Welcome to the second edition of The News in Conversation. In every iteration of this column, The Wellesley News will pose a series of questions to a group of students on campus and publish the answers. If you have any suggestions for who we should reach out to next, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This edition features several voices from Students for an Accessible Wellesley (SAW). The answers to these questions were written by current members of the organization. Answers were lightly edited for grammar and formatting.
1) How have/will the administration’s decisions for the upcoming academic year (i.e. strictly in-person classes, staircase-only access to a testing center) affect the lives of disabled, chronically-ill and/or neurodivergent students?
RESPONSE 1: In-person only classes are a major detriment to my learning. Physically getting to them is time-consuming and mentally draining. Remote learning allowed me to focus better and absorb much more information.
RESPONSE 2: Many of the decisions that have been made about this academic year hurt both disabled students and able-bodied ones. The thing that sticks out to me are the in-person only classes. While I think there are many benefits to in-person learning, as students have seen from the past year, not having the option to do online classes feels like a slight towards disabled students who have been asking for the option for years, only to, in many cases, be told it was too complicated. When [COVID-19] started and this option became available for everyone it may have felt bittersweet. Finally[,] disabled students could have classes without needing to maneuver our inaccessible campus, but it became clear that the reason this wasn’t put in place earlier was because it wasn’t seen as a priority.
Now that we are back on campus and have the infrastructure in place to do hybrid classes, not giving students that option is incredibly harmful. For disabled students who may have mobility issues and are often late to class because of problems with the access van or are fatigued when they arrive due to the toll of getting around campus, not even having the option to attend class from an alternate location can mean that they over exert themselves or miss classes and, despite knowing the infrastructure is in place, cannot get the same experience as able-bodied students. This also affects immunocompromised students who may not feel comfortable returning to campus in a pandemic. Since they are not on campus, they cannot take classes.
Moreover, this simply doesn’t make sense considering COVID as a whole. If you test positive and have to quarantine, you miss class for however long you continue to test positive for. This could be a couple weeks, to a month, or more. We know that it’s possible to continue to test positive for a long time after the initial result. If hybrid classes were an option, then students in quarantine could still attend classes during this time. But, since they aren’t, students may fall far behind and by the time they return to class, may have missed so much that they cannot succeed.
The other big problem is the staircase only access to Beebe testing. As someone with mobility issues, who cannot get to the College Club without a car, but is able to go up some stairs, Beebe has naturally been the best choice for me. Yet, if I were to be injured, or in a wheelchair, or simply too weak to go up those stairs, I wouldn’t be able to be tested there. Then I would need to take long periods of time waiting for a campus police vehicle (which is its own issue) to arrive to take me to the College Club.
RESPONSE 3: I’m a first-year and have had a transition period getting used to the College with my disability. In-person classes have been mostly ok, but hard on the days I don’t feel well because of the physical adjustment. It is also hard because I was told by Wellesley administration when I picked my classes that I’d be able to make it between buildings in 10 minute transitions, but this hasn’t actually been easy for me.
2) What has Wellesley’s history with accessibility been like? Would you say the College has made significant efforts in the past or present to make Wellesley more accessible?
RESPONSE 1: I have only been here for a couple semesters so I can only really speak to that. I’d like to preface my answer by saying that I think that while there are plenty of people that definitely are working very hard to try and make things accessible, and I understand that everyone is very well-intentioned and wants us all to feel at home here. I’d also like to acknowledge that these issues extend beyond Wellesley.
However, from speaking to disabled and chronically ill alums about Wellesley, accessibility has always been an overlooked part of the Wellesley experience, both before this pandemic and now. Don’t get me wrong, there are accessible spaces (like the New Dorms), there’s also some funding that goes to disabled students and there are services like the Access Van that make this campus more accessible. I also think that since the pandemic, professors are more forgiving and accommodating towards things like absences and submitting late work.
