‘I was shocked.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A wheelchair-riding TCU student gets booted off campus after secret reports by his roomies.
By BETH WREFORD
Feb. 15 was warm and clear, much like many of the days that passed for winter in Fort Worth this year. Adam Main went about his classes on TCU’s scenic, flower-laden campus unaware of how his life would change within a couple of hours.
Adam, 21, is confined to a motorized wheelchair; he suffers from Friedreich’s ataxia, an inherited disease that causes progressive damage to the nervous system and severe loss of muscle control, hindering movement and sometimes speech. A junior math major, he has attended TCU for two and a half years, doing well in his classes and enjoying college life.
When he got back to his apartment in TCU’s Tom Brown-Pete Wright living complex that day, Adam found a voice mail message from Marsha Ramsey, TCU’s director of the Center for Academic Services: “We need to talk.”
So Adam met with Ramsey and Glory Robinson, associate dean of campus life. Robinson told him that TCU was worried about his safety and would no longer let him live on campus. He’d have to leave his apartment — that night. Ramsey called Adam’s father, Ray Main, in Argyle and told him to come pick up his son immediately.
“I was shocked,” Adam said. So was his father, who nonetheless drove down and met briefly with Ramsey, then Robinson. Ray said the TCU officials didn’t even give him and Adam the opportunity to present their side of the story.
“It was all circumstantial, one-sided information,” Ray said. “The decision was already made that he was leaving.”
Adam was baffled. He said he hadn’t had any significant problems in his previous five semesters, got around the campus fairly easily, and found TCU to be, for the most part, accommodating.
Later that day, one of Adam’s roommates, Paul Downing, told Adam that he and the other roommates had gone to TCU officials with concerns about Adam. For weeks they had been secretly providing the university with information about him through e-mail. The roommates had been recording his daily struggles and living habits and surreptitiously passing the information along, while never complaining to him about the occasional inconveniences of living with a handicapped roommate.
None of Adam’s roommates — Downing, Paul Daly, and Chris White — would comment for this story.
“This year,” Ray said, “the university had suggested that we get a personal aide or attendant, so we hired a couple of young men that were working as his personal aides to come in as often as needed. He hadn’t been calling on them much, though, because his roommates said, ‘No problem. We’ll help you.’ We had no idea that they were reporting every time they helped him with something.”
Ray said that TCU had never contacted the family with any serious concerns for Adam’s health or safety and that Ramsey had been a staunch advocate for Adam. Ramsey, Ray said, had even told the family that she wanted to make Adam more visible on campus because of the diversity he could bring to the TCU student population.
Adam’s disease made living on campus a necessity because the expense of daily transportation to the school would have been prohibitive for the family. Ray said he and his son made it clear to TCU that banning Adam from living on campus was essentially the same thing as banning him from classes. “There was no way Adam could continue his education,” he said.
TCU spokeswoman Tracy Syler-Jones said this week that because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), TCU didn’t feel it was appropriate to discuss Adam’s situation publicly, in order to respect his privacy and abide by the law.
The college works to provide a safe and healthy environment for students and complies with the laws and regulations governing disabled students, she said in an e-mailed statement. “TCU strives to ensure students have a successful educational experience, and it is regrettable when a solution cannot be found within the context of these standards.”
On Feb. 16, Ray sent an e-mail to Robinson expressing the family’s concern that Adam’s “basic human rights” had been violated. “It does not seem proper that TCU officials should be able to request Adam’s roommates to secretly record and report to them incidents that might occur in Adam’s day-to-day campus life, both public and private,” he wrote. “Is this being done only because he is disabled? Is this sort of reporting being done on any other student?” He said he didn’t think Adam was in danger or that his safety was at risk more than anyone else with his condition.
In a Feb. 23 response, also by e-mail, Don Mills, vice chancellor of student affairs, listed some serious concerns about Adam’s safety, in addition to complaints involving his room not being clean, personal hygiene problems, and drinking and smoking. He noted that Adam’s roommates had been the ones to initiate the exchange of information.
