UM law school makes case for high-tech accessibility

Downtown: The campus' new $54 million building at Paca and West Baltimore streets is wired for tomorrow, designed to welcome the disabled.

September 19, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Aspiring law students knew they would get to study in a brand new building this fall if they got into the University of Maryland School of Law. That's one reason applications to the downtown Baltimore school increased 85 percent last year - the largest jump in the country.

But no one expected this. The building that opened to students this month is a $54 million palace wired with enough technology to run a small movie studio.

The floor is made of slate from Norwegian fjords, and everything else, it seems, is made of cherry wood, right down to the London-style telephone booths in the lounge.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions understated the enrollment of the University of Maryland law school. It has 878 students. The Sun regrets the errors.

It's enough to make one dizzy - that is, if it weren't for the hallway carpets. They are designed with "non-directional" patterns meant to deter dizziness among the vertigo-prone, part of the law school's painstaking effort to accommodate the disabled.

For students, the building - to be dedicated tomorrow in a ceremony involving Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg - is the most significant evidence that Maryland's top-ranked law school is on the rise.

"There's so much here that I haven't seen anywhere else," said Laura Hammel, a third-year student from Baltimore County. "We got so lucky."

Perhaps the most notable feature of the new building at Paca and West Baltimore streets is also its least conspicuous - a sensitivity to the needs of disabled students that law school officials say might be without peer in higher education.

The measures go far beyond what is required by federal law and are not likely to be noticed if they aren't pointed out. For the hearing-impaired, there is a transmitter inside a classroom ceiling that runs on the same frequency as hearing aids and allows their wearers to sit in the back of the room and hear clearly.

For those who use wheelchairs, corridors are wide enough for two chairs to pass, and a separate entrance by the handicapped parking spots has its own elevator stop.

The renovated library, in a wing of the old school that was not replaced, has a new check-out counter low enough for wheelchair users to see over; reading tables designed to allow wheelchairs to slide under; and a book-detection gate without the usual magnetic strip on the floor, to spare wheelchairs the bump of riding over it.

Law school officials say the commitment to handicapped accessibility is far more than a law school lesson in the importance of guarding against legal liabilities. After having difficulties with wheelchair lifts that occasionally stalled in the old building, they said, they were going to do everything it took to avoid such awkward situations.

"It's an example of the importance we place on individual dignity. It's not just a matter of people being able to get to places, it's a matter of doing it in a way that doesn't impair their humanity," said Professor Alan D. Hornstein, a member of the school's building committee.

None of the school's 600 students uses a wheelchair, but Dean Karen Rothenberg said it could become a beacon for disabled students.

"It will become a model, one in which students who are handicapped say, `This is where I want to be,' not just because it's easier to get around but because it sends a message about the kind of culture we embrace," she said.

The school doesn't appear to need more draws for students in general. It received nearly 5,000 applications for this year's class of 225, resulting in an acceptance rate of 12 percent, by far its lowest ever. School officials point to the growing reputation of the University of Maryland system as a whole, the renaissance of Baltimore's west side and the strength of the school's clinical programs as reasons for the surge.

In addition, the school offers technology in classrooms that allows faculty members to incorporate the Internet and Power Point in instruction. Another program transfers professors' chalkboard notations onto a computer program, saving students from having to scribble them down.

The school's three courtrooms - each with cherry walls, judge's benches and jury boxes - are equipped with recording equipment and control rooms that allow students to review tapes of their performances in mock trial arguments.

"This isn't just setting up a camera and getting a wide-angle shot. We're interested in interactions. With this, we can get students' and witnesses' body language, or a double shot so you get the faces of the jurors so you see what they thought of a question," said Mary Cornaby, the assistant dean for technology.

Before, students had to go down the street to the U.S. District courthouse for their mock trial contests. Now, at least two state and federal courts are scheduled to hold occasional sessions at the school.

For now, students and faculty membersare getting accustomed to the high-tech riches. Hammel, the third-year student, said the "technology is great," but the most use her classes have made of it is to show clips from Law and Order and E.R. to illustrate legal points.

A friend of hers, third-year student Lauren Silverman of Rockville, said the TV sessions featured another high-tech perk: "Even the window shades are remote control. It's so cool."

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