In terms of why accessibility is not where it should be, it’s partly due to lack of funding and staffing for ADR, but it’s also due to the fact that talking about disability, neurodivergence and chronic illness makes people feel uncomfortable and involves changing things structurally, which takes effort, time [and] certainly doesn’t save people money and isn’t flashy. It’s also due to the fact that every accessibility issue gets rerouted to ADR at this school, even when it’s not ADR’s job to deal with it, and that causes this feedback loop of people tossing the issue back and forth to each other and never actually solving it in a way that is timely. The onus of making something accessible also usually falls on disabled students advocating for themselves, so now, on top of being full-time students[,] we’re also full-time self advocates. There’s only so many hours in the day, you know?
RESPONSE 2: I think that, although ADR tries, it has always been very understaffed, and does not have enough funding or power to change much. Administration has made efforts to build accessibility into the College website, which is great. But they need to prioritize physical accessibility, such as installing ramps and braille signs.
3) How would you describe the state of accessibility at Wellesley prior to the switch to remote learning? How would you describe it during remote learning? In your opinion, did the COVID pandemic affect and/or expose accessibility issues within the College?
RESPONSE 2: The need for regular testing exposed how little interdepartmental communication there is here. Res life, ADR, health services and administration rarely know what [the others are] doing, which causes me to miss testing dates and a lot of important information.
4) What sorts of accessibility efforts would you like to see the College undertake to create a more inclusive campus environment?
RESPONSE 1: First of all, disability is diversity, and accessibility is inclusion, and if you don’t acknowledge those two points, then you aren’t genuinely valuing either diversity or equity, so let’s start there.
First: hiring more ADR staff and giving them more funding.
Second of all, hiring disabled professors, having classes on disability studies and the intersectional aspects of disability because disability intersects with everything in life.
Thirdly, streamlining systems so that not every accessibility need has to go back and forth between different people. Also, being proactive and planning things so that we don’t have to deal with it when we arrive. Having and hiring staff and administration beyond just ADR alone that deal specifically with academic, housing and dining accommodations and are automatically embedded within those systems. Streamlining things like where to get necessary forms and how to access resources available in Massachusetts would also be ideal.
Also, let’s talk about infrastructure. Disability simulations are iffy but I’d love to see non-disabled folk try to navigate this school while only using the limited, faded Braille on the walls, hunting for the nearest accessible entrance, searching for the elevator, needing to be in a building that uses hearing loops and having to use Campus Po to navigate long distances after 5 p.m. That’s what it’s like being physically disabled on this campus. It’s not the disability that’s the issue, it’s the lack of accessible design. Add invisible illnesses and neurodivergence and issues with noise sensitivity with the lack of soundboarding in certain common spaces on this campus and you’ve got a whole myriad of issues to deal with. This isn’t even including tech infrastructure accessibility, like screen reader friendliness, audio descriptions or closed captioning, which have been questionable to say the least, even on the official website. I’d also appreciate it if the College communicated with disabled students and asked for their advice more often. Sometimes, decisions get pinned on accessibility concerns without disabled/chronically-ill/neurodivergent student input and we’d really appreciate knowing that something was going to happen before it did.
Assume that there are disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students everywhere that go to everything because there are. As an example, academically, professors could advertise that one of their students needs a notetaker in the first week of class or have a Zoom attendance option for chronically ill students so that even if the system takes a while, students still get what they need in the interim.
RESPONSE 2: The dining halls need to be more sensory friendly. Right now, I and others cannot go there […] without having severe panic attacks.
RESPONSE 3: I think the College needs to address why accessibility issues are so prominent. Often, these issues can be fixed, rather simply too, but are not because of the College’s unwillingness to spend money on helping disabled students. ADR is woefully underfunded. The wait times to get a meeting can be in the weeks. There are simply too many students who need accommodations for the amount of people working there. In my experience, this creates the problem that ADR staff run through students quickly, not fully considering their experiences or the multi-layered accessibility concerns. Another example is the Access Van. When I realized how bad my mobility problems were and needed a way to get around campus, I was encouraged to not try to get on the Access Van, because there were too many students who needed to use it. This could be fixed by getting another Access Van. Students should not have to consider whether they are willing to be late for class, or if they’d rather exert themselves. In my case, I was put on the Rides List, which is run by Campus Police. Only sometimes are you picked up in an unmarked vehicle by hired students. Instead, there’s a decent possibility that you would be picked up by Campus Police in a cop car. For many students of color, like myself, this is its own issue.
