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Separate but Unequal Dorms: How a disabled student fought for, and won, fair treatment from her university | The Nation

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Separate but Unequal Dorms: How a disabled student fought for, and won, fair treatment from her university

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Ari Paul

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Wednesday, March 14

For the most part, sophomore Bailey Gosda enjoys Texas State University (TSU). A business and accounting major, she especially likes going to football games. She enjoys living in San Marcos, which is close to both her parents' home in San Antonio and the Austin college scene.

But this month, Gosda, who uses a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, finally won a nearly two-year-long fight with TSU after she claimed it overcharged her by several thousand dollars for a wheelchair accessible dormitory room in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, making discrimination based on physical disabilities illegal.

The drama started when Gosda visited the school in 2005 for her orientation. The residence life department told her that it did not know where to house her. She had requested to live in traditional housing (the Smith building) because it was the most cost efficient, but there were no wheelchair accessible dormitory rooms there. The university then switched Gosda to a different, more expensive building with a single room, since they said a double would not have been able to fit her, a roommate, and her equipment. Gosda was now paying nearly twice as much as other first-year students for housing.

For a student with loans and little disposable income, the situation was untenable. Gosda began working with a lawyer, Lucy Wood of Advocacy, Inc., a non-profit law office in Austin focusing on disability cases. Her claim was that if the school did not provide adequate disability housing, she should not have to be the one penalized for it.

Wood started sending letters to the administration, saying that under the ADA, Gosda should only have to pay for what she requested--a dormitory room in a traditional building with a roommate--even if there was not a wheelchair accessible room available that fit that description. Wood asked that the school repay Gosda the difference.

In November 2006 the school offered Gosda a settlement of $725, which is, as a letter from Wood to the university explains, "the amount by which [Gosda's] current rent exceeds the rent paid by a student living in the less expensive Smith dorm without a roommate."

On Nov. 27, 2006, Gosda rejected the university's offer, claiming that this settlement offer did not take into account her first year of overpayment nor the fact that she never requested a private room in the first place. Wood sent the university a letter asking for $4,591.50 to settle the claim, without threatening litigation. After that, Gosda was overcharged by another $1000 and told the school she could not pay this amount. The school told her, she recalled, that if she did not pay on time it would withhold her grades.

The university has now agreed to refund Gosda $6,000, according to Wood, while a university attorney has neither confirmed nor denied the details of the settlement. "I'm happy they came to an agreement," Gosda said.

For Wood, Gosda's case was about something more than money. "I took this case because I felt a student shouldn't have to pay for access features that they need," she said.

While Wood's legal work deals mostly with the private sector, she added that Gosda's case is not an isolated incident. "I think it's not unusual that there are universities receiving federal funding that have some shortage of accessible housing," Wood said.

Janet Cartwright agrees. She is an attorney with Equip for Equality in Rock Island, Ill., dealing with similar cases statewide. She said sometimes universities believe that a disabled student must have one's own room because of the student's equipment, even if that student wants a roommate, which is often the cheaper housing option. "That's discrimination," she said.

With this struggle behind her, Gosda wants to make sure that such an injustice does not happen again to other students. Wood drafted a policy with Gosda's approval for the university to adopt. The main point of the policy would require the university to hire people to specifically help students with disabilities find proper housing at a fair price and address any problems those students faced. Gosda maintains that when she came to the school's existing disability services center seeking assistance, they "threw up their hands" and said they could not help her.

"We provided her with the same level of service we provide for any other student," said Tina Schultz, director of disability services at Texas State.

The office has received the drafted policy but has yet to review it. "We may or may not accept all or parts of it," Schultz said.

Gosda is happy about the settlement and is hoping that the university will consider the policy she and her lawyer submitted, but she is still waiting for one more thing: an apology. "The school still says they haven't done anything wrong," she said. "Then why are they giving me money?"

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