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Reaching out Between Communities - CMU and Individuals with Disabilities

​For more than 75 years, CMU has reached out in many ways to individuals with disabilities whose presence at Central has enriched and enlivened the campus. Academic programs designed to educate students who would work with individuals with disabilities led the way. Volunteer efforts linking CMU in service to individuals with disabilities, as well as programs led by individuals with disabilities aimed at the campus community, have been initiated and sustained, sometimes across generations. The campus itself has been physically changed and ongoing programs have been initiated. These changes better serve persons with disabilities seeking an education at CMU, and in the process also better serve the entire community in ways that were unanticipated.  


CMU's most long-standing commitments to individuals with disabilities are demonstrated through academic programs. For much of its early history, Central was a college primarily dedicated to educating future teachers. While the needs of these future educators were many, as World War II was beginning Central's academic program began to include instruction in teaching children who had hearing loss.

In 1939, Wilbur Moore came to Central to be one of three faculty members in the Speech and Reading Department. Part of his charge was to begin a program teaching future teachers how to help children with disabilities. In 1940, he began to teach a single course in speech correction.

Moore's emphasis was on teaching students the best possible approaches for aiding those seeking assistance. In 1946, he added clinical services to supplement the academic program.  Clinical experience offered hands on training, making the students who received it better able to work with children with hearing loss. The physical space for the clinic was far from ideal. Squeezed into Warriner Hall, audiometric tests had to repeated if water was running in the janitor's room adjacent to the testing equipment, and speech therapy sessions were conducted in what had been a closet. However, a clinic had begun.

Over the following decades, Moore systematically expanded the academic program and clinical facilities in the areas of audiology and speech-language pathology. He also initiated one of the department's most long-lived programs, one that continues to this day. In 1946, Central hosted its first summer residential speech clinic, designed to both improve the speech and language of participants and the skills of professional care givers.

Moore consistently sought to develop a program of national importance. He demanded academic rigor in those he added to the faculty. His daughter would recall that one of her last conversations with her father was a hypothetical discussion about which would be the better hire: the brilliant but less accessible teacher or the teacher who was more popular but less brilliant. "His choice was solidly for the brilliant scholar."

The early 1970s were an important time for audiology at CMU. In 1970, a Master's Degree in Audiology was first offered. In 1974 the degree was fully accredited, with CMU program being one of 47 programs in the nation and five in the state to be so recognized. In 1971, on the eve of Moore's retirement, the department moved from Warriner Hall into custom-built facilities in the newly opened Moore Hall, named in his honor. Perhaps the most dramatic physical change was a seven-fold increase in space allocated for the Hearing Clinic, including 29 rooms set aside for testing and therapy, 5 of which were double walled to ensure soundproofing.

The program continued to develop academically in the next two decades. In 1983 the department was reorganized as the Department of Communication Disorders. Today it is known as the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. In 1984 the new department was given approval to award degrees leading to careers in audiology research, in addition to applied degrees designed to train professionals in assisting patients with hearing loss. In 1993 the Board of Trustees established a Doctor of Audiology degree. In 1999, though federal funding, CMU became one of the first two schools in the nation to offer a doctor of audiology program online to audiologists who already possessed a master's degree. In 2007, CMU's Doctor of Audiology program was the first in the nation to be accredited.

Clinical services have remained an important component of the program. The clinic offered both proven methods to assist clients and also experimented with the latest advances in communication technology. Begun in 1989, the Alternative Communication Technology Center, became the focal point for exploring the application of new technology.

This emphasis on both technology and clinical practice led CMU in 1998 to be the first facility in the state to assist patients who had received a cochlear implant by providing cochlear implant programming services. The device represented a radical change from past hearing aids. Instead of amplifying ambient sound like hearing aids, cochlear implants bypassed normal hearing to transmit externally generated computer signals directly to a surgically implanted device which in turn stimulates the auditory nerve. Mary Anne Hartley, one of the earliest recipients of an implant at CMU and a person who had lost the ability to hear 35 years earlier, said on the first day it sounded like a hunch of snaps, beeps, and pops. But by the next day, she said, it was starting to sound like a real voice. Soon enough she was telling her husband to turn down the television, something that had not been a problem before.

Young children also received cochlear implants CMU offered its first course in pediatric audiology in 1972.  Over many years, the audiology program's involvement with children continued to expand, eventually leading to cochlear implants for young children.