I also think that the College has noticed that systems in place with able-bodied students in mind, are failing. For example, the Mall Shuttle has often left people behind, due to not having enough seats. If the College were willing to pay for another van, on top of the two that are running, then this wouldn’t be an issue. And this affects disabled students. To get a seat on the [mall] Shuttle, you need to be there 20 minutes early. With mobility issues, it may not be possible to plan for that. If you miss the Shuttle, you are unable to get on another for two hours. If able-bodied students are having problems, disabled students are also having problems. A friend of mine who has PTSD cannot take Ubers without extreme nightmares for the days following. If they needed to get to Natick and missed the shuttle, despite being on time, the only way would be to get a ride through Uber or similar apps.
The College needs more people in administration who are disabled. It is hard to truly understand the impact of what is being done if you do not have first hand experience. I believe that with disabled people being part of the administration, it would be harder for them to ignore the access issues on campus. Many of these issues can be fixed. People are offering to fix them. With the Shuttles, the company that runs them asked if the College wanted another. They said the College was unwilling to get one more. The money is there. Wellesley’s endowment is huge. They just aren’t willing to spend it.
RESPONSE 4: Wellesley needs another access van. One time when I need a ride between classes is a time when multiple students need a ride. I have had to email ADR many many times about it, and the drivers of the current access van are so stressed about trying to give rides that they can’t do that. I’ve spent 15 minutes in the van after one of my rides while the driver tried to figure out how it would work, and it still hasn’t yet. I also think there’s a lack of systems set up for students who have a hard time completing all their schoolwork, as ADR has a policy of allowing extensions but can’t ask teachers to modify their work, which is hard when I’ve gone through periods where I can’t physically complete all my work while maintaining my well being, but try to anyway because I also don’t have the ability to do more work than necessary later without also overworking myself. Lastly, I wish there were alternate dining options to the dining halls, which can be crowded and loud and not something I’m physically up for at times. Maybe if Wellesley could have a meal service for disabled students when they’re not feeling well that could be good.
5) What can able-bodied and minded students do to better advocate for and help their disabled peers?
RESPONSE 1: Be watchful and be proactive. Also, understanding that accommodating for disability, neurodivergence and chronic illness is something that benefits everyone! Nothing is ever too small to be mentioned.
The core of disability advocacy is giving people the grace and respect that they need to thrive, and everyone deserves more grace anyhow. So advocate for flexibility and grace whenever and wherever you can. Give people the grace and support to bring up the disabled perspective on a reading in class, or, even better, be an ally and mention the ways that disabled folk are affected yourself. Some of us are introverted and shy and don’t really feel comfortable bringing things up ourselves.
Also, include disabled, neurodivergent and chronically ill students whatever plans you may have. Have people in orgs that specifically serve as accessibility liaisons. They don’t have to be disabled or neurodivergent or chronically ill! Just on the lookout for accessibility issues. I’d personally LOVE if a non-disabled person advocated for me without prompting. That would be such a dream.
Attending SAW is honestly a great way to get as many disabled voices on an issue. We’re always open to giving feedback on things! There’s a saying in the disabled community at large, “nothing about us, without us.”
In terms of specific, concrete actions, we came up with a list a while back here. Having warnings about noise level, expected numbers of people and flashing lights on spam is a big one that’s not included in there so I’ll include it here. We’re certainly not a perfect org either and we’re in the process of updating everything on our website as well. For example, Google Docs is not super accessible to everyone, so we’re working on figuring out ways that work for people.
RESPONSE 2: If you see something inaccessible, maybe take a picture and post it tagging SAW. Things will only get fixed if they are noticed enough.
RESPONSE 3: I think Wellesley needs more education for able-bodied and minded students, because there’s not enough and it makes it hard for me to feel comfortable talking to them sometimes about my issues as someone with a disability. This could include disability related courses and having more representation of disabled people in the faculty and administration of the College. I think, though, that if more able-bodied students could stand up for the needs of disabled students to the College and administration, it would be easier for disabled students to get the services they need and for able-bodied students to be educated on the disabled community.