Where is Disability in Amherst’s Commitment to Diversity?
Issue   |   Tue, 04/17/2018 - 21:28

I still remember the nervous excitement I felt when I hit the button on AC Data that would reveal the name of my roommate. It was Aug. 14, 2015, and I was slamming the refresh button every few seconds. And then the page finally loaded.

“You do not have a roommate at this time.”

Look, I know how I sound complaining about getting a single freshman year. But the honest truth is that I wanted to have the “normal” college experience. Being blind doesn’t give me a choice about whether or not I need accommodations from the college. But I hadn’t asked for any housing accommodations freshman year — I wanted a roommate, just like everyone else. Someone in the administration had decided that because I was blind, I couldn’t possibly live with a roommate. There are so few singles for first years, especially those who don’t ask for housing accommodations, that the chances of this being a coincidence were astronomically low.

Conservatively, I’ve written 20 drafts of this. I have so much to say and not the perfect words to say it. Anyone who has had a serious conversation with me knows that my speech is rife with pauses where I try to get the exact string of words I want. But, especially at this point in my time at Amherst, I want to speak personally about what it’s been like being a disabled student here and the inherent challenges. It won’t be perfect. I don’t have all of the answers. But I have something to say.

I went blind in high school. I went from being a straight-A, AP student who everyone thought had a bright future to having to relearn how to read, walk and live in a world that was never built for a person like me. Learning to read Braille or use a white cane isn’t easy, but what was even worse was dealing with the lowered expectations for me. Administrators didn’t think I could go to college. I was kicked out of band class (yes, you read that correctly). So, when I got accepted to Amherst on scholarship, I didn’t think twice before saying yes.

And I’m glad I said yes. Amherst has given me practically endless opportunities. I’m getting ready to conduct archival research in England for the third time, I’ve spent two weeks at the Folger Shakespeare Library and I’ve had professors who truly care about me. I have never regretted coming to Amherst. If you had told me when I first went blind that I would be able to do any of this, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But Amherst falls victim to many of the ableist tropes in society today. And I write this not because I’m bitter, not because I’m mad — but because I really believe that Amherst can do better.

“Why would someone like you want to take art history?” my first-year class dean — then, as well as now, the Dean of New Students — asked me.

I blinked quizzically and, after a moment, answered: I was in academic decathlon in high school and I had loved the art history portion. I was captivated by the political effects of art and vice versa, and I knew that Amherst had a great art history department. In fact, I had already reached out to a professor in the department who was more than supportive. I explained this, and continued to be met with doubt. The exact words escape me now, but his point was made clear: a blind girl has no place in an art history course.

The week before, the Accessibility Services manager had (presumably) pointed at a picture in the Fitch Room and asked if I could see it. There are many respectful ways to ask a blind person about their residual vision, but pointing at a painting and asking if they can see it when you have the student’s disability documentation — well, that’s something else.

Later that semester, I asked about a new page on the Accessibility website that said the college would not provide “mobility orientation.” The actual term for this is “orientation and mobility” — it refers to teaching a blind or visually impaired person how to navigate non-visually and independently, usually in the context of a new environment. Both myself and the other blind student attending at the time had received this training from the college, but when I asked about the discrepancy, the manager told me “shh.” I pushed her on this, and she assured me that since I had been “grandfathered” in, this wouldn’t affect me. As a first year, I still feared retribution, so I didn’t push it further.

These are two singular accounts, but they show a larger phenomenon: administrative incompetence and ignorance surrounding disability. I will not rehash the 2017 Roosevelt @ Amherst article in The Student, “The Invisibility of Disability at Amherst”, but for those who weren’t at Amherst when it was published, I’d encourage you to look at it. It remains, sadly, relevant. And before that was Nora Gayer ’16’s brave article, “On (In)Accessibility at Amherst”, which also continues to remain relevant.

Something that isn’t common knowledge: the college no longer has a Presidential Task Force on Accessibility and Inclusion. President Biddy Martin officially dissolved it via email on Feb. 27, 2018 after both the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Chief of Campus Operations resigned from the task force, citing “hostility.” Despite this, it was mentioned in the college’s reaccreditation self-study (a final version of which was sent out on March 14). The report, available to all Amherst students with a login, states:

“The review by the Presidential Task Force on Accessibility and Inclusion will be under way for several years. The goal is to develop an understanding of the systems in place to support students, faculty, staff and visitors with disabilities; to increase awareness of those systems; to identify and, if necessary refine the core principles that guide Amherst’s approach to accessibility; to identify systematic barriers to accessibility and inclusion at the college; to recommend changes to address such barriers; and to increase campus-wide awareness of accessibility as a core value.”

