At least 40 students say Brigham Young University discriminates against those with disabilities. But the school says some of those accounts ‘are inaccurate.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kendra Muller is leading a group that's challenging how BYU accommodates students with disabilities. Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

When Kendra Muller called the accessibility center at Brigham Young University last year, she said, she was told the school didn’t have enough van accessible parking stalls for her to be assigned one.

The Provo campus has only a handful of reserved spots for those in wheelchairs, she recalled the staffer saying. And, the woman added, “whoever is the most disabled gets one.”

Muller, who has been paralyzed since she broke her neck at 14, had finally saved enough money to buy a special van that she could drive to class. Unsure how to respond, she asked her doctor for a note specifying she had to have an accessible stall with extra room for her to wheel out. With that, she got a space.

On her way out of the center, Muller said, an employee there told her: “Consider yourself lucky.” She didn’t feel that way.

“We shouldn’t have to fight over who is ‘the most disabled.’ That’s not even a thing,” Muller said. “If BYU had five students who really did need to use those parking spots, they should put in the effort to ensure all five had access.”

But that wasn’t the first time Muller was left frustrated by an exchange with the center.

Now, hoping to improve its support for others, she has helped to gather personal accounts from more than 40 current and former students with disabilities. They contend that the center has for years ignored or been dismissive of their concerns, pressured some freshmen out of asking for help and done little to improve the school’s accessibility.

One student with hearing loss said she was told she came in too late in the semester to get accommodations. Another with anxiety said she waited three months for an appointment and when she went in, counselors said they had lost her paperwork. Others have raised concerns about the buttons to open automatic doors not working — despite requests to fix them. A few have said there are not enough accessible restrooms on campus, and many are mislabeled.

Students have created their own Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission, which has drafted a 100-page report for administrators. Along with their concerns, complaints and personal stories, it includes a list of recommendations. The top suggestion: Meet with students with disabilities and listen to the obstacles they’ve faced.

The school largely denies the students’ allegations. Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said BYU “has a robust program for providing accommodations to students with disabilities." It promptly fixes broken doors, she added, and has 520 stalls labeled as accessible parking, as well as a few reserved spaces that rotate among students who have “specific, extenuating circumstances.”

The school also allows students with a disability placard to park in any lot on campus, she said.

In an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, Jenkins said the commission is “a group of a few students and former students” and the information they have collected was “through an approach that was likely biased.”

“Some of the facts and opinions asserted by the students are inaccurate,” she added.

‘I didn’t feel comfortable’

Muller stopped at the top of a set of stairs, looking down at the Herald R. Clark Building on lower campus. “There’s no way to get down here,” she said. “I have to go around.”

So Muller pushed her wheelchair in the opposite direction, past three buildings, down a long ramp and around a railing before braking to take a breath. After four years, she has figured out how to navigate a campus that didn’t have students with disabilities in mind when it was built.

Sure, she acknowledged, that’s the case with many universities across the country. But in her experience, she said, BYU doesn’t seem to want to make improvements.

Muller, who graduated this spring, said she began asking the accessibility center for help four years ago as a freshman. Each time she went in, Muller said, she felt talked down to. When she asked for a map of the ramps she could use to get around, she said, staff told her it wasn’t their job to find them.

One term, when she came back from emergency surgery near the end of classes, accessibility staff told her there wasn’t anything they could do and she’d have to drop her courses, she said.

Over time, she has learned to follow a mental map of where to go and which elevators to avoid and how to get into buildings. When she created a literal map after her freshman year and gave it to the center to put online for other students with disabilities, Muller said, the staff refused.

She refined it after her second year and presented it again. She tried another time after her third year. Now, after her fourth and final year, it’s not posted anywhere and she’s fed up.

On this sunny Wednesday at the end of April, Muller was going to meet with a group of friends on the commission who all had a short break from taking finals and were using it to talk about their own experiences with accessibility at BYU — and what they might be able to do to get things to change.

“For starters, the school definitely needs to be more transparent,” said Megan McLaws, who sat at the table ready to brainstorm while Muller took out a notebook.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Megan McLaws talks with Kendra Muller about accessibility issues on BYU campus, Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

McLaws, 21, was born with multiple disabilities, including hearing loss and vision problems. A few weeks into her first semester at BYU, she said, she brought doctor’s notes and the results of past audio exams into the accessibility center to get accommodations for her classes, including a note taker and some flexibility on turning in assignments.

Staff told her to come back another time, she said. When she did, they said they didn’t have her papers any more and she’d need to get new copies. After she brought those in, they said it was too late in the semester for them to help, she said.

“I was denied accommodations,” McLaws said. “I didn’t feel comfortable going back.”

McLaws said she did eventually return to the center after more than two years at BYU; but it was still a challenge to work with the employees. And she was asked to return every semester for a renewal.

Heidi Jensen, a recent graduate who has anxiety, said she tried to get approval from the center to bring her service dog to campus and the staff was always too busy to meet with her.

“Eventually I just gave up,” she told The Tribune. “It wasn’t a great process.”

She’d like to see the center clearly tell students what it requires for an appointment and how to get accommodations. And it should see anxiety, Jensen added, as the serious disability that it can be. Based on her interactions with staff, she believes some members treat it as though it’s made up.

Other students have complained about delayed appointments, accommodations denied without an explanation and hostility from center employees. None of the staff appear to have physical disabilities themselves, others suggested, and don’t seem to understand what students who do are going through. Professors on campus don’t always observe accommodations, even when they’re granted, they said.

