When Rackham student Josh Guberman sought out accommodations for his PhD pre-candidacy process last year, he reached out to his program director knowing it can be difficult to receive disability accommodations not directly related to extensions on coursework or exams. Despite his efforts, Guberman said the convoluted process still fell below his low expectations.

“It took weeks and weeks and weeks to even get a meeting with (the program director),” Guberman said. “And it was just an incredibly frustrating process.”

Receiving accommodations

This past May, the Committee on Graduate Student Experiences with Disability Accommodations at the University of Michigan presented a report to Rackham Graduate School, offering recommendations for the University to follow when accommodating graduate students with disabilities.

According to the report, out of 266 graduate students who identified as having a disability, 72.5% answered that it was difficult to arrange accommodations with Rackham. 

On Jan. 22, Rackham released another report following over a year of research by the committee. According to the report, graduate students with disabilities struggle with a lack of resources and “an unwelcoming institutional and departmental climate.”

During a pandemic that has put a strain on students’ mental health and raised questions about the extent to which the University supports students with disabilities or extenuating circumstances, some graduate students say they feel unsupported when seeking out accommodations from the University due to a confusing and multifaceted process.

Graduate students with disabilities attempting to secure both academic accommodations, like testing accommodations, and non-academic accommodations, such as teaching accommodations, have to navigate different protocols at Rackham, the University-wide Services for Students with Disabilities and their individual academic department, students said.  

Fiona Lee, LSA associate dean for diversity, equity, & inclusion and professional development, wrote in an email to The Daily that these departments do not work autonomously. Instead, Rackham works with LSA to provide resources to graduate students, since many areas of study are supported by LSA despite being graduate programs. 

LSA works closely with Rackham to make sure we provide graduate students with resources and accommodations they need,” Lee wrote. “Rackham works with graduate programs in all U-M schools and colleges.”

Guberman said while having three separate departments might appear to create a comprehensive accommodation structure, the lack of central infrastructure has only created confusion. 

“A lot of us just feel stuck and hopeless,” Guberman said. “Because our advisers don’t know this information, our program directors don’t know this information, SSD doesn’t know about the things they don’t do and Rackham doesn’t know about the things that they don’t do.” 

Students seeking accommodations from SSD have to fill out an intake form, which is then processed by an SSD coordinator. Students are then directed to reach out to the coordinator to discuss accommodations. 

Both undergraduate and graduate students who have registered through SSD and decided on accommodations with a coordinator receive a Verified Individualized Services and Accommodations letter to give to their professor to secure academic accommodations. 

Lisa Green, an SSD coordinator, wrote in an email to The Daily that “there must be a permanent or temporary disability or condition that substantially limits major life activities” for a student to receive accommodations through SSD. She added that “SSD will work with students at any stage of their disability status” and that documentation requirements vary case by case.

To receive accommodations from Rackham, graduate student employees must either go to their supervisor or school/college administrative designee to informally request accommodations, or they must complete a disability accommodation request form. Students then enter an “interactive process” with three people: their supervisor, administrative designee and Darlene Ray-Johnson, a graduate student affairs officer at Rackham. A fourth person, the University’s Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator, may also participate in this process, which then determines the nature of the accommodation.

Student employees are then notified whether their accommodations were approved. If not approved, the interactive process continues until an accommodation is decided upon. Graduate students requiring academic accommodations must register with SSD, since Rackham only handles disability accommodation requests by graduate student employees.

“There are some good resources out there … but a lot of grad students just don’t know about them”

Rackham student Marjorie Herbert, a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s disability caucus, said SSD sometimes struggles to accommodate graduate students. While SSD typically grants accommodations such as a time extension on an exam, different accommodations are needed for students completing dissertations, Herbert said.

“All those things that are specific to a PhD or master’s program requirement, (there) just seems to be a lack of knowledge over there about how to handle those accommodations,” Herbert said.

Green said SSD cannot change degree requirements or any aspects of individual courses, making them occasionally unable to provide graduate students with all of the accommodations they require.

“We provide academic accommodations for the classroom — we cannot usurp any of the course requirements,” Green said. “There’s so many things that SSD does not have that power to override — a lot of times, the onus is on the professor and the student to work out the logistics.”

Herbert echoed Guberman in noting that the lack of central infrastructure for receiving accommodations hinders students’ abilities to receive them, even though SSD and Rackham have resources in place to help students navigate disability accommodations.

“There are some good resources out there … but a lot of grad students just don’t know about them, and it’s just a very complicated problem,” Herbert said.

Herbert said problems can arise when professors claim they haven’t seen a VISA letter before and refuse to accept it — leading to an uncomfortable situation where students have to become the enforcer in their accommodations.

“You’re in a class that you really want to take and your faculty member has never seen a VISA before, which is very common for grad students because there aren’t a lot of grad students with disabilities here,” Herbert said. “They might say, ‘I have never seen this before, I don’t accept this, I’m not doing this in my class,’ and … what do you do as a student in that situation?”

Green said while SSD holds training sessions to educate different departments on accommodations students may require, it is ultimately up to the departments to inform their instructors that they may need to offer accommodations.

“It is not SSD’s responsibility to inform the professor that they may have a student come to them,” Green said. “That’s not our role to disclose that to the professors.”

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Herbert said while she knows the COVID-19 pandemic has created difficulties for some students with disabilities, attending classes remotely has been a positive experience for her.

“Being able to work from home has always been sort of a difficult accommodation to get and I think it’s benefited a lot of people, so there’s some things that the COVID era has brought to the disability community,” Herbert said. “But there’s also problems that I’m sure I’m not aware of.”

Herbert also said that, getting their own accommodations aside, the pandemic has created a tough learning environment, since disabled graduate student instructors sometimes have to do “extra work” to work out online accessibility problems with Information and Technology Services and advocate on behalf of their disabled students. Herbert clarified that ITS has been supportive in helping disabled students work out these issues.

However, she added that the climate at the University in general for students with disabilities felt unwelcoming even before the pandemic.

“The sense you get is that grad students with disabilities don’t belong here, aren’t up to the rigor of grad school almost,” Herbert said. 

Green said the pandemic has created challenges in both implementing and delivering accommodations to students. Test-taking has been a key issue, especially when it comes to navigating online platforms, she said.

Green also said that limited access to on-campus resources like libraries and study spaces causes difficulties.

“The onus is now on the student to find a space at home or on campus where they can take those exams and things in a quiet, distraction-reduced environment as opposed to having maybe access to the testing accommodation center on campus,” Green said.

Green said SSD has helped students transition to online learning by purchasing items for students like noise-canceling headphones and the Echo SmartPen, which links audio recordings of lectures to students’ notes.

“It’s been a very interesting year,” Green said. “We’ve really had to think way outside the box and really come up with some really good, helpful, accessible, resourceful ideas on how to best provide accommodations for our students.”

Green said while graduate students with disabilities “absolutely” face a unique set of challenges during the pandemic that can negatively impact their mental health, these kinds of services fall outside of SSD’s purview and are handled by “community providers.” 

“A lot of people in the office do not have a credential(s) to be a therapist — that was not a requirement,” Green said. “A lot of times we do refer students to CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services).”

Tensions between students and SSD 

Last year, Guberman served as graduate co-chair of SSD’s Student Advisory Board, a board that bridges the divide between students and SSD. Despite the board’s formal role as advisers for SSD, he said tension arose when students voiced concerns about accommodations issues on campus.

“I was often pulled aside and told that they didn’t appreciate the negativity,” Guberman said. “And frankly, it’s not my responsibility or the students’ responsibility to react positively to an office that clearly — as the students on the board were discussing, meeting after meeting — was not adequately meeting their needs really at capacity.”

While acknowledging student concerns, Green said there needs to be cooperation between SSD and students for them to institute change together.

“A couple of people on our staff… are working to revamp that system and how that works to be a more …  collaborative forum,” Green said. “We can only make things better if we are working together to do that instead of hashing out some of those negative aspects that might have been received by the previous (SSD) administration.”

