The necessity of the disabilities task force proposals

David Chang, Staff Columnist

“I had a panic attack due to an excessive intake of caffeine during a trial period of higher ADHD medication prescription than I had previously taken … When the first responders showed up, the first thing I was asked was along the lines of ‘so you’re partying on adderall, huh? Having fun?’” 

This incident was just one out of 38 anonymous submissions on @disability.cwru’s Instagram page, which recounts Case Western Reserve University students’ experiences with ableism. This ranges from professors and teaching assistants not accommodating students’ needs to Provost Ben Vinson III inappropriate use of the word “schizophrenic.” With the rise of social media activism over the summer, students spoke out against the ableist judgment they faced. 

“It was alarming to see that there were so many of us who feel so underrepresented … we realized that we are the ones who are going to make [changes],” commented second-year communication sciences student Tyler Barrios.

With other issues such as racial justice, sexual conduct, LGBTQ+ and Greek Life, a disabilities resources task force was also created with the intent of establishing concrete resolutions to tackle the issue at hand. The committee was formed after administrators got in contact with students Shatabdi Das and Brianna Olson. The Disabilities Resources Committee’s mission is “to improve the experience at CWRU for the disabled community, to increase access to reasonable accommodations, and to ensure equitable access to campus resources and infrastructures.” 

First-year student Evan Fierro acknowledged the hardships of how ableism has personally impacted him and his brother: “My brother is diagnosed with autism, so I understand the judgement they had to face. I am diagnosed with fibromyalgia and POTS, which is a big part of my identity … I played defensive tackle and did shot put, [but I had to] quit football and track my senior year [of high school].”

The proposal is divided into committees that are dedicated to improving disability training, campus resources and outreach, and academic and physical accommodations (which a subcommittee is currently in charge of). Besides focusing on faculty and staff, the task force hopes to improve disability training in Diversity 360 and Orientation Leader training, as well as adding new disability advocacy training for interested students under Disability Resources, in a similar fashion to the Wellness Ambassadors under University Health and Counseling Services. The proposal recognizes that the Diversity 360 program creates burnout and potentially loses student’s interest and focus with its four-hour session time length. The disabilities task force calls for the program to be structured topic-wise with “breakout sessions: Race/Ethnicity, LGBTQ+, Gender, Disability,” ending with an intersectionality session. For the disability section, focusing on recognizing and removing ableist language and derogatory terms, replacing insensitive diction like “special needs” and “handicapped” with “person with intellectual disability.”

Third-year student Zachary Ziccardi believes that being part of the campus community means undertaking training to be sensitive to a diverse minority: “You can hear [ableist] language everywhere … you can hear it at KSL, at the dining hall, from a Safe Ride driver.”

Interestingly, none of the other task forces mentioned Diversity 360, besides the Racial Justice draft proposal briefly calling for more funding to train facilitators and potentially partner with outside organizations. The proposal also addresses academic accommodations, including being more transparent with giving students accommodations for rides, lab classes, peer note taking and technology use during class. 

Currently, students with disabilities have to register online on the Accessibility Information Management (AIM) system to schedule accommodations for exams, access their textbooks or notes by peer note takers in pdf format and request to send accommodation letters to faculty. First, students upload their medical documentation notifying Disability Resources of their diagnoses and required accommodations. In the case that professors do not have the memo or disregard it completely, it leaves students in an uncomfortable position to “challenge the status quo and what is appropriate for us,” Barrios said. Barrios also said would find it helpful if AIM was linked in the Student Information System (SIS) portal, as the placement would be more normalizing. Besides destigmatizing the process of going to disabilities for help, putting AIM on SIS would be more convenient for students. ” The SIS website is run by PeopleSoft, a company under Oracle, while the AIM system is its independent software. Overlapping platforms over different companies make the idea of adding AIM under SIS troublesome. Possible alternatives would be to add it under Canvas or MyHealthConnect. While our school’s slogan is to think beyond the possible, reaching for quality of life improvements that are achievable should be the priority. 

Disability training is geared towards students, professors and other university staff who may be intentionally or unintentionally using ableist language. Because some students with invisible disabilities are deemed “able-body passing,” professors are not as accommodating and the issue is not addressed. 

