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Able to make change

Frustrated in his attempts to obtain a handicapped-accessible on-campus apartment, graduate student Jason Olsen did not know where to turn. After learning there were other students experiencing similar problems, Olsen took matters into his own hands and wrote a letter to a higher authority.

In late August, Olsen was told by Magnolia Apartments that its lone handicapped-accessible apartment was already rented and that he would have to go to the bottom of a 40-person waiting list. Further, Olsen was told that if the apartment became available before he reached the top of the list, it would be allocated to whoever was next on the list.

Aggrieved, Olsen turned to Student Disabilities Services for help. According to Olsen, SDS could neither help him nor tell him whom he should contact. Olsen said it was only after he wrote to Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson that USF began addressing these concerns. Olsen has now been offered an apartment by Magnolia.

“It’s funny that before I wrote this letter nobody wanted to hear my complaint,” Olsen said. “Now after writing the governor, (among others,) all these different (offices) want to talk to me.”

Olsen, 26, started attending USF in 2000, almost a year after he was paralyzed from the chest down when a drunk driver hit the car he was in. He received his bachelor’s degree in Sociology from USF in 2003 and intended to pursue his master’s in the same field in Spring 2004.

As a result, Olsen and his wife of two years, Billye Jo, said they decided to look for on-campus housing to spare Olsen the commute from his parents’ home in Lutz.

After visiting Residence Services in late August of last year and inquiring about on-campus housing for married couples, Olsen said he was directed to Magnolia Apartments, the only on-campus building that accommodates single parents and married couples.

There, Olsen said, is where his problems began.

Olsen said when he asked about the availability of handicapped accessible apartments in Magnolia, he was told there was only one accessible apartment and that it was already occupied.

“I inquired to who was living in the ‘one’ handicapped apartment that (Magnolia) has,” he said. “I was told that the couple living in that apartment did not have any disabilities and that I would have to be put on a waiting list with (more than) 40 people ahead of me.”

Olsen said he didn’t expect to get priority for an apartment, but he thought at least there would be a different list for the handicapped-accessible apartments. Potentially, Olsen said, if the one apartment was occupied when he got to the top of the list, he would have to wait, while others below him could take any vacant apartment.

“I would have to wait longer,” Olsen said. “I would have to wait for people who were before me (on the list) to move out (of the handicapped accessible apartment.) It would not be equal distribution since there are fewer accessible apartments.”

After being informed of the aforementioned options, Olsen said he did not see the point of putting his name on the list.

“All I knew is that I was going to be on the bottom of the list. What (were) the chances of me getting (that apartment?)” Olsen asked.

Olsen said before and after he went to Magnolia, he checked out apartments close to USF and said he had no luck finding apartments that would accommodate his needs as a person with a disability. The apartment complexes that were willing to accommodate him would, according to Olsen, only make so many modifications.

“If I need a shower where there’s a tub, I would have to pay for the tub to be removed to put the shower in,” Olsen said. “And when I leave (the apartment), I would have to pay to place the tub back in. However, at USF they have a roll-in shower which is something I need.”

The Fair Housing Act states that a landlord may not refuse to let any person with a mental or physical disability make reasonable modifications to an apartment’s common-use areas “at the tenant’s expense,” according to the U.S. Department of Urban Development Web site. In addition, an apartment complex is required by law to place grab bars in bathroom walls, make ramps and widen doors for wheelchair access.

Olsen took his grievance to Student Disabilities Services, where he was told his housing concerns were not issues the SDS office deals with.

Mary Sarver, Director of Student Disability Services, said her office assists students with disabilities who need academic accommodations, not physical accommodations.

“There are other offices (at USF) that offer services to students with a disability,” Sarver said. “Every department at USF should be able to help students with a disability, depending on what problem they have.”

Sarver said although she can’t comment on a particular complaint a student might have, Olsen’s problems fall under physical accessible concerns, something the SDS office is not responsible for.

“We deal with academic accommodations, such as books on tape for students who may have visual impairment or a disability in terms of reading,” Sarver said. “Physical access problems have to do with automatic doors, handicapped accessible bathrooms, ramps, curb cuts and on-campus housing.”

