Student-Held Forum Discusses Accessibility at Amherst
Issue   |   Tue, 09/26/2017 - 21:48
Eleven students, including forum organizers Annika Ariel ’19 and Matt Walsh ’19, gathered in a circle in Friedmann Room on Friday, Sept. 22, to discuss issues of accessibility on campus.
Photo courtesy of Shawna Chen '20
Eleven students, including forum organizers Annika Ariel ’19 and Matt Walsh ’19, gathered in a circle in Friedmann Room on Friday, Sept. 22 to discuss issues of accessibility on campus.

Students held a forum on disability and inclusion on Friday, Sept. 22 to discuss issues of accessibility on campus. Organized by Matt Walsh ’19 and Annika Ariel ’19, the forum was an open space for conversation on topics ranging from misperceptions of disability to steps the administration could take to better address inclusion.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), discrimination against individuals with disabilities is prohibited in all areas of public life, including school, as well as public and private places open to the general public. The college’s Office of Accessibility Services is led by Accessibility Services Manager Jodi Foley and offers accommodations to students with documented disabilities according to the college website.

Ariel is a member of the Presidential Task Force on Accessibility and Inclusion, but the forum was organized independently of the task force and was not sponsored by any student organization.

Walsh and Ariel started the dialogue by asking students to introduce themselves and why they were at the forum.

Most students came with the intention to learn more about issues of accessibility both on a personal and campus-wide level.

“Coming to Amherst, I was very interested in getting more active in different political spheres and learning about racism and all the ‘-isms,’” Alyssa Snyder ’19 said. “One that I’m very much lacking knowledge about is ableism.”

Hannah Firestone ’19 also said her interest in the forum stemmed “from loved ones who need accessibility and don’t have accessibility.”

The forum moved into discussing perceptions of disability on campus. Ariel noted that the ADA “takes a really broad definition of accessibility.”

Walsh added that disability “isn’t binary.” Rather, he said, it’s “about the things that you need to fully access the resources that Amherst has.”

“It’s not even necessarily an issue of being able or disabled,” he said. “It’s about equal access in designing this school physically and policy-wise so everyone can access it, not just people who are ‘not normal.’”

Joshua Ferrer ’18E, co-president of the Amherst College branch of Roosevelt Institute, a student think tank, covered a few accessibility initiatives currently undertaken by the organization, the most significant of which is the creation of the task force on accessibility and inclusion.

The conversation moved to current accessibility problems on campus. According to Ariel, applications to the college are not “fully accessible to users of assistive technology,” something the Roosevelt Institute is pushing for the Office of Admissions to change.

In an email interview, Foley said there is no single definition of “fully accessible” and that neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Justice has “established rules on the topic of accessible documents for assistive technology.” She said, however, that the Common Application has a link for an accessible version, and the Coalition Application is finalizing an update that will “address some previously-identified accessibility concerns.”

According to the Justice Department, the recognized international industry standards for web accessibility are known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and can be found online. The Common Application currently requires applicants to disclose their disabilities in order to receive support services.

Another issue students highlighted was housing accommodations. If a student has a documented need for housing accommodations, often referred to as medical housing, Accessibility Services will place the student in a housing unit that meets those needs and is listed as one of the student’s top three choices. But students who choose to use housing accommodations cannot enter room draw with their friends, a concern voiced by many during the forum.

Residential Counselors (RCs), however, are allowed to bring a friend with them to their assigned dormitory, Walsh said.

“The explanation for RC buddies is that they shouldn’t have to live without their friends,” he said. “It really bothers me that RCs who voluntarily chose their job need the support of a buddy, but the people [for whom] Accessibility Services choose to live isn’t allowed to have one.”

According to Foley, students are given placement information prior to room draw so their friends can enter room draw with the choice to live near them. They can also opt out of housing accommodations and enter room draw. There is, however, no buddy system similar to that of RCs.

Students also expressed discomfort with the fact that the Accessibility Services consists of a one-person staff: Foley.

Foley said that though she is the only staff member, she is part of a “campus-wide network of many other staff ... [who] work closely with each other and support the office and the students who use accessibility services.”

On campus, however, accessibility and health care are not discussed as frequently as are other issues, Ariel said.

Yet, the issue of accessibility “literally affects everyone,” Adrian Chen ’19 said. “You’re temporarily able-bodied.”

Walsh, who took a class examining disability and inclusion, brought up the idea of universal design as opposed to designs “geared to the normal.”

“If something is designed better for everyone, it’s going to work better for everyone,” he said.

Walsh is currently working on the Design Challenge started by the Center for Community Engagement and said his team hopes to tackle how to better incorporate the voices of the disabled in the process of policymaking at the college. One change he’s pushing for is a centralized reporting form for issues of accessibility which would be similar to the Title IX reporting form.

Because Amherst is an “inaccessible environment architecturally, and we can go back and forth about whether it [is] socially, people don’t want to talk about disability,” Ariel said.

“If people don’t talk about it, it’s really isolating,” she added.

Misconceptions of people with disabilities also occur with lack of open conversation, Walsh said.

“People generally attach the belief that, ‘Oh, well, you’re blind — I can tell you what you should and shouldn’t do because I know better than you,’” Walsh said. “Being aware of your tendency to be like, ‘Oh, are you sure you can do this?’ for people with disabilities is a good thing because this person has lived more of their life with that disability than you have, so it’s safe to assume they know better how to live their life with that disability than you do.”

Admitting misconceptions of disability and being open to making new points of view on accessibility are necessary to moving forward, he added.

“If you’re not willing … [to do so], then that’s a problem and that’s what creates the environments where people feel they have to hide their disabilities,” he said.

In the short term, students discussed organizing RCs on campus to back a change to medical housing restrictions, creating student positions similar to Student Health Educators but for issues of accessibility and reevaluating the structure of guidance in the Office of Accessibility Services.

“There isn’t really a network for students to be directed to accessibility services and as a result, a lot of students fall through,” Casey McQuillan ’18 said.

More visible awareness campaigns could also bring greater attention to issues of accessibility on campus and how to access needed services, he said. McQuillan added, however, that “a lot of the small stuff builds to the bigger things.”

In a separate interview, Walsh said he and Ariel organized the forum because they felt they needed a way to further conversation around accessibility outside of institutional structure. They hope to hold similar forums in the future.

When contacted, Foley said “we talk to students constantly and are aware of many of their frustrations.”

“We also take the issue of accessibility very seriously, which is one reason the college created the Accessibility and Inclusion Task Force last year,” she wrote. “For all of the work that has already been ongoing, and for all the work that is left to do, I am confident that with commitment and collaboration from all of us, we will continue to make significant progress.”

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that students with housing accommodations cannot enter room draw with their friends. Students who choose to use their housing accommodations cannot enter room draw but can opt out of accommodations if they want to enter room draw. The article was updated at 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 27, to reflect this change.