What an implant could mean to a child is told through the story of 13-month-old Harlan Lafferty. Harlan was born with a genetic condition that left him with no hearing in either ear. His mother, whose hearing was typical of most individuals, expressed her hopes for the implant: "I just can't wait for him to hear a dog bark for the first time or to hear cars and motors that he could only feel before." Harlan may not have been as excited—he cried the first time his implants were activated, which is a typical response when a young child who has never been able to hear suddenly experiences sound.

Today the department and the clinic are both housed in CMU's Health Professions Building, which opened in 2004. The Carls Center for Clinical Care and Education occupies approximately one-third of the 175,000 square foot building. Named in honor of the Michigan-based Carls Foundation, which generously supported its creation, the Center allowed the department to gather five related clinics in one place, including the Audiology Clinic.

Also housed in CSD (Communication Science & Disorders) are courses offered to students interested in learning American Sign Language (ASL). Since 1983 CMU has offered students instruction in ASL, and in 2005 it was made a minor area of study for undergraduates. In teaching ASL, a conscious effort has been made to present the language in the context of Deaf culture. As Kendra Miller has noted, ""People who are Deaf don't view it as a disability. They view it as a culture rich with its own language, customs and norms."

Indeed, some see ASL as a form of art. "Moving her hands to produce speech was one of the most beautiful things he has ever experienced," was how a reporter for Centralight summarized Dan Hayward's reaction to actress Marlee Matlin's 2013 presentation on the CMU campus.  Matlin is a gifted actress who won the best actress award in 1987 for her performance in the movie, Children of a Lesser God. She is Deaf and speaks through ASL

CSD is, of course, not the only program on campus that supports persons with disabilities. Through "Connections that Count," an on campus service learning program, CMU students work with children with different disabilities and their families to develop the child's social and life skills. The goal is to recognize a child's potential and help them fully achieve it.

The climbing wall, housed in Finch Fieldhouse, is one of the most effective tools used to accomplish this. A special safety harness allows a student who use a wheelchair to make the climb. Before a participant in the program attempts the climb, CMU students explain the wall and show how the climb can be done.

CMU Faculty member Joan Hogan, who organized the program, has said, "Once a [climber] decides to go up that wall, our kids [CMU students] are right there cheering them on. And you should see them when they start to climb. . . . If you could see the faces [of the climbers] when they make that climb, it is absolutely wonderful."


Volunteer activities to support programs for individuals with disabilities also play an important role at CMU. The premier example of this volunteer commitment is CMU's more than 40-year partnership with Michigan Special Olympics. In June 1973, CMU's campus first hosted the Michigan Special Olympics Summer State Games. The Summer State Games have been held continuously at CMU since then.

The Michigan Special Olympics had originated several years before the games came to CMU. At the time, the leadership of Special Olympics was looking for a permanent home for the organization and the games in a community with the necessary resources and an enthusiastic group of supporters. They found that home in Mt. Pleasant at CMU.

"Making CMU our home has given us a state-of-the-art facility with a support system that would be difficult to find anywhere else," noted a past director of Michigan Special Olympics.

The thousands of volunteers whose efforts make the games possible find their commitment enormously rewarding. Deon Butler, who played football for Central from 2011 to 2014, regularly attended Special Olympics events in his CMU football uniform. "When I first started I didn't know what I was getting myself into. After doing it for a couple of years, it really turned out to be the best thing in my life." Athletes waited in line to meet him. "They come up to me and make me feel special," Butler said. "Anybody who can come put a smile on my face, if I can put one on their face, it's the best thing in the world."

The program also benefits the participant's families. "I've always focused not on what Preston can't do," said the mother of one athlete, "but what he can do. I can't imagine life for him or for our entire family with the Special Olympics."

Ultimately though, the program benefits most the athletes. As one simply put it, "We get to have a good experience. I enjoy that the most."

Deaf Awareness Week is an ongoing effort by members of the Deaf community and their friends to educate people who are not Deaf about Deafness and Deaf culture. It is a particular good example of how volunteerism is a two-way street As Dr. Susan Naeve-Velguth expressed it, "We are looking to heighten awareness about the history, language and culture of the Deaf community. . . . Basically we want people to ask themselves, 'What would it be like to be a part of the minority?'"

Begun in 2002, Deaf Awareness Week activities have often included demonstrations of American Sign Language and an Information Fair but have almost always gone beyond language demonstrations and informational programs. Among past activities are a "silent picnic," speakers and films on related subjects, and Deaf games. Deaf Awareness Week has sometimes "turned the table" on the hearing, making them the individuals in need of interpretative assistance. Programs have included storytelling in sign language, with closed captioning in English for those who do not speak ASL, and a Deaf comedian, whose jokes told in ASL were spoken by an interpreter so those with typical hearing could join in the fun.

