Students with disabilities voice discontent with deficient University resources

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 9:53pm

Though several institutions and officials serve as agents in supporting the community of people with disabilities on campus at the University of Michigan, those in it still face daily hurdles. Many resources, students object, fall short of inclusion. Furthermore, much of the conversation around marginalization — students and staff agree — fails to consider the experiences of individuals with disabilities.

The perks and pitfalls of registration

Services for Students with Disabilities is the University’s central office with which students who have disabilities can register. It helps provide accommodations and access for students academically and in other capacities on campus.

The office’s annual report from the 2015-16 school year shows a record 832 newly registered students — more than 100 students higher than the previous year — and an overall registration of 2,277 students. Of students registered with SSD, 40 percent have learning disabilities, 26 percent have mental-health conditions and 15 percent have chronic-health conditions.

The office’s primary role, once students register, is to provide students with a Verified Individualized Services and Accommodations letter to compensate for a student’s disability. Students then provide these letters to professors — generally early on in the school year — so accommodations can be made for them in terms of testing, absences and other portions of the class.  

However, according to SSD Director Stuart Segal, the office can only go so far in terms of assisting students.

“We don’t have the ability to make any fundamental alterations in a classroom, a curriculum, or a program of study that leads to certification or licensing,” he said. “Students have to be able to do whatever the requirements are of whatever class or program they’re in.”

Specifically, the SSD cannot alter components of the course — including attendance, grades and homework obligations that are outlined in syllabi — to accommodate students. Additionally, students in certain programs that lead to certification or licensing must abide by the rules of the program as it was designed. Students can ask for adjustments themselves, but it is up to the discretion of their professor or supervisor to agree.

Art & Design freshman Celeste Adams recently registered with the office, but does not entirely agree with its tactics. Adams uses a power chair.

“I get why (the SSD office) is important and how helpful it is, but I think there are a lot of issues with it,” she said. “If you look at any history of any minority, having to register to prove you’re part of that group isn’t something that has been appropriate (or has gone well).”

She pointed out a teacher in one of her classes recently accommodated another student who will be absent from class for the upcoming Jewish holidays without documentation.

“She doesn’t have to prove that she’s Jewish,” Adams said. “I was told by a teacher last semester that she was unable to give me any accommodation unless I had proof through the SSD, even though it’s pretty obvious that I have a disability.”

Adams went on to explain the incident led to a conflict in the class before she registered with SSD. The teacher threatened to fail her and then told her that people like her, with disabilities, shouldn’t be allowed to go to college.

“It just seems like for some reason with the disabled community, whenever we need stuff we have to prove it,” she said.

Adams explained some argue people could manipulate the system by lying they have disabilities when they don’t in order to get accommodations.

“It’s never made sense to me that we have to go through proving our own identities and the fact that we need certain things because someone might lie about it, which in reality doesn’t really happen,” she said. “If it does, that’s when the University needs to reflect and say, ‘Ok, are we pushing our students too much?’ ”

Adams noted students do not have to register with the SSD, but if they don’t, it is up to the discretion of teachers to offer accommodations. The difference, she said, can sometimes be between passing and failing a class.

Engineering junior Drew Canada wrote in an email interview he has had a positive experience with teachers in the College of Engineering, but not to the same degree in LSA. He is also registered with SSD for his muscular dystrophy.

“(The College of Engineering is) very empathetic of my health issues and have easily rescheduled exams for me,” he wrote. “Large LSA classes (like Calc 1-3) were less accommodating and couldn't reschedule exams due to the lack of a doctors note. With my Muscular Dystrophy, I have all the medical equipment in my dorm to treat my health issues except to an IV. Things can get pretty bad even without a doctor / hospital visit. The CoE profs I've had understand that while even though the LSA teachers might understand as well, they haven't given the same support.”

Architecture graduate student Mieko Preston experienced a stroke five years ago and now uses a medical scooter. She said registering with the SSD was an “uphill battle” and she did almost as much paperwork to register with the University as she did to receive government assistance.

“The accessibility of being able to benefit from those accommodations or resources that are necessarily put in place is actually extremely difficult,” she said.

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Building accessibility — or lack thereof

Students with disabilities also face significant barriers in regard to accessing buildings on campus.