Mills said the school, after further consideration, had decided Adam could move back into the residence hall, but only if a physician reviewed his living situation, met with TCU, and signed a disclosure agreement by March 3. In the time leading up to the assessment, TCU demanded Adam have a 24-hour-a-day personal assistant with him.
Ray said that over the years Adam has been evaluated by many doctors. “The doctors they send us to often don’t know what Friedreich’s is all about,” Ray said. “We know more about it than many medical professionals who may have never read about it or even heard of it.”
Ray said he’s convinced that “they could find these circumstances on any room on campus, but they can’t legally spy on people like they did to Adam.” Once a week or so, he said, “Adam might fall out of his chair, mainly while being transferred from his chair to bed or from bed to chair. In every one of those situations, he could have called a personal assistant and the university wouldn’t even have known about it. But his roommates led him to believe they could help him. He just didn’t know they were turning around and reporting it all.”
“I feel like some of these issues are circumstantial,” Adam said, “and some of them, I have no idea what they’re about. I never smoked in the apartment. I drank, but most of the time, it was with my roommates.”
Adam said he felt deeply disillusioned with the school and had decided to withdraw from his classes rather than try to get back into on-campus housing and have to live with his old roommates.
Ray said that TCU, an ADA-qualified school, should stop accepting funding from the government if it doesn’t want disabled students like Adam living on campus.
“There are people with a far greater degree of disabilities than Adam who live independently,” Ray said. “The answer is not to kick him off campus ... but rather look for ways to recognize and support the effort it takes for him to pursue his goals.”
TCU freshman Michelle Nicoud suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a scooter or walker to get around. She has lived on campus both semesters and plans to do so for the duration of her education. But TCU, she said, needs to make accessibility more of a priority and raise overall student awareness of disabilities.
“Back in November, the university cut the beginnings of a new [wheelchair-accessible] crosswalk, but has failed to cut the middle, which belongs to the city. ... TCU is clearly not pushing for it because it has been that way for six months,” Nicoud said. “All the campus bathrooms, except for the one in my bedroom, have big, heavy doors, and there are no buttons to help with opening them.”
Nicoud said at least one of the buildings doesn’t have an elevator, and everything from getting food in the cafeteria to attending football games is made more difficult by the lack of attention to the needs of those with disabilities.
Jim Hayes, founder of the University of Texas at Arlington’s Office for Students with Disabilities and coach to their “Movin’ Mavs” wheelchair basketball team, said that lifestyle and events can render anyone handicapped, and that schools are taught how to handle students with disabilities.
Hayes seemed doubtful that any student could potentially be “too handicapped” to attend college or live on campus. He cited the experience of a student who went to UTA in the ’70s successfully despite having no use of his limbs, no motorized wheelchair, and having to sleep in an iron lung in his dorm room.
Recently, the Main family contacted Advocacy Inc., a Dallas-based federally funded nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of those with disabilities.
“Both ADA and the Fair Housing Act prohibit housing discrimination against those with disabilities,” said Lanny Priddy, an Advocacy Inc. lawyer who has worked with the Main family. “However, there can be situations where the nature of the disability and the requirements for dealing with it impose such a burden on the landlord that refusal to rent or termination of a lease may be justified. Generally, landlords are supposed to make adjustments for people with disabilities.”
“I would just like my money back for the education expenses we have thrown down the drain and some assurance this will not happen again to any person in a similar situation.” Ray said. “The person this happens to kind of takes it for the future generations, creating a situation that is hopefully better for the next person.”
Adam said he’d been planning to move to California after college. “I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I was looking into actuarial work,” he said.
Now, though, he’s just hanging out at home in Argyle, trying to figure out when and where he’ll be able to return to college — and still trying to digest his departure from TCU.
Beth Wreford can be reached at
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