argued in her lawsuit that the absence of an accessible bathroom for her to empty her catheter bag led to it overflowing at least six times in one year, causing her “feelings of humiliation, embarrassment and indignity.”

The lawsuit also claimed that Williams also was forced to “sit at a contorted and uncomfortable angle in order to use classroom desks” because they didn’t fit her wheelchair.

“It is especially difficult for her when she needs to use a computer, because she cannot slide under the desk to reach the computer keyboard,” the lawsuit said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .