Vassar begins drafting 3-Year Accessibility Plan

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

Vassar’s Accessibility Committee has begun to draft a 3-Year Accessibility Plan. The plan, which is set to be finalized in Fall 2021, will be a holistic strategy that will advise the College on improving its on-campus accessibility by 2024.

The Accessibility Committee was established during the Spring 2020 semester at the request of President Elizabeth Bradley in response to needs that emerged as part of the Priorities and Planning Process undertaken two years ago. It is comprised of Vassar students, faculty, staff and administrators.  

The current committee differs from prior efforts in that it is established as part of the College Governance. Director of Sustainability and Accessibility Committee Planning Support Micah Kenfield highlighted the administrative power of the committee. “As a governance level committee…decisions carry weight. They’ve got the full support of the administration and there’s a clear routing process for…making sure they go somewhere where they can be implemented,” he explained. 

The Committee launched its first phase of the drafting process in late February by hosting a series of four virtual forums that were open to all campus students, faculty and staff. 

Kenfield noted the importance of collecting community input during the drafting process: “I think it’s really making sure we have a sense of where the biggest priorities for campus are so that we can make sure we’re doing the most good, for the most people as quickly as possible.”

Kenfield shared an initial report with the Miscellany News summarizing the feedback received during all the forum discussions. According to this preliminary summary, across all four sessions, there were 57 attendees total. 56.3 percent were administrators, 18.8 percent were students, 15.6 percent were staff and 9.4 percent were faculty.

At the beginning of the forums, the Committee members shared their prospective plans. They presented the four main guiding principles for the Accessibility Plan, which were to identify and address immediate and long-term accessibility needs of the Vassar community; to recognize that all constituencies of the College reflect a neurodiverse spectrum of individuals; to prioritize inclusivity and accessibility for the entire campus community; and to center principles of equity and social justice.

Committee members also identified three main areas of focus for the proposed plan, which included building and campus grounds (e.g. building access, navigation/wayfinding, sidewalks & outdoor spaces, air & noise pollution), the learning environment (e.g. educational technology, academic policies, classroom accessibility support) and campus life and wellness (e.g. campus culture, shuttle services, events & activities, dining options).

After being presented with the proposed plan outline, attendees were given the opportunity to participate in large-group activities using a virtual participation tool called Mentimeter and were also able to engage in a series of small-group breakout conversations, during which notes were taken by volunteers.

Over the course of all four forums, the summary report sent to the Miscellany News indicated that much of the feedback received was fairly narrowly focused on specific locations or challenges individuals might encounter. For example, one of the most commonly mentioned locations was the Bridge for Laboratory Science and its infamous doors.

While much of the feedback centralized around accessibility to particular locations, a broader theme surrounding Vassar’s culture emerged.“One of the most striking takeaways for at least several of us [Committee members] was there seemed to be this…macro-level concern of how…Vassar’s culture of super high performance…can pose barriers to people either feeling comfortable asking for help, or for us being able to make it available,” said Kenfield.

Moreover, there were also significant concerns raised about how implicit biases might deter a truly inclusive approach to accessibility. During one of the forums, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Statistics and Accessibility Committee member Jan Cameron raised this concern: “Race and gender are factors in this issue and also power structures. Some who are members of advantaged groups or in positions of greater power in our community feel more comfortable about speaking up on these issues than others.”

One suggested way to address these main areas of concern is through emphasizing universal design, both in terms of physical spaces and policies. Universal design is a design of structures and environments that is usable by people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities and other characteristics, without the need for adaptation or specialized accommodations. Others recommended increased transparency in the decision-making process, increasing the resources made available for accessibility efforts and shaping policies to be more inclusive.

During the final forum, Head of the Committee and Dean of Strategic Planning & Academic Resources Marianne H. Begemann assured the community that the Committee is proactively finding short-term solutions to particular accessibility issues, which will lay the groundwork for future projects. She stated, “We’re not just waiting until a plan is in place before we can actually try to implement some change, but we will be looking for…short-term gains for the short-run.”

For instance, when the Committee noticed that they were receiving a lot of feedback from students on how to improve remote learning the past winter, they helped send a list of advice to faculty in February based off of the input they received from the community. 

As explained by Kenfield in his interview, “The advice was about how you [faculty] can make your classes more accessible by default.”

Following the conclusion of each session, participants were asked to complete a brief parting survey to gauge how confident they were in the planning process. 

One of the questions was the following: “How confident are you that the Accessibility Plan will address the needs of the entire campus?”

In response, 26.1 percent of participants indicated that they were “Very Confident,” 56.5 percent marked that they were “Somewhat Confident,” 13.0 percent claimed they were “Not Very Confident” and 4.3 percent were “Not At All Confident.”

In response to participants who marked “Not Very Confident” and “Not At All Confident,” Kenfield stated, “At the start of the process you’re probably going to have less confidence in a plan, than as the conversations continue.” He elaborated, “I think that getting a good sense of the process is really important, as well as the next steps.” 

Currently, the Committee is collaborating with Institutional Research to design a campus-wide survey that will ask similar questions to those posed during the open forums. This survey is expected to be released via email within the next couple of weeks.

After reviewing all the community input, the Committee will begin writing up a formal draft of the 3-Year Plan between April and May 2021.

The initial draft is planned to be finished and shared for public viewing by summer and early Fall 2021. The Committee is planning on hosting another series of forums at the beginning of the next semester to gather additional feedback. This is intended to be an opportunity for the Vassar community to express what the proposed plan does well or if there are any particular blind spots that need to be accounted for prior to its formal implementation.

Although the Committee is hoping to provide more opportunities for community input, President of the Vassar Disability Coalition Isabella Perez ’21 voiced concern about student involvement. “I’m worried engagement might be low on the student end, and they might not get the chance to be heard.” She continued, “I feel like a social media presence could help…just to give regular updates, especially for transparency because students often feel left out of the loop,” said Perez.

Kenfield responded to this concern via email: “We … intend to launch a website detailing the stages of the plan (including the results of the forums and the survey) after the survey itself is concluded…we’ll have more information about continuing opportunities for involvement.”

In addition to conducting their campus-wide survey, the Committee will also be asking students, faculty and staff to participate on action teams that will draft subsets of the plan. They will also refer members of the community in groups like the Committee on Disability Issues (CODI), and student organizations focused on disability issues.

As stated by Kenfield, “We’re very committed to making sure the final plan is fully representative of the needs of the entire campus community … I would just say to people…that this is the very beginning of the conversation.”

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