The Campus

Over time, the physical campus and the programs offered on campus have also changed in ways to accommodate individuals with disabilities. The most direct cause for physical change was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Signed into law on July 26, 1990, the ADA was the first comprehensive civil rights law which effected disabled individuals. It was based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act but grew out of a long tradition of federal legislation to assist individuals with disabilities. This tradition dated back at least to the Smith-Fess Act of 1920, which created the National Civilian Rehabilitation Program, the first federally-funded program designed to help individuals with physical disabilities become economically independent.

Because it is a civil rights law, the ADA covered a large number of areas, which included various forms of discrimination in employment, transportation, accommodation, and telecommunications. Unlike the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the ADA went beyond banning discrimination to also require reasonable employer accommodations for employees with disabilities and accessibility requirements on all types of public accommodations.

David Ling, in the early 1990s a member of the CMU faculty and an individual who used a wheel chair for mobility, expressed the impact of the legislation this way: "What most of us have historically done as a matter of routine to accommodate students with disabilities is now a matter of law."

Ling's comments about what was a "matter of routine" at CMU had begun 20 years earlier. The first plan to adapt the campus to meet the needs of individuals with physical disabilities had been drafted in 1962, but funding was unavailable to make the necessary changes. However, in the early 1970s the University began to both plan for and address the needs of individuals with disabilities. A curb cut program was begun. Special equipment was purchased for the library to assist individuals with difficulty reading or hearing recorded material. A van to transport students in a wheelchair was purchased. The elevator in the University Center Building was modified to come to the ground level of the building, rather than stopping at the first floor, a flight of stairs above the ground. The campus environment was changing in ways that took notice of individual needs.

Many of these changes were associated with CMU Professor Charles Westie, who graduated from Central in 1945 and became a professor here in 1956. Because of injuries sustained in World War II, Westie used either a prosthetic device, crutches, or a wheelchair for mobility. He was a determined that his combat injury would not change the arc of his life, and he became an equally determined, consistent, and vocal advocate for individuals with disabilities, supporting the full development of their potential.

Westie's point of view was simple: "Many handicapped people have been denied education or employment due to the fact that most university campuses have been inaccessible." That, he believed, needed to change. "Many people react to handicapped persons in . . . stereotyped ways, the same ways they react to black people or women. They assume they are unable to perform intellectually, that they need to be taken care of, that they can't pursue an education or a career. It's not really the problem of the handicapped, it's the problem of society."

Westie did not spare his faculty colleagues from criticism for their stereotypical views. "Some faculty have effectively kept blind students out of their classes by not dealing with their special needs. To take an exam, a blind student will likely need a reader, isolation and extra time. These can easily be provided with foresight and understanding."

To deal with society's problems, in 1973 Westie helped organize the Career Development for Handicapped Persons program. Originally a volunteer organization (CDHP). CDHP served as an advocacy group for students and faculty with disabilities.

CDHP advocated for many of the same physical changes that would eventually be required by the ADA, such as accessible bathrooms and residence hall rooms, lowered drinking fountains, and placing elevators in several older buildings that lacked them. CDHP also facilitated the writing of grants for the University to fund physical changes.

Westie often personally dramatized needs. In the years prior to Michigan's adopting requirements regarding reserving parking nearby buildings for individuals with disabilities, Westie regularly parked his car as close to a campus building as possible—even though it often resulted in his car being ticketed and towed. His point was that this was a reasonable accommodation that should be made, and if others failed to recognize the need for it, that was their problem, not his.

He also reached out to help students. Michael Cooper, who arrived at Central in 1972 paralyzed from the neck down because of an accident, put it simply, "Chuck taught me everything. . . . He took me under his wing." Westie's cause was substantially aided by the Civil Rights Act of 1974, which in section 504 required public facilities to offer accessibility to all individuals.

ADA largely placed into law the kind of behaviors Charles Westie had advocated for over two decades, and that David Ling believed many at CMU had adopted. Whatever the actual situation, the legal requirements found in ADA set off a chain of activity that dramatically remade the campus environment and the lives of all students.

Adjusting the campus for the physical accommodation of those with disabilities on the scale required by the ADA proved challenging. In 1993 the University began work on an ADA Transition Plan. The plan eventually encompassed approximately 150 recommendations, which collectively were estimated to cost $2 million. The biggest campus-wide challenges included doors, elevators, and bathrooms.

