Harassed Disabled Student Fights Back

By: Nicole Alcindor

Purchase College parking employees harassed a disabled student and the college has failed to comply with federal and state disability law, a class-action lawsuit alleges.

“Parking and Transportation made me feel like crap,” said Kayle Hill, a junior majoring in Media, Society & the Arts who has severe psoriatic arthritis. “I cried for two days straight because school officials told me that I don’t look disabled.”

Hill says her condition limits her ability to climb stairs or steep hills because of fatigue and severe pain. After she provided documentation of her disability to Purchase, she received a college-issued parking sticker, and a handicap pass from Parking and Transportation officials. When she parked in designated accessible spaces, however, she received several parking tickets from the University Police Department.

At a follow-up meeting with Parking and Transportation officials, Hill said she experienced, “a problematic lack of sensitivity from employee officials. They said I don’t look disabled because I don’t use a wheelchair. They only let the tickets go after I made a fuss.”

The lawsuit, filed last summer with the U.S. Southern District Court of New York, notes, “These confrontations with parking enforcement personnel cause Hill serious distress, and have resulted in her missing class.”

The complaint, brought by the non-profit legal center Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of Westchester Independent Living Center, seeks remediation of all campus physical access barriers. Purchase President Thomas J. Schwarz and H. Carl McCall, chairman of the SUNY board of trustees, are named as defendants. The case is currently in the discovery phase, in which each party has the opportunity to gather evidence.

Daniel Kilkelly, marketing director of the Purchase College Association, said that after meeting with Hill, the Parking and Transportation Office “decided to make sure that in the parking rules and regulations anyone that had both the Purchase Parking permit and the state-issued parking pass could effectively park in any handicap space on campus.”

Hill’s attorney, Christina Brandt-Young, disagreed with Kilkelly’s account.

“Kayle was still harassed by a parking and transportation officer who followed her to her car, and asked her questions about the validity of her Massachusetts-issued parking pass,” Brandt-Young said. “It’s not his job to second guess the state of Massachusetts by interrogating someone about their disability.”

A member of the Disabled Students Union, Denissa Santos, said Hill’s illness has prevented her from participating in campus activities.

Christina Brandt-Young (right) is Kayle Hill’s attorney in this class action lawsuit. (Photo/Nicole Alcinor)

“Kayle is the secretary of the Disabled Students Union and we never see her because of her chronic illness,” Santos said. “She constantly has to negotiate excused absences with professors.”

According to the complaint, “Ms. Hill struggles to climb the steep hill connecting the Starbucks coffee shop with the main plaza and the Terra Ve cafeteria. After climbing this slope, she experiences pain, extreme fatigue, and heart palpitations. In addition, she has difficulty reaching her classes and other on-campus destinations because elevators are so frequently out of order, and there is no one to call for assistance.”

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Westchester Independent Living Center ADA specialist Michael Hellmann, says Purchase’s compliance problems aren’t limited to parking.

“I am a disabled person that uses a wheel chair and I wasn’t able to get to the campus Neuberger Museum because the construction is a mess,” he said.

Hellman visited the campus in the spring of 2016 to view the film “The Audience” in the Pepsico Theater and was unable to get up the curb because of the lack of accessibility.

“The school is not doing enough,” Hellman said. “The only way for them to truly see all the barriers is for them to try getting around the school using a wheelchair.”

Patrick Savolskis, Purchase’s executive director of Parking and Transportation, declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Purchase College spokeswoman Betsy Aldredge.

For his part, Kilkelly said, “I can’t appreciate the impact persons with disabilities face because I don’t have a disability.”

Although he only spoke from his position within the PCA and has no direct connection to campus construction, Kilkelly noted that the campus was built before accessibility laws were passed. “It’s easier to build new things,” he said, “than it is to break down the old and put up new accessible surroundings.”

Brandt-Young found the response inadequate.

“The law in this area has been clear for decades,” she said. “A state-funded institution has no excuse for non-compliance.”