At the time this was sent out, the task force had been dissolved for over two weeks. Administrators did not find the task force or its work a priority — it was only created because of student activism. It also bears mentioning that the task force had decided that its work would not be policy-based, but rather principles-based, making this paragraph a bit bizarre. Without even getting into the implications of the task force dissolving, it is disingenuous for the college to tout the task force in a self-study that has very real implications without mentioning that the said task force no longer exists.

A policy-based task force was sorely needed. A buddy system for housing was only recently implemented, giving disabled students an equal opportunity to live with their peers. However, this wasn’t even the work of the Task Force — a member of the college’s administration had derided student housing policy as “granular” at one of the regular meetings (both students present, myself included, remember the specific word because it was so horrifying — this is a residential college, after all). The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has planned no events this semester on disability. When they did once bring a speaker on disability a few semesters ago, she was a woman whose office was being sued for lack of accessibility. She derided students who wrote last year’s article in The Student as having written a “manifesto” and “biting the hand that [fed] them”. Accessibility Services does not seem to be in any way affiliated with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Disability is a vital part of diversity — what could be more diverse than the abilities of the human body itself? I don’t claim that resources for other diverse students at this college are ideal, but they at least exist and have centers and funding. Disabled students have very little college programming that acknowledges their existence. Roosevelt @ Amherst, a group of which I’m president, has recently proposed a disability peer mentoring system for the fall, but it remains to be seen if it will be funded.

Even ignoring the questionable policies, the Accessibility Services’ website shows a complete lack of care. When looking at the list of residence halls with elevators, none of the Greenway Dorms are listed. However, Hamilton — a dorm that has been renamed for over three years — is listed. The site seems, to put it nicely, hastily put together. Students who need to use an elevator would rightfully be confused by the website — we don’t even have a dorm named Hamilton. This wonderful line remains on the school website under tips for parents and guardians: “Be prepared for major stumbling blocks and bumps in the road. Remember that we often learn and grow the most when we are challenged in new situations.” The whole point of Accessibility Services is that my disability can be accommodated, and that I won’t have to deal with “major stumbling blocks” because I happen to be blind. The idea of the Americans with Disabilities Act was to level the playing field. While systemic obstacles remain, the college should be fighting to change these obstacles, not encouraging them. I don’t often quote George H.W. Bush, but even he said that the “shameful wall of exclusion” should come “tumbling down,” and not be encouraged and praised as a “new situation.”

The root of many of these issues is not malice, but ignorance. Disability is an incredibly diverse category; it’s the only minority you can join at any time. It is also one that people try to distance themselves from. Having student advocates for disability, or a similar concept, would be a substantial step forward to increase the acceptance of disability on campus and promote visibility of services and disabled people in general. There are so many ways that Amherst can improve the position of disabled people in society. It was briefly mentioned by the task force that Amherst shouldn’t strive to be a model institution, but why shouldn’t it be? What is the disadvantage of creating a welcoming, inclusive campus for disabled students? Everything in the modern world, whether intended as so or not, is an accommodation. The difference between nondisabled people and disabled people is that these accommodations are different. As a mentor of mine once explained to me, billions are spent on lighting every year. For me, this isn’t helpful, but for sighted people, it’s a vital accommodation.

I feel like it’s necessary to share that some offices at the college have been incredibly strong advocates for accessibility. Information Technology has a substantial webpage dedicated to accessibility, and Asha Kinney is quite possibly the most helpful person I’ve ever met. The Admissions Office has made huge improvements to accessibility. On a personal level, the Health Center has gone out of their way to be accessible for me.

Amherst has the resources and, I believe, the will to create an accessible, welcoming campus and community. Things have already improved so much over the past few years, largely because of students. People are having conversations about accessibility. When a two-dimensional Braille sign was installed earlier this year, I remember being heartened by the number of students who complained about it. Unlike almost every one of my blind friends, I have never had a profoundly negative experience with a professor. Image descriptions are much more commonplace. The desire and the resources are available; there really isn’t a reason that Amherst couldn’t become a campus that excels at accessibility. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has one of the best accessibility programs; Amherst has far more resources per student than UIUC. What’s preventing Amherst from improving accessibility is nothing more than simple administrative ignorance.

Update: Accessibility Services’ website has updated the list of residence halls with elevators to include the Greenway and Ford Halls but the list is still not comprehensive with the omission of Lipton House on the list. https://www.amherst.edu/offices/student-affairs/accessibility-services/a...