Disability isn’t a barrier, discrimination is (Part 1)

I am disabled (ADHD, PTSD, depression and anxiety), so I have been working on getting my accommodations for my first year at Vassar since June. I beat the deadlines; I had documentation, a diagnosis and people supporting me. I met with the director of the Office for Accessibility and Educational Opportunity (AEO) and my accommodations were approved, even though in the process I had to extensively repeat the reasoning given in my therapist’s documentation. I was satisfied. I emailed, wondering when I would get the accommodations letter to send to my professors.

This was the first of many unanswered emails I have sent to the AEO. Turns out, the office doesn’t provide you with letters for your classes until the end of the second week of school. Meaning that for two weeks, I can be judged on first impressions (late, inattentive, loud) and discriminated against (told to pay attention, forced to be in overwhelming sensory spaces, given only verbal instructions) with no proof that I’m receiving inequitable access. Even then, the AEO only sent letters to three of my five professors and included maybe half of the accommodations we had agreed upon. The logic in waiting so long to send out letters, I’ve been told, is that each class is different, and the same accommodations don’t apply to everything. But how does this process make more sense than sending out the letters early and letting the student and the professor talk about what will be applicable for the course? We already must meet to go over the letter, and professors and students likely have a better sense of what each class environment will be like. To me, this policy just makes true accessibility more difficult to achieve. And why?

In my experience, the AEO chooses language (learning “differences,” for instance) that avoids terms such as “disabled.” In my accommodations meeting, the director mentioned that it is called the Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity because it’s for everyone, and not about people’s disabilities. But these idealistic claims simply aren’t true—the AEO isn’t for everyone. It’s for people whose access has been restricted—namely, disabled folks. Also, to get accommodations or an academic coach, you must be officially diagnosed (an expensive and often ableist process).

Hopefully you are feeling a bit harried at this point in your reading—I sure am. The only space on campus built for disabled people like me was already inaccessible. Due to a lack of communication and accommodation, I felt that the AEO wasn’t on my team. There are no affinity spaces for disabled students on campus, much less ones that go further than “disabled” and recognize the inherent diversity of our community.

I want to move on from the personal for now, so I’m going to break down some definitions from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and some policies and realities about disability at Vassar. I hope this calls attention to a few of the issues with accessibility on campus and helps this community understand why it is almost laughable (if it weren’t so deeply hurtful) that the Vassar Institute for the Liberal Arts theme this year is “Access and Disability: Creating a World Where Everyone is a Participant.”

Title III of the ADA states that disability is: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities” of an individual; “a record of such impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.” Further, “the definition of ‘disability’ shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA.” Additionally, there cannot be eligibility criteria that screens out groups of disabled people from getting accommodations. What if a student is perceived by most professors and peers to have issues concentrating or trauma that makes certain topics impossible to engage with, but they cannot afford the time, energy and cost involved in a diagnosis? Furthermore, many colleges, including Vassar, communicate that self-advocacy is the only way to get accommodations. This is a bit misleading; parents and others are permitted to be involved, and restricting the involvement of those helping disabled persons get accommodations is prohibited by the ADA. This is not the only administrative barrier to equal access that those at Vassar may encounter;  the AEO handbook has not been updated since 2015-2016, but their processes have been.

This is just a small portion of the legal accessibility violations that make daily life unnecessarily difficult for disabled members of our community. Vassar must prioritize the education and well-being of its disabled students by ensuring equitable access for everyone. Next week, I’m going to tackle my experience with campus culture and ableism—the less official, but just as painful, side. 

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