In an email to all SSD staff on Sunday, Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, interim director of SSD and professor in the Medical School, acknowledged that graduate students with disabilities often struggle to receive appropriate accommodations and encouraged students to approach him with any concerns. 

“I will be the first to acknowledge that there is still much work to be done, but also believe it is critical to recognize the work that has already been done, and the work that is currently in progress,” Okanlami wrote. “I fully support using our voices –  in whatever way one deems necessary – to move the needle towards a desired result, but until all of those voices are singing in the same choir, it will be difficult to achieve a harmonious result.”

Commenting on Guberman’s claim that SSD employees said they were disappointed in the “negativity” from members of the student advisory board, Green said she was aware these comments were made but do not believe they represent the views of all board members. 

“I know that there were a lot of more individual negative comments and things that were made,” Green said. “I don’t know that it was the voice of all students, because there weren’t a lot of students that were included in or attended the meetings or were represented.”

In December 2019, the Student Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility Board, a board composed of faculty, staff and students from divisions across the University, presented a report to Robert Sellers, the University’s chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion. The nearly 200-page report offered various recommendations on how to better serve students with disabilities on campus. Both Green and Guberman served on this board.

Guberman said the report highlighted problems that students faced with SSD in the past, including what he called “discriminatory registration practices.” 

When Guberman was seeking accommodations, he said SSD would require some students to get re-diagnosed for their disability every year, which wasn’t always possible. He said when he registered for accommodations, he was required to provide a diagnosis from a few years prior. The last time he had been diagnosed was in 2009, and he said it took several phone calls and emails to get re-diagnosed. 

“I could get around that requirement by going back to the person who had done that testing and getting them to write a letter endorsing me saying, ‘yes, this person is still disabled,’ which shouldn’t need to happen with lifelong disabilities,” Guberman said. “And again, not everyone has access like that — I was able to go back to this person because he’s still alive, he’s still in practice, I have his contact info.”

According to Green, the registration process allows students to receive accommodations prior to them submitting documentation of the disability. Documentation requirements “are assessed on an individual basis unique to their condition, current circumstance, or accommodation request,” Green said.

Moving forward, Green said SSD needs more funding to continue improving its services, especially since it has been “understaffed for years.” 

“One of the things we’ve always wanted was maybe a disability resource center, or a space for students … to be able to just be amongst themselves and not feel as though they have to be isolated,” Green said.

“I’m hopeful that this can lead to more constructive processes”

Herbert, who decided to pursue accommodations through SSD for the first time this semester, wrote in an email to The Daily that the new process was “much easier than it was in the past.” She added that she was matched with a coordinator just two days after filling out the online Student Intake Form stating her disability and the accommodations she required.

“I met with her online the following week, and she told me about a few different funding options I could look into,” Herbert wrote. “I received my VISA letter confirming I was registered right after that meeting, even though my doctor had not finished filling out the documentation paperwork.”

But Herbert said that she “didn’t get as much support” as she expected. Her accommodation needs stem from burnout that was brought on by navigating a PhD program with an undiagnosed disability, and recovering from her burnout now requires working fewer hours, she said. 

After interviewing with The Daily, Herbert wrote in an email that working fewer hours was not offered as a possible accommodation despite her listing it on her intake form, leading her to believe that “working fewer hours simply isn’t a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

“Things are getting tricky for me because I am in my final semester of funding … but I will be unable to work a full-time GSI position (which is how most PhD students here fund their degrees/living expenses when they are not on fellowship) and make progress on my dissertation in the Fall,” she wrote.

Herbert said she’s currently negotiating with her department leadership to find a reduced GSI appointment, but does not know if it will be possible.

Guberman also said that SSD needs more funding and added that despite his problems with SSD, he ultimately wants to work with the University to improve disability accommodation options on campus.

“My goal, and I think the goal of other disabled activists on campus, is to be able to work with SSD and not against them towards meeting the needs of students on campus,” Guberman said. “And I’m … hopeful that this can lead to more constructive processes.”

This story has been updated to include information about a recent Rackham report published on Jan. 22 and comments from Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, interim director of SSD.

Daily Staff Reporter Krystal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu. 

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