Alice Wong, Project Coordinator of the Disability Visibility Project, interviewed Eric Koenig, former Director of the Office of Student Life at the University of California, San Francisco, on October 25, 2014 at StoryCorps San Francisco.
In 1987 there were two students with disabilities at University of California, San Francisco. By 2013, there were over 150 students with disabilities. As a new student to UCSF in the late 1990s, Eric was one of the first people from the school that Alice met.
This is the last of two blog posts. Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
On learning about the ADA in the early 1990s
Eric: …to be honest with you, working in students disabilities services was one small piece of my job…one of the biggest benefits to my training and orientation in the area of disability services was I met once a quarter with the other directors of disability services on the other UC campuses and it happened to be a very, very dynamic group with a number of pioneering leaders and a lot of people with disabilities and who are managers in higher education.
The Rehab Act that occurred in the early 70s really affected the campuses, but it was the ADA that, you know, affected the employment sector, including university campuses, but this group that I was in was so excited about the ADA. They caught my attention. many of them pioneers, and they were seeing the ADA as, you know, being just landmark legislation, and it caught my attention.
Impact of the ADA on the UCSF campus
Eric: I remember when it was passed, they were just absolutely thrilled and I grew to understand [that the] laws were in place to ensure accessibility for students. It was the ADA that pushed the awareness, most people on campus that don’t know about Section 504 [of the Rehab Act]. They know about the ADA. So there were a number of rollouts of presentations and information mainly from an employment context, but it did start to open up the changes to the physical barriers….So it was fun to see…how the ADA started to change things. There was a large committee where all the different stakeholders that were effected by, you know, changes in accessibility requirements, parking and transportation and facilities design, the architects and designers and so forth on the campus. And so there was a large group that was formed and certain changes were prioritized right away.
Expanding elevator accessibility on campus
Eric: …because of budget, not everything was done, and you know, later on when you arrived and you pointed out the elevator buttons were vertical and some people who use chairs couldn’t reach the higher buttons to get to the higher floors.
Alice: ‘Cuz there there’s like so many floors and there’s like several rows of vertical buttons. There’s absolutely no way to [reach all of them from a sitting position] and I remember we met with one of the people in facilities management or an architect and I proposed adding an additional panel, a horizontal panel and he’s like, “Oh, we can do that!” And now there are horizontal panels on these elevators that are used by visitors, patients, staff, students, and… whenever I see it, it makes me smile because I know that it started with [my] individual need but, you know…these simple accommodations really make a difference in everybody’s lives.
Eric: It’s the universal design.
Alice: And I notice in elevators able-bodied people who, let’s say that the elevator is full, they’ll use the side buttons because they are by the side of the elevator door. They can’t get to the front where all the buttons are so I see how everybody is using them and that makes me so happy.
Eric: …the elevator button story is I think one of the greatest ones that we worked on on the campus and I too, whenever I walk in an elevator on that campus, I actually think of you. [It] is a really beautiful story about how change occurs, because what happened was, if I’m recalling this correctly, the Muni stop [at Arguello and Irving] was made accessible…which gave you much better options for travelling independently on public transportation. The bad news was the stop was near an elevator in the dark corner of a basement of a building.
[And] one evening at 10:30 or 11 at night you were wait [by yourself because you couldn’t reach the buttons inside] the elevator. And that’s a safety problem and I immediately thought, “Okay. One, this change should occur. But two, you know, a member of our campus community or a patient or visitor could be compromised in a position. You know, of safety. And so we used that and also the fact, and got together with key people. And, I think we actually…went to an elevator…
Alice: I think I had [to demonstrate it] and I think having a real person who uses it really sealed the deal for these engineers. And they were like, “Oh yeah, we can do that.” They saw and they got it.
Eric: Right….it was one of those aha moments where people who are in design positions and maintenance positions never, it never occurred to them.
I really love this story because the campus has a lot of elevators and you know at first, the folks we were dealing with were, you know, looked at it and the wheels were turning going yeah, we should do something and then the dollar signs were starting to turn over. And so the approach that we took was, well, what are your paths of travel?
They were managing the budget issues [and] wanted you to be accommodated, but they then made a commitment and every time an elevator was gonna be renovated a a horizontal pattern would be included. I thought it was just, you know, a beautiful example of how an institutional change…recognizing that a member of the campus community could not freely and independently move around the campus so they let you provide a list and say, here’s where I go.
Eric: And they did it. And then sure enough every time an elevator, in fact. They didn’t even, ultimately, they didn’t even wait to renovate the elevators…They just started putting them everywhere. Again, you were in a position to point out a need and did so in a very gracious, certainly assertive [manner] and you engage the right people.
Alice: …and this is where [this] wonderful partnership works, where you connect me and with your [colleagues] and you were with me in these conversations and meetings and that added a lot of weight. It wasn’t just this student coming to see this engineer or architect. It’s this idea that offices that serve students with disabilities really should be the advocates and allies of the student.
Eric Koenig had a 35-year career in student services on three University of California campuses. He served as the Director of the Office of Student Life at the University of California, San Francisco for 25 years where he was responsible for a group of diverse student services including Student Disability Services. Eric retired from UCSF in 2013. He is a lover of all things Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Alice Wong is a Staff Research Associate, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Alice works on various research projects for the Community Living Policy Center, a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administration for Community Living. She is an author of online curricula for home care providers and caregivers for Elsevier’s College of Personal Assistance and Caregiving. Currently, she is the Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project: A Community Partnership with StoryCorps.