Because the ADA required change but offered no funding to achieve it, implementation of the law's provisions regarding physical access and accommodation were not immediate. The law's provisions immediately effected only new construction, as well as occasions when existing buildings underwent substantial renovation. Things that could be achieved cheaply, such as more curb cuts or additional access ramps that supplemented stairs, tended to be completed quickly. Major structural changes, such as retrofitting elevators into pre-existing buildings, took longer.

This situation often led to creative solutions to brick and mortar problems. Renovating Powers Hall, which lacked an elevator and had been recognized as a particularly problematic building as early as the 1970s, was not made a priority. The School of Music, which then was housed in Powers, had a new building under construction, and the fate of Powers was uncertain. When it became clear that Powers would continue to serve as a classroom building, there were still no funds to build an elevator. The solution developed to address the building's accessibility problems was to relocate to the first floor any class in Powers in which a student needing physical accommodation had enrolled, pushing another class already on the first floor to an upper floor.

In some cases it proved less expensive to relocate a program than fix a building. In 1996 the Honors Program moved out of Larzelere Hall because moving the program to a physically accessible building was less expensive than the construction needed to make Larzelere compliant with the law.

In 1993, as University officials began to think about how the ADA would impact the campus, one of the first problems identified was mapping and maintaining the "critical path." The path was a series of walkways which linked academic buildings, parking lots, and residence halls and made it possible to go from one to another. Maps had been printed in the 1970s outlining the best routes available for individuals in wheel chairs to travel between buildings. But inclement weather conditions, such as snow or ice, could quickly make it impossible for a person using a wheelchair to move from one building to another. The first critical pathway map was published in 1994 and outlined not only the pathways, many of which had changed little from the 1970s, but also made a commitment to prioritize maintenance of those pathways when weather turned ugly. The 1994 map also included information about the location of elevators, accessible bathrooms and automatic doors. Today, the CMU Critical Path includes approximately 7.5 miles of walkways and is among the first areas cleaned when foul weather strikes
the campus.

If the Critical Path made it possible to move between buildings, the next issue was getting inside. Problems existed both getting to the building door and then opening it. In 1996 only 44 doors on campus could be opened with the push of a button.

Getting inside a building's doorway was only the first step of a journey that involved many doors and sometimes proved difficult to complete. For example, in 1997 Camille Burne, who used a wheelchair on campus, noted that while she could get into Sweeney Hall, "the doors that lead directly into the cafeteria are not accessible. If I go there [to eat] alone, I have to wait for someone to open the door."

Compliance was not just a problem in older buildings. The Park Library addition, completed in 2002, also experienced problems with interior doors. While building plans called for the newly constructed doors to meet ADA requirements, shortly after the building opened, students who used wheelchairs began to complain that they could not open the interior doors. Other students took up the cause. About a month after the building opened, Central Michigan Life editorialized that the doors represented a "gross oversight" in the building's planning.

As with many things, the devil was in the details. The ADA required that interior doors open with the application of five pounds or less of force. Experience proved that several critical interior doors within the Park Library Building, including the ones that led to the offices of Student Disability Services, required more force than was anticipated to be opened. The problematic doors were replaced with the sliding glass doors now found in several locations within the Park Library building.


As already noted, elevators were a frequent concern. ADA required access both horizontally across campus and vertically within buildings. The first elevator on the CMU campus was installed in 1924. Elevators, however, are expensive. The desire to build a new building within a limited budget led elevators to sometimes be left out of plans. In addition, planned elevators might be eliminated as a quick way to reduce building expenses if the actual cost of construction exceeded the funds available.

Elevators became a standard feature in all multi-story buildings constructed after the law passed. Retrofitting existing buildings without elevators to include these devices, however, proved a challenging task. It was 2004 when the last academic building without an elevator, venerable Powers Hall which had been a recognized problem since the 1970s, finally received one.

More subtly, many buildings with elevators still did not fully meet ADA standards. Control panels had often been placed at a height that made it impossible for a person sitting in a wheel chair to reach all of the buttons. Anspach Hall, for example, had been constructed with an elevator, but it was not until 2013 that the elevator controls became ADA compliant.

In 1996 the campus began a major project to place ADA compliant signs outside of doors. Among the earliest installed were signs either identifying an exterior door as ADA compliant or, if an exterior door was not compliant, identifying where a person could find a compliant entrance to the building. Classroom and administrative office doors also received new signs. Tactile devices such as raised letters and numbers, as well as words and numbers in Braille, were used to assist individuals with visual disabilities to more easily identify rooms and offices. Elevator buttons also had to be modified so a person could feel the directions, instead of just seeing which button to push.

