ORONO – Last January, the snow was beginning to fall and cold air swirled inside the University of Maine’s new Access Van when driver Matt Jackins lowered the hydraulic wheelchair ramp for student Svetlana Miljkovic outside Gannett Hall.
Once “Lana” Miljkovic wheeled into the van and the doors closed, hot air with the clean smell of a new car blew hard from front and rear heaters.
It would be a comfortable ride to her first class of the day for the molecular biology and German major from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, who lost the use of her legs after being shot in the back 13 years ago in her war-torn homeland.
“This campus is huge for someone on crutches,” Ann Smith, director of UMaine’s Disability Support Services, said later, explaining how the journey across campus in the rain or snowy, slushy or icy conditions can be health-threatening to people on crutches, in wheelchairs or trying to walk with painful afflictions.
That’s why Smith is excited about the recent purchase of a new van used to ferry students with mobility challenges from dorms to classes, the library or meetings. The white 350 Ford Econoline van, the third since Disability Support Services began transporting students with disabilities in the 1980s, has more safety features, a reliable wheelchair ramp and powerful heaters, among other things.
It replaces the old green Econoline the university has used for 12 years, which was beginning to fail, Smith says.
The new van also bears a new name, which has changed from the Helping Hands Van to the Access Van. The name change is meant to shift from a name that suggests its riders need help to one more reflective of independence through accessibility, she says.
Miljkovic also likes the new van. “It’s more reliable than the old one,” she says, recalling the time the lift stuck and Jackins, an elementary education major from Dover-Foxcroft, had to carry her off the van.
Adam Stone of Bangor, an economics major who also uses the van to carry him and his wheelchair from class to class, says he no longer needs to worry about failing ramp lifts.
“I need to get from A to B and I can get the job done” efficiently, thanks to the reliability of the new vehicle” he says. Stone remembers a winter evening last year when the lift on the Bangor-area bus system failed and he was told he would have to wait for a second bus to see if its lift system would work. Such unknowns add uncertainty to lives already complicated by special needs.
“It’s not just wheelchairs,” adds Smith. “We have people who have lung disorders, back injuries, people who slip on the ice or athletes who have had surgery.”
The office, which operates within the Division of Lifelong Learning, schedules between 15 and 20 runs a day with a staff of about five student work-study drivers for students with special transportation needs. The office made 661 trips last spring semester and 750 in the fall. “It’s a very heavily used service,” Smith says.
Smith says her staff and the UMaine President’s Council on Disabilities is looking to improve campus accessibility in many other ways, also. The van is “an example of an issue that was brought to our attention, the need was identified and action was taken,” she says.
The President’s Council has just posted an online survey for students and employees to list any accessibility issues they are concerned about. The site can be accessed at www.umaine.edu/councilondisabilities/.
The mission of Disability Support Services includes providing or coordinating services for students with disabilities, from personal, educational and vocational counseling to providing readers, tape recorders, note takers and ordering taped texts or classroom alternatives. It also sees that facilities are acoustically and visually accessible for people with disabilities.