Request that Penn State revise its instructions to its law firm regarding ADA issues

Open letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson

Dear President Erickson:

I am reliably informed that under the administration of former President Graham Spanier, it was Penn State policy not to resolve expeditiously Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complaints raised by disabled students and other disabled members of the Penn State community.

Instead the University’s policy was to take a hard-line on ADA issues, not mediate their resolution, but litigate vigorously with the intention not necessarily of winning on the merits, but rather of exhausting the resources of disabled individuals by forcing them to drop their requests for relief because they could not afford lengthy legal representation.

It is my understanding that President Spanier’s policy was part of what Judge Freeh referred to in his report as the “football culture” at Penn State that he said requires extensive reexamination. I am told that President Spanier’s motivation was to reduce the presence of disabled individuals on campus so as not to dissuade parents of prospective football players from having their sons join the team.

I hereby request that you change Penn State’s policy so that legitimate ADA complaints can be resolved quickly, humanely, and at less cost to the University.

Thank you.


Joel Solkoff, advocate for disabled and elderly individuals, State College, PA


John Bertoty co-founder of Blueroof

John Bertoty (right) is Executive Director of Blueroof Technologies, Inc. This is a position John has held for the past 10 years when he founded Blueroof with Robert Walters (left). Listen to one of the sounds you might hear after you enter the front door.


In 2002, John was Academic Principal, McKeesport Area High School, McKeesport, Pennsylvania. John writes that he was “responsible for all aspects of the academic program (1500 Students).”

This following is a photograph of McKeesport Area High School as it is today:

The website All About McKeesport Area High School and Technology Center notes:

“The high school became a Grade 9-12 building with the start of the 2000-2001 school year. In 2003-2004, new additions to the high school building provided room for the five remaining vocational/technical classes that were housed at North Hall. Culinary Arts, Cosmetology, Building Construction, Auto Body, and Auto Mechanics are now all a part of the comprehensive high school that offers its entire academic and vocational/technical curriculum under one roof.”

At the same time John was Principal, he also served as Acting Director of Vocational Education with full responsibility for the 700 student vocational/technical center. Indeed, it was John’s passion for vocational educational that led him to join with Robert Walters, a professor of engineering at the local Penn State campus, to create Blueroof.  As Blueroof noted in its initial website: “Blueroof will use innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship to develop state-of-the-art living facilities that will keep senior citizens safer, healthier, and living independently at home as long as possible.”


John Bertoty‘s Facebook picture

John’s perspective focused on the fact that the school system was training workers for technical jobs which required, in Rust-Belt-devastated McKeesport, that the young people leave the area to obtain work. One goal of Blueroof was to keep young, skilled workers in McKeesport constructing badly needed housing for the elderly and disabled who have been left behind by the exodus.

In 1940, McKeesport had a population of 55,000 residents. According to the 2010 Census, McKeesport’s population is 19,731. McKeesport, just outside of Pittsburgh at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers, was steel country.

The largest employer, National Tube Works, once employed 10,000 workers. Now the factory—which graced the cover of postcards—is out of business. At its height, Tube City, as McKeesport was called, took pride in the fact that it was the largest supplier of tubing without seams in the world.

Site of U.S. Steel Tube Works, McKeesport

Tube City established a reputation for innovation which, according to Bob Walters, meant that in the 1950s, McKeesport had more patent attorneys than Pittsburgh. Penn State, the largest university in Pennsylvania established a campus at McKeesport which bore the city’s name, but when the city’s reputation became unsavory, the University changed the campus name to Greater Allegheny.

John Bertoty co-authored a scholarly paper on the program he helped found writing, “In 2005, Blueroof Technologies completed construction and dedication of its model Smart Cottage [shown in the photograph above], located at 400 Spring Street in the Third Ward of McKeesport.

“The model Smart Cottage was built to demonstrate and test the monitoring technology features and functions.  In addition, Blueroof used the Smart Cottage to guide the development of a floor plan that utilized universal design concepts; this enables it to be adapted to the ever-changing and unique personal needs of each individual owner in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“A modular home is a structure designed and built for residential use; constructed in one or more three-dimensional modules in a factory, and transported to the home site for final assembly and completion on a permanent foundation.

“Using modular home construction techniques, the Smart Cottage is easily replicated for new construction at a cost of approximately $150,000, excluding land cost.  About $10,000 (6.7%) of this $150,000 cost is associated with the technology add-ons (materials and labor) to facilitate aging in place.  The basic information technology infrastructure (wiring, controller, basic sensors) adds ~$2,000.  Internet connectivity, a computer server and an enhanced sensor array add ~$3,000.  Networked cameras and a more advanced sensor array add ~$5,000.”