In 1993, Saxe, Herring, Emmons, and Woldt Residence Halls became the first residence halls modified to meet ADA standards. Some rooms were modified to meet ADA standards and wheelchair ramps and vertical lifts were installed to remove barriers created by stairs. Over time various other pre-existing residence halls included ADA compliant rooms and barrier free adaptation or construction, while new construction was planned to be ADA compliant.

In the early 1990s entering most CMU bathrooms while using a wheel chair was next to impossible. In 1994 only 22 accessible bathrooms existed in 18 buildings. For most other bathrooms, the entry doors to the restroom were usually too small for a wheelchair to fit through. The stalls were too narrow. The toilets and sinks were placed at the wrong height. An ADA compliant bathroom required a 32-inch clear width to pass through a door, and a 60-inch square inside a stall to allow the wheelchair enough room to maneuver. Grab bars needed to be added to the rear and sides of the stall, and toilet paper holders relocated to a lower height. In addition light switches, sinks, and mirrors all also required adjustment—usually lowering. Slowly these standards were met.

College is about many things—including athletics. Spectator access to athletic facilities raised many questions regarding the ADA. In 1995, for example, funds were appropriated to pave the path to the campus's softball field, which was otherwise inaccessible to a person using a wheelchair.

Larger venues also needed significant change. Richard Knechtges chose to come to CMU because of its accessibility for disabled people. Football games, however, were a different story. When he attending the 1996 Homecoming game, Knechtges could only lament, "Most people get excited and stand up so my viewing was limited." Knechtges also discovered that because of the nature of the seating the friend he came with couldn't actually sit with him. "They should have folding chairs or something available" so friends could sit with people in wheelchairs.

In 1997 Kelly Shorts Stadium relocated barrier free seating throughout the stadium in both the student and general reserved area.

Helping Students with Disabilities

In 1975 the Career Development for Handicapped Student volunteer program became a unit of the Office of Student Affairs. The office began to issue such practical aids as a campus access map addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities, as well as transportation and specialized counseling. Eventually the office was succeeded by the Student Disabilities Service Office (SDS).

With the passing of time, SDS has proved of value not only to students with long-term disabilities but also those with temporary disabilities. Increasingly, students with long-term disabilities "knew the ropes" from their experiences in K-12 education. They had already learned the academic tools and techniques the ADA had made available to them and could define with some precision what assistance they would need from CMU. SDS staff could quickly make these services available but did not necessarily need to spend significant amounts of time educating students with permanent disabilities about what was available.  

The ADA also addressed the needs of students who experience a temporary disability, often a broken arm or leg. These students were often unaware of how they could obtain help and were both surprised by the range of services available to them while they healed and the tools they could use that had been originally developed to assist individuals with more lasting disabilities.  SDS had taken the legal requirements of the ADA and applied them in a way that led many to realize that anyone could become disabled and in need assistance.

This consciousness raising is an important part of dealing with issues related to access for persons with disabilities. Charles Westie and Davie Ling had worked hard to educate the community in this regard, but their efforts needed to be continued and repeated. New students, faculty and staff were often unaware of the challenges faced by those protected by the law.

As Lynne L'Hommedieu, director of SDS notes, "the way most people think about disability, now, my perception, is they only think of what the person can't do. Instead of thinking about what the person can do." "There really was a mindset of, … students with disabilities are special and they're different, and like, you know, that's nuts, and actually it's demeaning – I thought .. with that mindset we're thinking of them as less, somehow.  And they're not. They got into college." 

Helping students realize the wisdom in L'Hommedieu's observations, as well as inculcating an understanding of the barriers faced by disabled individuals, is an ongoing project. For example, in 2013 CMU students tried for themselves what is was like to get into a wheelchair and enter and use the bathrooms; many found it so difficult they did not get past the door: "I mean, I know it was a wheelchair accessible bathroom, but it still was harder to get to," Meggan Wesselmann said. "It was really eye-opening."

The legacy of CMU's past and ongoing efforts regarding individuals with disabilities is an important one. It builds on the insight of pioneers such as Charles Westie who pointed out to everyone who would listen that society mistakenly assumed individuals with disabilities "need to be taken care of, that they can't pursue an education or a career." He concluded, "It's not really the problem of the handicapped, it's the problem of society."

Access is an issue that can impact anyone, whether because of a permanent condition or temporary situation. As individuals age, accessibility often become more significant. By building a campus and a society that makes access available to everyone, we also build a world that ensures access and participation for all. As David Ling put it, "it's a matter of routine," one that benefits everyone.