Though the office of accessible education (OAE), the College’s designated office for students with disabilities and other special needs, was only created in 2016, Director G.L. Wallace already sees a need for the office’s expansion.
OAE currently has two full-time staff, Wallace and Assistant to the Director Jean Grant, as well as a number of student employees. This paucity of resources, Wallace said, can make it more difficult for the College to provide accessibility to a wide range of students. “Because of the [lack of] staffing, we oftentimes find ourselves in a position where we’re just not able to attend to the needs the students have in the way that I think would be appropriate for Williams,” Wallace said.
OAE’s core mission is to provide accommodations to students with disabilities who may otherwise have difficulty with the College’s prevalent style of teaching. Those who are assisted by the office include people with dyslexia or ADHD and those who are suffering from the effects of a concussion, among others. According to Wallace, the office also seeks to create a welcoming and productive environment for students with disabilities to access the school beyond the classroom. “For students who are blind, who are deaf, to see Williams College as a space that is a possibility for them I think is a really important shift,” he said.
Common accommodations for students include extra time, note-taking assistance and auditory versions of written materials. Wallace noted that this assistance is not meant to provide a leg up for select students, but rather to level the playing field for all. “If my process of understanding the information means that I’m going to write a little bit more slowly than someone else, does that mean that that the person who wrote it faster has a better understanding of it? Not necessarily,” he said. “Part of our process is just trying to figure out how a variety of diverse learners can be served in that environment rather than a narrow bandwidth of students… If all of our students in the campus, for example, were dyslexic, the students who weren’t dyslexic might really chafe at a structure that was designed solely for them.”
Some students involved with OAE utilized similar resources in high school, whereas others did not have that experience and often do not know how to approach accessibility, Wallace explained. He has noticed, however, that it is increasingly frequent for students to be diagnosed earlier and to come to the College with a sense of their needs. “I think there’s been a larger rise in diagnoses of things like ADHD in particular,” he said.
This increase in diagnoses is part of what has fueled the need for additional resources, and Wallace expressed interest in hiring a staff member with expertise in similar areas. “Someone who is familiar with and who is able to speak to some of the amplified needs that we’ve seen around attention deficit stuff and processing issues, someone who is comfortable and familiar with that space, would probably be someone who would be very, very useful here,” he said.
Wallace added that he has expressed his desire for increased staffing to Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom. “G.L. Wallace and I are continually reassessing the ability of the office to meet students’ needs as well to engage in proactive outreach and programming,” Sandstrom said. “We are actively exploring ways of expanding the office and hope to be able to do so next year.
In calling for increased staffing, Wallace also drew attention to the usefulness of short-term staffers, particularly for students with more specific needs. “Let’s say that we have a student who comes to campus who has needs that require a lot more in the way of resources,” he said. “That may require someone being added to staff if only for a temporary basis or for a four-year period of time, depending on what the needs are of that particular student.”
Prior to 2016, there was no office fully devoted to the needs of students with disabilities; instead, responsibilities were scattered among various deans and administrators. Though improvements have since been made, the College still found it necessary to have an external review of their accessibility policies last spring. “We had someone come in from another institution and look at what we do and make an assessment of it,” Wallace said, adding that the report recommended additional personnel and funding.
Currently, students do much of the labor conducted by OAE, particularly the work involving note taking and paperwork. Wallace estimated
that, outside of note taking, OAE employs approximately 15 students as accessibility coordinators. “When I say that we could not do what we do without students, I’m not joking about that at all,” he said, though he also acknowledged the potential pitfalls of overreliance on student labor. “Part of the model that we have here in a variety of areas on campus is that we farm out a lot of labor,” he added.
Hannah Stone ’21, who works at OAE, expressed enthusiasm for the work she does at the office and for Wallace and Grant. “They work so hard and run the entire office with a permanent staff of only two people,” she said. “Their success speaks to their knowledge, talent and dedications, but they shouldn’t have to shoulder the office by themselves.”
Wallace also emphasized that students seeking support sometimes do not know how to talk about accessibility issues and how to acquire resources, which he attributed both to a lack of outreach by OAE and to a deeper cultural problem on campus.
“We can have conversations about life in a racialized society, in a gendered society, in a society that imposes some norms regarding sexuality. But we really don’t have effective interlocutors throughout the campus around issues of accessibility and around the issue of normalcy as it relates to ability and disability,” he said. “And unless you have those other avenues through which that conversation is being had, you’re always going to have limitations there to some degree.”
Additional reporting by Irene Loewenson.