For example, there was an incident about a professor inadvertently separating students with accomodations. The Office of Student Disabilities addressed the situation and the issue did not reoccur. Students with disabilities should not need to unintentionally out themselves and be forced to explain why they need their accommodations. 

As for physical accommodations, the task force would like to see improvements to the assisted transport system, as the current wait times are too long and not prioritized by SafeRide after 6 p.m. Adding an option to indicate to the driver that a rider is a student with disabilities would help drivers prioritize these students first. As for building accessibility, an accommodations directory, a map, for indicating which buildings and the locations of ramps, elevators and other accessibility features is in the works of being posted online. In the case of grad students having classes in buildings that do not have accessibilities, the office of student disabilities works with the registar to reassign the classroom.

The task force would also like to see the anonymous complaint of reporting ableist language, actions, or being denied accommodations through the Office of Equity become more visible. With the addition of professor evaluations, these reports can help prevent future incidents of students with disabilities hearing ableist language or not receiving the accommodations they need. 

In most cases of faculty-student conflict, usually the problem lies in miscommunication rather than a blatant ignorance. The faculty member might feel like certain accommodations don’t apply for the course. For example, mandatory participation classes such as discussion-based and lab courses are not flexible with attendance, so students might want to reconsider taking the class in another semester or work with Disability Resources and the professor. Kaley Smitley, senior assistant director of Disability Resources, explained how the office would deal with a report of a professor either not being aware of or not respecting accommodations.

If a student reports that a faculty member does not understand or is not implementing accommodations, our office immediately reaches out to the faculty member. We work with them to identify and address any misunderstanding or concern. If the accommodation is indeed not applicable to the course, we notify the student and identify other supports. Issues pertaining to discrimination are referred to the Office of Equity.” 

In addition, the office also sends an email to the departmental chair asking to make a statement about inclusivity and confidentiality [in regards to students with disabilities] to remind the faculty and if they have any questions that they please ask us,” said Smitley. 

Another issue is that accommodations are not retroactive. Students can register for accommodations at any time and are in control of how they use their accommodations, but they cannot retake an exam with accommodations after they’ve already taken the exam.  The students have also received a lot of help in writing up the proposal. The disabilities task force is advised by Smitley and Assistant Dean Eboni Porter. Olson noted that there was some tension working with the Disability Resources staff initially, as they mistook the office as resistant to criticism. After more communication, Olson, Das and the disabilities staff realized they shared the same goal of serving students.

“Shatabdi and I [didn’t] want to be abrasive, [we] realized that we are all a team and have to come to a solution. The [disabilities staff] wished they had more time to train faculty and feel frustrated with administrative barriers just like we do,” commented Olson. 

Olson recognizes Vice President Lou Stark as an administrative member who is eager to help by removing barriers to streamline the proposal process. “[Stark] has expressed commitment to try to approve things listed in the proposal at the ‘lowest level’ without being appealed by the [board].”

Olson appreciates that members of the committee keep their attendance to meetings consistent, as students are juggling full class loads and the obstacles of learning in a virtual setting. “It’s very energizing for all of us … [that] people are so passionate.”

Fierro, who is on the disability training subcommittee, would welcome the addition of a physical center for students with disabilities, akin to the LGBT Center. Currently, there is no club for students with disabilities to congregate, and hearing about the experiences of the diagnosing process and struggles of being a student on campus builds community. The task force meetings have provided a sense of solidarity, a place where they could share the struggles of their diagnosis process and the backhand comments about how receiving test-taking accommodations is “cheating.”

“Working on the task force has been fluid, it’s nice that students are respecting other students’ time … people are doing work because they genuinely care about it and not because of a resume builder,” commented Ziccardi.

Another aspect to recognize is that some students do not wish to be defined by their disabilities. “I have an invisible disability … but I can see [how] a person who has a physical disability would appreciate [the community] for solace,” commented Ziccardi. 

Although Fierro expressed that ableist actions and attitude were “worrisome,” he views it as “room for improvement.”

“I remember when we first started there were 10 people, but the next meeting there was 40-50 … [everyone] was so happy coming together and sharing their experiences, and it felt powerful to be part of making change.”

The task force proposals can be viewed on the school’s For a Better CWRU website, with Google forms attached to give feedback.