Some of the students who shared their stories with The Tribune said they were afraid to be named for fear that talking about their frustrations might make it even harder to get help.

The center’s director referred questions to Jenkins.

Is BYU breaking the law?

BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is both religious and private. That makes it exempt from the biggest and most comprehensive law protecting those with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act gives specific guidelines for how many accessible restrooms a place must have, how high ramps should be, how to properly label access points. In the broadest stroke, it prohibits discrimination.

But BYU must abide by only one section — 504 — of the less detailed Rehabilitation Act, which generally says to treat those with disabilities equally. There are few specifications.

Members of the student commission don’t believe even that lower bar is being reached. In their report for administrators, they say they have documented at least 10 ways in which the act was violated. That includes counts of general discrimination, as well unlawfully denying accommodations.

The commission argues that the school has kept students with disabilities from playing on intramural sports teams, made living in on-campus housing difficult and failed to make updates to improve accessibility.

Several students say although they have a parking permit, there’s not enough space next to stalls and they have to roll their wheelchair into oncoming traffic to get out. “I’ve almost been hit,” said sophomore Jonathan Phelps. “There’s no curb next to it to go onto the sidewalk.”

Many more point to the buttons for automatic doors not working — and no one repairing them despite reports to the accessibility center. Muller pushed her chair to a door at the Talmage Building at BYU to prove it. “This one has been broken for a month,” she said.

“If somebody points out to them that these are broken and they don’t get fixed in a timely manner, that’s when you’d run into a violation,” said Nate Crippes, an attorney with the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City.

Donae Lewis, who uses a power chair on campus, said one automatic door shut on her before she could get through and it broke her foot. Phelps, who sometimes uses a wheelchair for his osteogenesis (a disease that makes his bones brittle), noted it’s impossible to get through some double doors, which are too heavy to hold open.

Alexandra Malouf, a recent graduate who was denied assistance after hip surgery and alternated between crutches and a wheelchair, said she smashed her hands often because the door frames were too narrow to fit through in a chair. She also said walkways were rarely cleared of ice in the winter and it was hard to find a route that avoided stairs. When she asked to use one of the many golf carts on campus — which staff sometimes use to drive athletes around — she was told no, she said.

Muller mentions a time she was in the library during a fire alarm; she was studying on the fourth floor and couldn’t get out because the elevators were shut down. No one offered to help, she said.

Since then, she’s looked for evacuation chairs in buildings; with the assistance of another person, they help people in wheelchairs get down stairs. Few have them, she said. The tallest on campus — Kimball Tower — has 12 floors and only one chair tucked away at the top, she said.

The same building has just one accessible restroom on the bottom floor; Muller said she missed her first class there during freshman year while she was trying to find it.

In her response, Jenkins said the school complies with all applicable disability laws. BYU, she added, “strives to fix a broken door as soon as we receive a report" and is working with new technology to have doors open from an app.

“Too often we find out that a door has been broken, and we have not received a report,” Jenkins said. “We are working to make sure students know where to report any such problems.”

In following federal law — and because it receives federal funding — BYU should, at a minimum, be providing reasonable accommodations when requested and requiring professors to observe those, Crippes said. The school says it is doing so, and helped 3,000 students in 2018.

Those on the commission say they are concerned that many requests are instead denied or accommodations are not enforced.

Requests for change

Muller pushed past crowds of people studying in the atrium of the student center, wheeled around lines in the cafeteria and took a sharp left before a set of doors leading out of the building.

Back here, down a long, dim hallway and with a few pieces of paper taped to the walls pointing the way, is BYU’s accessibility center. The signs are not in Braille, so blind students wouldn’t be able to read them. Despite requests to not block the area — because students in wheelchairs and some who are blind need access — there are trays and carts stacked up from the kitchen.

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) These signs point BYU students to the accessibility center on campus, which is housed in a small room in a back hallway of the student center. They're printed on paper, and there's no Braille for students who are blind.

“It feels like BYU is ashamed of us,” Muller said. “We’re hidden in this back alley. You would never know where it was.” Amanda Chase, who has a severe migraine disease and has sought accommodations there, added: “It further alienates you.”

Muller feels the center should be advertised more, and if possible, moved to an open, public location.

The center is tucked away for privacy, Jenkins countered. But it was also put there to be accessible; it’s “in the heart of campus,” there are parking stalls designed for people with disabilities and a ramp leading to the door, she said. Most students, she said, have said in a survey that they like where it is.

Muller also wants to see an effort to make campus more physically accessible — with the accessibility center taking the lead on fixing doors, labeling restrooms, providing maps of ramps, and including more signs with Braille.

The commission, as a whole, is asking for university staff to undergo more sensitivity training, to recognize that discrimination has occurred and commit to improvements.

The accessibility center, in particular, should streamline its process; an independent audit should assess its staff and more employees with physical disabilities should be hired, the commission suggests. Currently, Jenkins said, there are 50 personnel “all dedicated to facilitating disability accommodations for students.”

Though Jenkins challenges some of the commission’s claims, she said administrators have met with the members to hear their concerns. They have referred the recommendations to BYU’s Disability Standards Compliance Committee for evaluation.

Muller will soon be starting law school in California. She intends to focus on disability rights and plans to study other universities and how they work with students who need assistance. She said she believes BYU staff are too quick to discount student experiences.

Commission members are not trying to attack the school or the LDS Church, Muller said; they just want improvements made.

“You see this bathroom,” Muller noted from a hallway. “It says it’s accessible. But there’s a giant pole in my way. I can’t even get in the handicap stall.”

She added: “Right now, BYU is pretending to be accessible.”