Adams has not been able to access her dorm room in West Quad for one week because of a broken elevator — the only elevator, she said, providing access to her room on the fifth floor.

As an Art & Design student, most of Adams’s classes are on North Campus. However, she was offered housing in Alice Lloyd or West Quad because she was told that none of the dorms on North Campus were accessible.

She said she was happy to be on Central Campus but surprised not all dorms were accessible. She also said the rooms in Alice Lloyd were very cramped and not as accessible as she thought, so she chose West Quad but received a room on the top floor.

Even worse, she said at the beginning of the school year, the fire alarm went off, leaving her alone with no way to get downstairs. Her resident adviser and all other residents had left. She called for help using a call button by the elevator, and it took more than 35 minutes for someone to get to her.

“I had no way of knowing if there was an actual fire going on,” she said. “I had no clue what was happening.”

She said when she asked about protocol in the event of a future fire alarm, she was told she would have to be carried down the stairs, and that she’d have to leave her power chair behind. Power chairs, she said, take four to six months to have ordered and customized. Were she to lose her chair, she would have no way of getting around.

“That was one thing in terms of realizing the University has no plan,” she said.

In terms of accessing other buildings on campus, Adams noted the Michigan Union only offers two accessible entrances, and both of them are “hidden” on the sides.

“There’s a little sign that points me to this ramp that goes down the side of the building, and it’s this really tight space,” she said. “There are high walls, so no one can see you entering the building; there are big bushes, so your body is completely hidden. No one can see you in that space. It’s totally masking the disabled body."

Segal said the University has gone to great lengths to provide what it can, but many older buildings are designed in such way that makes it difficult to make adjustments.

“I certainly understand students who use the ramps, and why they may feel somewhat marginalized,” he said. “On the other hand, the University does go to a great deal of time and expense to do what they can. The problem with our campus is that the buildings are of such different ages, and designed in such different fashions, and that they were built to code at the time that they were constructed.”

Segal highlighted the upcoming $85-million renovation of the Union. A lot of time and consideration, he said, has gone into making the inside of the building as accessible as possible. Currently, the Union facilities do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates building accessibility for people with disabilities. With the renovations, ramp access and elevators will be improved, including the ramp to which Adams referred.  

However, Segal said the University cannot do anything to alter the front entrance, which requires stair use. The subject, he said, has been discussed in several meetings.

“Even under the new design, the front entrance will not be accessible, and that is sad for all of us,” he said. “None of us like that. We understand people might be frustrated with that. Again, just given the age of the building, the construction, the way it was laid out, and the elevations that are there, it becomes next to impossible to with the design.”

With regard to building accessibility in general, Adams said she would encourage people to spend a day using only disability-accessible routes. She said it is “amazing” what people would realize.

“Imagine if they made you take a different path on the side if you were another minority group — if you were African American or Muslim — that is total segregation,” she said. “We’ve been there before in history, we know how that goes. We know how bad it is to segregate certain groups of people, and that is exactly what is happening here.”

Technological accomodations

In terms of transportation technology services, Canada wrote he has had an overall positive experience, particularly regarding the trek to North Campus for engineering classes. Canada uses Paratransit, which offers transportation services for students, faculty and staff who are registered with SSD.

“The other thing I'd like to point out is that Paratransit through the SSD and University bus system has been unreal,” he wrote. “Being an Engineering student is difficult here. More so with a disability and health issues. ParaTransit has lifted the burden of traveling to North campus and back to East Quad. It's one less stressful thing to worry about to bridge the gap between disabled and able-bodied students.”

Other technological innovations are geared toward academics, attempting to make up for the gaps Adams described.

Assistive Technology Manager Jane Berliss-Vincent oversees the Knox Center Adaptive Computer Site. The Knox Center is located in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library and is specifically designed to assist students with temporary or permanent disabilities by way of computing and information technology. It is also a quiet space for students to work, a suggestion accommodated for when students with disabilities were consulted in its construction, according to Berliss-Vincent. Its workstations are adjustable to individuals who use wheelchairs or wish to stand. Chairs are fully adjustable and the room provides lockers. Several computers in the Knox Center also contain specialized hardware programs.

“Probably the largest group of students I’m working with are students with learning disabilities, ADHD et cetera,” she said. “The second-largest group is students with repetitive strain injuries, back problems, other musculoskeletal issues.”