As the first invited guest to spend the night at the Experimental Cottage, it is difficult to describe the feeling of exhilaration I felt sleeping in an apartment designed to meet my specific needs as a person who cannot walk. For about two years, I have been working at Penn State’s Immersive Construction (ICON) Lab working with graduate assistant and 3-D modeller Sonali Kumar to develop a virtual reality demonstration of how residences for elderly and disabled people, such as myself, should be built. The model is based on the reality of the cottage in which I was sleeping and living for two days, using, for example, an expertly designed roll-in shower where I did not fear about falling because the grab bars and shower seat fit so comfortably. I had served as Sonali’s model for the avatar in virtual reality and there were moments when I half expected to bump into myself going into the shower.

avatar in shower

If you go to this link at 9 am, (you do not need to log in, but you may have to wait because only one user can use the remote camera at a time), you will see John Bertoty sipping his one deeply cherished mug of coffee for the day, talking with Bob Walters and Rich Knapick, who designs the remote sensing equipment, and the rest of the crew, planning the day.

My first day of my two night stay, John had me drive my POV [Power Operated Vehicle] scooter to his car and I transferred to the passenger seat and took the tour. We seemed to go everywhere and everywhere we went, everyone knew John Bertoty.

“Sometimes,” John later told me, “I will see someone who was a student I expelled, and he will come up to me and apologize for having behaved so poorly 15 years ago.” John is the kind of guy, a respected former principal who has been in the area for generations, everyone likes. He is well-equipped to coordinate the area’s human and other resources into creating the kind of housing that will revolutionize the construction of residences for the elderly and disabled. All he needs are the right tools.

Segregation threatens your soul

From Where I Sit: My column in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, October 2010

“Trouble, trouble, I have had trouble all my days. / It seems like trouble going to follow me to my grave,” sang the great blues artist Bessie Smith. An African-American, Smith’s skin color put her in her grave, according to the authoritative American National Biography: “On 26 September 1937, with Richard Morgan at the wheel, her car collided with a truck, parked without lights on the roadside at Coahoma, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. Because of her skin color, she was refused admission in nearby hospitals and therefore had to be taken to an African-American hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi—over200 miles from the accident site. Never regaining consciousness, she died eight and a half hours after the time of the accident due to internal injuries and loss of blood.”

I am in the Corner Room having breakfast and staring at two photographs. The first is Elliott Erwitt’s 1950 photograph of a black man drinking from a segregated water fountain. Above his head is the sign “Colored.” To the left is another water fountain with the sign “White.” The white water fountain is refrigerated. The colored one is not.

When the photograph was taken, it was illegal for the black man to drink from the white fountain. If he had tried and been caught, the police would have arrested him and taken him to jail; he would have been tried, sentenced and imprisoned. In the segregated South, black men “who did not know their place” were lynched for less.

The second photograph is of the entrance to Ye Olde College Diner just up the street. Clearly, no human being in a wheel chair can enter even though we are celebrating this year the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) when the president said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” At the College Diner, across the street from Penn State, the shameful wall of exclusion remains.

Why this form of State College segregation remains is the subject of this column. I compare the State College Diner to my experiences during the Civil Rights Movement in the South where, in 1962, at the age of 14, I participated with two black ministers in a restaurant sit in at a bus terminal in Athens, Georgia. At the time I lived in Atlanta, where blacks and whites could not eat together in the same restaurant, sleep in the same hotel, go to the same bathrooms, attend the same schools, swim in the same pools, or marry each other. Integrated protestors were arrested for praying in white churches.

That year I attended the Ebenezer Baptist Church and watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach a sermon on the spiritual effects of injustice which apply to the owners and patrons of State College’s Diner. The following year I heard Dr. King at the March on Washington say, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’”

Laws are not the solutions to all our problems. The loophole in the ADA that permits the Diner to be inaccessible to the disabled relates to buildings constructed before the ADA went into effect. The law could be changed. But does it need to be changed? If the patrons of the restaurant realized the assault on the dignity of human beings who happen to be unable to walk, the loss of business would force the owners to construct what could be a relatively inexpensive ramp.

If the cost to the business endangers its survival, the community can contribute to the ramp. There could be bake sales at religious institutions. Grant proposals could be written. What is intolerable is the on-going assault to the dignity of those of us who are unable to walk, see, or hear—the assault perpetuated and tolerated by those of you able bodied people who do not realize segregation exists here and now.

Do we really need more laws to protect the disabled and elderly against the numerous daily forms of segregation you impose upon us? Didn’t God give you immortal souls and the injunction to do unto others as you would have others do unto you?

—Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected]
or at

Post Script: This election season has been disappointing. It is useful to remember that if we treat each other as human beings we can avoid expensive and unnecessary legislation.