Sarver added that if a student with a disability goes to her office feeling that he or she has been discriminated against, the SDS office tries to redirect the student to the Diversity and Equal Opportunity office on campus.

However, Olsen said the SDS office did not help him redirect his complaint anywhere else on campus.

“Student Disabilities Services did not point me in any direction at all,” Olsen said. “They basically said, ‘Tough luck.'”

Not knowing where to go or whom to see regarding his problem, Olsen decided to take action into his own hands after finding that other people with disabilities around campus were having similar problems.

“There’s a blind man (on campus) who’s not getting his books on tape, so he’s falling behind,” Olsen said. “(I) thought I was the only one … then (I) found out there are other people (with disabilities) who are having similar problems. That’s when I decided to take action.”

In late October, almost two months after seeking help at Student Disabilities Services, Olsen put his concerns into writing.

He sent letters to Gov. Jeb Bush and both U.S. senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), describing his student housing concerns at USF.

Early in January, each of the senators sent Olsen a letter stating that someone at USF would be getting in touch with him soon to review his complaint. Shortly thereafter, Olsen said he received a similar e-mail from the governor’s office.

Subsequently, Olsen has received various calls from different USF departments, all wanting to talk to him regarding his on-campus housing and accessibility concerns. Among the callers was Dorie Paine, associate director of Residence Services, who told Olsen her department had received a copy of his letter.

Paine called Olsen again on Feb. 18 to set up an appointment so that Olsen and his wife could view a handicapped-accessible apartment at Magnolia.

The same day, Camille Blake, assistant director of Diversity and Equal Opportunity, also called Olsen. Olsen said the DEO informed him it will start investigating his other complaints, such as bigger handicapped accessible restrooms, better curb cuts around campus and the availability of accessible desks in classrooms.

Tom Kane, director of Residence Services at USF, said the Magnolia Apartments unit has four family apartments that are handicapped-accessible.

“Not very often do we have students needing (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility. Waiting until August to rent out the handicapped accessible apartments worked pretty well for us until (Olsen’s) particular situation came along,” Kane said.

The decision to offer Olsen an apartment after seven months, Kane said, would bring its policy into line with the Americans with a Disabilities Act.

From this point forward, Kane said, anybody who gets assigned to a handicapped-accessible apartment and doesn’t have a disability will be notified, at the time of signing the contract, that if a person with a disability needs the apartment and there are no other accessible apartments available, they will have to vacate the apartment.

“We never had this request before. (Olsen’s concern) is a learning experience,” Kane said. “We are trying to do the right thing for him.”

Paine said although next year’s contracts don’t include this new clause as of yet, students who obtain a handicapped accessible apartment and don’t have a disability will be informed in a letter.

As an undergraduate student, Olsen said he never noticed the problems he’s now observing at USF as a graduate student because of the increased amount of time he spends on campus.

Olsen said, in addition to feeling discriminated against while trying to find an on-campus apartment, that throughout this semester he has experienced other problems regarding physical accommodation for people with disabilities.

“Now, I spend most of my day on campus. I’ve noticed problems with some curb cuts at USF and some (handicapped) accessible restrooms around campus, as well,” Olsen said. “Some of these stalls are not big enough for my wheelchair.”

Michael Reich, media relations director, said the university is striving to improve accessibility but is hampered by budget limitations.

“We want the campus to be accessible for all students,” Reich said. “We’re doing what we can to address these (accessibility) issues, but there are major financial issues relating with accessibility (at USF.)”

The Physical Accessibility Work Group, Reich said, is a university-wide workgroup that addresses accessibility concerns from students at USF.

Blake, of the DEO, is the chair of this group and, according to Reich, will be addressing the curb cut on Leroy Collins Boulevard. in their next meeting, a location that Olsen said he’s been having problems with.

The Physical Accessibility Work Group includes representatives from various departments at USF such as Student Disability Services, Human Resources, Parking and Transportation, Physical Plant and a member from the office of the Provost.