Berliss-Vincent noted technology designed for people with disabilities can benefit everyone.

She pointed to a software program the University uses called Read & Write Gold. Installed on all campus computers, the tool was initially implemented for students with learning disabilities. It offers several services including a homonym checker that looks for words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings or words that are easy to confuse.

“Read & Write is really a Swiss Army knife of tools originally designed to benefit people with learning disabilities,” she said. “As with a spellchecker, it’s hard to think of anyone that wouldn’t benefit. Certainly, it would be beneficial to students, for example, for whom English is an additional language.”

Overlooked by the DEI

The University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan released last October intended to instill and promote an equitable campus climate for all students, and focuses on a variety of minority groups based on race, ethnicity and gender. However, the 49-unit program has received criticism for not actually fostering such an environment — especially for members of the campus community with disabilities.

Segal observed the community of people with disabilities is very heterogeneous, and he can understand why some students may not feel included in the DEI. From an administrative standpoint, though, he said the community has always been included.  

“From my role as the director, I would say ... DEI has worked at including people with disabilities,” he said. “If there are conversations going on, they seem to make an effort to include our office or other members of the community.”

Segal is optimistic about boosting SSD registration and the academic success rate of students.

“Our numbers continue to grow. As of today there are 2,510 students registered with the office — a little more than 6 percent of all students,” he said. “Nationwide, the estimate is 10 percent of students on campuses have a disability. There may be more students out there who can benefit from our service but may not know about us.”

He also said students with disabilities come to the University with an average GPA of 3.0, and graduation rates are exactly on par with all other students.

National employment rates for people with disabilities, he said, tend to be very low. On the contrary, employment rates for University graduates with disabilities is on par with students who don’t have disabilities.

“This says students are coming, they’re succeeding, they’re graduating and they’re finding work,” he said. “To me, that’s really the promise of all the DEI — that we want to make this as inclusive, as diverse a student body as we can, and we want to make sure all of us together, that students succeed, graduate and go out and find good work.”

Preston is a member of the Initiative for Inclusive Design and the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students. She identifies as bi-racial, as well as a member of the community of people with disabilities, Preston said in her opinion, the DEI is lacking on multiple fronts. She also said both of her organizations were disappointed with how the DEI was rolled out.

“I personally think the disabled were, and still are, considered very third-hand,” she said.

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The Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning is currently being renovated. Preston said she is not sure what accommodations are being made, but she is fairly certain a person with disabilities is not sitting in on those talks.

Adams said she reviewed the school-wide plan and that of the Taubman College, and criticized it does not seem to have consulted anyone from the community of people with disabilities.

“The University-wide plan only mentioned disability three times,” she said. "That was appalling and very, very offensive."

She noted specifically on the cover of the plan, there was no one who was clearly or visibly disabled. The DEI plan, she maintained, could be more effective if more people with disabilities were involved in its creation.

“When you're writing something that so deeply affects a group of people you can’t make assumptions,” she said. “You can’t say: ‘I think this is what we should do for this group of people.’ You can’t just talk to one person about it.”

From a different angle, Berliss-Vincent served on the DEI committee within Information Technology Services when ITS was part of the University’s Business and Finance Office. She agreed people with disabilities should be more included in the DEI planning process.

“I would say, unfortunately, disability is often not considered as part of DEI,” she said. “One thing to keep in mind is that there are certainly very practical considerations around disability. There’s also a very rich disability culture. There are a lot of poets and filmmakers and authors and essayists and as a rich a background of art and expression around disability as there are for other groups, but that’s often not perceived or even considered.”

She said incorporating disability needs could allow for collaboration between intersectional communities on campus. Berliss-Vincent pointed to a map, provided by the Spectrum Center, of all the single-stall, gender-inclusive restrooms on campus — almost all of which are wheelchair-accessible.

“I think (the community of people with disabilities) absolutely should be a part of DEI,” she said. “I think there is tremendous opportunity for cross-group dialogue about both cultural and practical considerations. For example, if you have single-stall restroom to accommodate restrooms who do not feel comfortable using either a women’s or men’s room, it’s very easy to also make that restroom accessible.”

This article is the first part of "Hurdles," an ongoing series of articles on institutional barriers faced by all members of the campus community.