Number one for whom?

Upon arriving at the College, I quickly noticed that several buildings and most dorms lacked ramps and elevators. “What do students with wheelchairs do?” I asked. My Junior Advisor explained that when students are considering which college to attend, they have to consider these sorts of things; people who use wheelchairs just wouldn’t choose Williams.

Over time, I’ve found that less and less acceptable, especially considering the College’s ranking among other institutions. How could this institution possibly call itself number one when it can’t even provide such basic accommodations? An institution that effectively bars students with certain disabilities could not possibly hold that title. Forbes thinks that we’re number one, but number one for whom?

Any students who have experienced significant leg injuries during their time here know how difficult this campus is to access with a mobility impairment. However, the accessibility problem doesn’t stop here. Our Disability Support Services essentially consist of a fraction of one person’s job. Students on reduced course load on account of disability run out of financial aid after eight semesters, regardless of how long they need to finish. Students facing mental health challenges are often encouraged to take time off rather than be accommodated on-campus and are subjected to an invasive, dubiously confidential assessment by the administration before they are allowed to return. Our 504 officer, charged with upholding the rights of students, as enumerated by Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is also a dean of the College, so students have no third party through which to mediate the College’s failures to provide proper academic accommodations. The system is literally rigged against disabled students.

This is far from a personal problem.

Why should individuals with disabilities be left on their own to figure out how to navigate a world constructed for able-bodied people, when a policy of accessibility is universally beneficial? Having more options for doing things in different ways would help every member of our community at least marginally and could profoundly improve many people’s experiences. Furthermore, any one of us could develop a disability at any time. Able-bodied and disabled people are not discrete, static categories, so this topic concerns everyone.

As tenets of feminism teach us, the personal is political. The problems faced by individuals with disabilities attending or hoping to attend the College are just another part of a larger system of ableism, or discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. Statistically speaking, Americans with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed and live in poverty. On average, they earn approximately two-thirds as much as individuals without disabilities, and that’s not even considering other intersecting axes of oppression. The College’s current policies only reinforce these problems.

As the supposed number-one undergraduate institution in the country, the College contributes to the systematic oppression of disabled individuals by limiting their access to education and, as a result, their potential for earning money. The College must commit itself to ensuring that all students with the capacity to intellectually engage with course curricula receive the accommodations necessary to thrive here.

A number of students, including myself, have outlined the following ways in which the College can and should do better. If you’re interested in discussing or pursuing these, feel free to contact me.

To start, the College must extend financial aid to fully cover students on reduced course load for as long as they need. No additional classes beyond the already determined reduced course load should be required. The process of re-applying from medical leave should be less invasive, aligned with the standard set by other colleges. Disability Support Services should be reworked entirely, including hiring a non-authority student advocate, legal counsel, 504 officer and a separate Director of Disability Support Services, in addition to the Director of Academic Resources. It should have its own physical space in an accessible location.

The infrastructure of the campus should be brought up to ADA standards. All buildings should have elevators, ramps and accessible bathroom stalls and showers, most urgently dorms and the Davis Center. Sidewalks, pathways and outdoor staircases should be reworked and maintained so that people traveling on crutches, wheelchairs and scooters can safely and efficiently move about the campus.

Certain rules and procedures should also be changed and implemented. There should be a system for holding professors accountable for overworking students and/or failing to accommodate their individual needs. The minimum distance from buildings one needs to be in order to smoke tobacco should be enforced and perhaps even redefined. All-campus meals should have enough variety or else should have an alternative, such that any student with dietary restrictions can still get large, balanced meals. Travel options for Winter Study should be expanded and encouraged, and first-years should no longer be required to remain on-campus. Applying for quiet housing should not be lottery-based, and accommodation of special housing requests for physical and psychological reasons should not require the consultation of the Housing Committee.

The College could also go further in extending resources to students, such as loanable wheelchairs and scooters (in addition to crutches), audio versions of any and all readings, transportation to off-campus healthcare through providers other than Campus Safety and Security, sun lamps in high-traffic areas such as Paresky and Sawyer, loanable sun lamps, an endocrinologist regularly available at the health center and drinks, fruits, cereal, etc. available at all hours.

Finally, the College should create a standing committee responsible for having these changes enacted in a timely manner and for finding more ways to make our institution more accessible.

Kira Marrero ’15 is a computer science major from New Orleans, La. She lives in Morgan.

  • Kira Marrero

    If you’re interested in getting involved in these issues, please contact me! (kdm3)

  • Diane D’Souza

    Well said, Kira. Thanks for reminding us that this is an issue that affects us all: both as a moral issue and as one that will impact all of us directly at some point in our lives.

  • Kevin Eagan

    I’m SO glad that another person is (so eloquently) talking about this. Though some administrators and faculty, especially Joyce Foster and Jean Grant, gallantly work within their limited authorities to demonstrate their sincere concern for us students, the College as an institutional whole is blatantly discriminatory towards disabled students.

    I’ve been living with (hopefully non-permanent) brain damage for almost three years now, and though I am given academic accommodations on campus, the treatment me and my family have otherwise received is absolutely disgraceful. Inhumane. It might not be visible to other people, but physical pain and mental difficulties have marred every day of my life since then. The College, instead of showing compassion, has pressured me both directly and indirectly to withdraw. My clinically tested IQ is in the highest percentile, I have a high GPA, and I am a perfectly functional person, and yet I was told that I am too slow to be a Williams student. My family and I have to prepare to pay for an unnecessary ninth semester even though I will only receive credit for eight semesters. Think about a family that receives significant financial aid learning that they have to pay the equivalent price of a luxury car on top of the price for which they had planned and saved for 20 years (and on top of medical bills), simply because their son had a serious head injury in a sports accident. I’m not asking for special treatment; I just wish the College would stop punishing my family for my choice to graduate with a Williams degree.