For Katie Adler ‘22, some of the buildings on Wellesley’s campus are easier to get to than others. Adler has a disability that affects her mobility, and she uses a scooter to travel around campus, so when she wasn’t studying remotely as she is this semester, getting to class required thinking ahead about which buildings are accessible and which are not. “For my music class, they had to literally prop open an ‘emergency exit: alarm will sound’ door because that was the only way to get into the music lab without taking the stairs,” Adler said.
Adler, like many Wellesley students with disabilities, found that being a disabled student necessitated developing strategies to confront the physical, academic, and social challenges that Wellesley brings. For her, those strategies include finding her classrooms before classes start each semester, and learning how to navigate her scooter through the dining halls. It also includes changing how she thinks about her experience, leading her to ask, “How am I going to craft an education that is successful for me? How do I make a system that is not built for someone like me into a place where I can survive and thrive?”
Surviving and thriving within a system that is not built with accessibility in mind is a challenge that other disabled students have faced as well. For Elizabeth Purvis ‘21, figuring out where and what to eat is a daily struggle. Purvis was diagnosed a few months ago with Celiac Disease, which is triggered by eating gluten. Wellesley has no truly gluten free facilities right now, and Purvis has found that food in the dining halls is not always labelled properly. She has found it helpful to talk to dining hall staff and ask about options for gluten sensitive food. She has also spoken to the Wellesley Fresh dietician, Samantha Yunko, about her needs and how the dining hall can be more accommodating.
Still, Purvis has found that she can’t rely on the dining hall options alone, and she has gotten assistance from alums or other members of the greater Wellesley community who have offered to pick up groceries for her or send her groceries so that she can keep gluten free food in her room in case her needs aren’t met in the dining hall. “If I find that the food [in the dining hall] isn’t sufficient, I have something to fall back on,” Purvis said.
For some students with disabilities at Wellesley, the challenge lies not just with Wellesley’s physical campus or services, but with balancing academics and a social life. Ana Zeghibe ‘21 has a neurodevelopmental disability that leads her to be rigid in her routines, and also causes difficulty understanding social situations. Throughout her time at Wellesley, she has found it difficult to maintain friendships while sticking to her specific study routines. To deal with this, she incorporates time with friends into her routines, creating what she calls “friendship quotas,” scheduling in times to talk or hang out with her friends, so that it feels like a part of her routine.
Zeghibe is also a founding member of Students for an Accessible Wellesley (SAW), a student organization that discusses disability and neurodiverse issues and advocates for students with disabilities on campus through workshops on disability-related topics, poster campaigns to raise awareness of inaccessible spaces on campus, and collaborations with other Wellesley organizations. The organization also seeks to build community among disabled students. McKenna Morris ‘21, another founding member of SAW, said being part of the group helped her feel less alone and also gave her the chance to use her voice to help advocate for other disabled students. “When you’re disabled, the impetus is put entirely on you to advocate for your needs and your accommodations, and that can be so exhausting,” Morris said. As part of SAW, she helps to lessen that burden for other students, and make them feel like they don’t have to do it alone.
Depending on the issues they face, some disabled students have found that taking classes online and the term system have had both benefits and drawbacks. Adler usually takes a reduced course load of only three courses a semester, which is harder to do when students only take two classes at a time, as they do in the term system. The shortened courses have created new challenges as well. Before this semester, Taylor Garcia ‘23 would skip classes when they had a migraine. “With this semester my professors have been like ‘no you can’t skip class at all’ and I’m like ‘but my head feels like it’s going to fall out of my brain,’” Garcia said. “It hasn’t been fun. Hopefully migraines aren’t going to intersect with anything huge, we’ll see.”
However, both Purvis and Adler found that having classes online made it easier to be present even when they were feeling sick but could still participate. Adler hopes that being able to attend a class remotely at times sticks around as an accommodation for students even after most classes go back to being in person. “Everyone’s trained now,” said Adler. “So I’m hopeful that in the future we can just say, ‘okay, you’re gonna Zoom in. We know how to do this. This is something that we’re familiar with.’”
Ly Silberstein is a Student Access Advocate with Wellesley’s Accessibility and Disability Services Office.