Nevertheless, we must prepare for the next election. A new organization, Disabled and Elderly Informed Voters for Equal Rights (DELIVER), will endorse candidates and support legislation. Voices of Central Pennsylvania and its columnists are not permitted to endorse candidates or legislation due to its nonprofit status.

Meanwhile, this column at Voices of Centrral Pennsylvania provides detailed information on disability and elderly issues not available elsewhere. Medical suppliers, rehabilitation counselors, and others must advertise in Voices. As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”

Elliott’s Erwitt’s photograph of segregated drinking fountains in the US South is widely regarded as one of the best photographs of the Twentieth Century

Ask candidates their position on disabled, elderly voters

From Where I Sit: My column in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, September 2010

“Who will protect us against the protectors?” Plato (428-348 BC) asks. Over the years, in a variety of situations, it has become useful to question what happens when people put in charge of helping others help themselves.

The question came quickly to mind Aug. 5 when I arrived in my power chair at the Spats Restaurant on College Avenue only to realize that I could not enter because there was a series of stairs. The previous week marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) providing, among other things, wheelchair access to public accommodations. President George H. W. Bush said: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Here in State College, Pa., the shameful wall of exclusion continues in three prominent restaurants: Ye Olde College Diner, Baby’s, and Spats. They are exempted because they were constructed before the ADA went into effect. Today, access would be relatively easy because technology has developed attractive, low-cost ramps.

What makes my exclusion from Spats especially annoying is that the three people I was planning to see were disability professionals in town for a large autism conference—two of whom were reimbursed for the expense of their meals from their school’s budget on special education (that is, education for the disabled) and one of whom, an independent contractor with an autism patient who also has a physical disability, will be deducting the cost from her income tax.

There is arrogance here, especially profound because three individuals who are paid to help people in the disability community are unaware that it is immoral to patronize an establishment where disabled people cannot go. Imagine: when I was in the Civil Rights Movement and picketed a segregated whites only rrestaurant if I left the picket line and had lunch in the same restaurant I was picketing.

Only my insensitive disability workers did worse than that. They ate for free on subsidies paid for by federal and state funds—subsidies intended for the disabled. The federal tax code should be changed to prohibit deductions for otherwise legitimate expenses if the expenses are incurred in a restaurant that denies access to the disabled. The legislation might include a provision providing tax breaks when ramps are added to an establishment.

This is the first of my three-part series on candidates committed to bettering the lives of elderly and disabled voters here in Centre County or risk losing my personal endorsement. I am requesting that: Republican Rep. Glenn (“GT”) Thompson, the only candidate for federal office who as a physical therapist actually touched and helped heal disabled patients, promptly introduce legislation prohibiting tax deductions for disability professionals who purchase goods and services in non-accessible businesses.

Mike Pipe,T h o m p s o n ’s D e m o c r a t i c opponent, a former high level official in the Obama campaign and someone eager to prove that eventually the president will live up to his campaign promise(recorded on You Tube) to improve the lives of people with disabilities, request that the Obama Administration have the president sign an executive order prohibiting that federal funding for schools be used to reimburse special education teachers and others who incur expenses in non-accessible facilities. After all, Pipe agreed that Obama hasn’t lived up to his disability promises.

 Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, who has been extremely helpful to constituents whose ability to breathe was being threatened by Obama Administration cutbacks in Medicare, use the powers of your current office in Congress to introduce legislation to ensure that our nation’s schools do not continue to subsidize discrimination.

Pat Toomey, the Lehigh-Valley-based Republican candidate for Senate, communicate. What are your views on Medicare, the controversial recess appointment of the new administrator of Medicare (an appointment whereby the president avoided Senate confirmation), and on the effects of competitive bidding on State College suppliers of oxygen, wheel chairs, and power chairs? In August, Toomey was 6 points ahead in polls that are unreliable because Nov. 2 is so far away. Centre County voted for Obama in the last presidential election and for Bush four years earlier. Toomey will answer.

Despite the fact that I am an Eleanor Roosevelt Democrat, the Obama Administration has done short-term damage to the disabled and elderly (especially those of us who are poor) that will have long-lasting negative effects, forcing people into expensive assistive living homes and needlessly robbing us of our independence.

I am focusing on candidates for federal office because the winner will vote on appropriations for Medicare and for medical equipment, may have direct oversight over Medicare and federal Medicaid policies, and will be dealing daily with Medicare and Social Security issues through constituent services offices. May the best man win regardless of political party.

—Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected]. See This columnist would dearly appreciate the pro bono services of an attorney specializing in ADA and Medicare issues. Voices of Central Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 organization and as such does not endorse legislation. The views expressed here are solely those of the columnist.