Notes on accessibility

Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - 1:09pm

LSA senior DeAnna Jerore

LSA senior DeAnna Jerore Buy this photo
Courtesy of DeAnna Jerore

I became a notetaker with Services for Students with Disabilities entirely by accident. One April evening during my freshman year, I was having dinner with my best friend and her friend. Her friend happened to mention that he was a notetaker, and he gave me the email address of someone I could contact about getting involved. I was looking for a second job, and I knew I was good at taking notes. I also liked the idea of sitting in on classes I would not have otherwise been able to take. I emailed Jill Rice, coordinator of Services for Students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and she added my name to the list of notetakers.

I then went home for the summer and forgot about the whole thing.

Last fall, I was quickly initiated into a world I didn’t know existed. SSD coordinates a variety of accommodations and programs for students with disabilities ranging from from mobility impairments to learning disabilities to hearing loss. I became part of the notetaking division, a small army of students who attend classes and take notes for students registered with SSD. Some classes are straightforward, requiring notes to be taken on a computer and emailed to the student. Other times, an assignment may come with special instructions — take notes with a special black marker provided by SSD, for example.

Notetaking can be a strange job, because I often take notes for upper-level classes in unfamilar subjects. In fact, the first class I ever took notes for was an upper-level Economics course, and I knew absolutely nothing about the material. As I took notes and as the semester progressed, I began to relax into the fluid mindlessness of writing words that I had no need to understand. Over time, the initial peculiarity of the job transformed into something soothing and even meditative.

Despite working for the SSD for two years, and becoming an expert on the mystery that is notetaking, I remained incognizant of the many stories shaping disability on campus.  Being a notetaker has made me aware of a set of challenges that my privilege as an able-bodied student had previously allowed me to ignore — though I recognize that even with this understanding, I have barely scratched the surface. The specifics of the challenges remained abstract. I imagine that for many able-bodied students, the experiences of students with disabilities is similarly obscure.

Ignoring the needs of disabled students at the University of Michigan means overlooking a very significant minority. During the 2016-2017 school year, 6.3 percent of the 46,000 students at the University registered with SSD. Of course, the experiences of these students are as diverse, if not more, than the experiences of able-bodied students at the University, and it would be a mistake to lump them all together.

LSA senior DeAnna Jerore

LSA senior DeAnna Jerore Buy this photo
Courtesy of DeAnna Jerore

Last week I spoke to LSA senior DeAnna Jerore. Jerore is studying Political Science with a minor in Sustainability. For her first three years at the University, she was an able-bodied student. On Aug. 24, Jerore suffered a fall that severed her spinal cord. The accident left her unable to walk without the use of a four-wheeled walker.

The severity and permanence of Jerore’s injury means that she has been forced to quickly adapt to life with a mobility impairment. Adjusting physically and emotionally while also communicating with her professors has been challenging, but it has not stopped her from taking classes. Jerore explained that the availability of SSD resources has been instrumental in allowing her to return to her studies just weeks after the accident, despite doctors encouraging her to put school on hold.

Jerore explained that becoming registered with SSD required a variety of paperwork and in-person meetings, which posed some difficulty since she spent three weeks in the hospital following her operation. However, she explained that overall she has a had a positive experience with the SSD.

This semester, Jerore commutes to campus periodically. SSD coordinates with Information and Technology Services to provide Jerore with audio-visual recordings of her classes, allowing her to keep up from home until she is ready to return to campus full-time.

After graduation, Jerore plans to pursue a master’s degree in Urban Planning. She’s interested in how climate change is beginning to impact everyday life, and she hopes to design sustainable spaces that foster cohesion and community among people of all identities and cultures.

“This experience has changed my direction in terms of what those community places look like, and how they operate to encompass everyone, where it doesn’t feel like someone is being othered,” Jerore explained.

Though Jerore has found the SSD to be helpful, she noted that she has faced challenges with faculty.

Jerore has noticed that her professors and graduate student instructors don’t seem to understand the severity of her injury. “The biggest challenge for me is that coming back and sending out emails, professors and GSIs were like, ‘Oh, hope you get better soon!’” Jerore said.

Jerore said she understands that these emails came from a place of misunderstanding, not malice. Before her accident, she didn’t know much about spinal cord injuries either.

“I didn’t say this, but it sort of burned me up a little bit,” she explained. “I think that some of the awareness needs to be there. Because that was very, very difficult — I was even sending multiple emails and having doctor’s letters and whatnot in terms of trying to give (professors and GSIs) a sense of how serious this was. That took up a lot of my time.”

A lack of awareness among faculty about disability is a symptom of the University’s insufficient efforts to make campus accessible. While Jerore’s experience with SSD has been largely positive, the campus remains largely inaccessible — both literally, for students with mobility impairments, and also in regards to attitudes toward disabilities. The University’s 2015 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan is notably silent on disability.

Some disabled students have also questioned SSD’s requirement that students register to receive services, pointing out that students with other marginalized identities are not required to “prove” their identity.

While the University ranks high on lists of disability-friendly schools, this may say more about the state of accessibility in higher education than it does about the University’s accommodations for disabled students. While SSD has many programs that benefit registered students, the office does not have the power to alter class requirements for students. University professors are provided with a handbook on how to best accommodate disabled students, but SSD cannot compel faculty to make any changes to their curriculum, even for students with SSD documentation.

While the staff of SSD works hard to provide accommodations, it is important to note their budget appears somewhat limited.

SSD is funded by both a general fund and an Americans with Disabilities Act Provost Fund. According to a 2014 presentation, the general fund budget has been cut by 1.5 percent every year since 2007. The 2014 general fund allocation was $18,000, down from $32,000 in 2007. The ADA Provost Fund provides between $300,000 and $700,000 per year to ensure ADA compliance. SSD also receives money from individual donors.

Given that SSD provides resources to 6.3 percent of students, their operating budget is quite small compared to other organizations that serve an equal or lesser number of students. There are 1,011 student-athletes, for example, meaning that student-athletes make up a little over 2 percent of the general student population. For the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Michigan Athletics has projected a $2.5 million budget surplus; its total budget for the year was $188.1 million.

This is not, of course, a perfect comparison. Michigan Athletics creates revenue, while SSD does not. Sports also holds a cultural, communal and aesthetic value that disability resources and awareness lack. Still, the difference between the SSD and Michigan Athletics operating budgets are striking.

As an able-bodied notetaker, I rarely considered the people receiving my notes. Before learning more about SSD, notetaking was a simply a job for me. After researching the University’s accessibility, many of my preconceptions about what it means to be disabled on campus have been challenged.

The ways campus and classes are designed for able-bodied students are glaringly apparent. How would a student with a mobility impairment navigate the stacks in Hatcher Graduate Library, for instance? How would a blind student have their obscure class readings translated to Braille? How would a student with a learning disability convince an unwilling professor to provide extra time on an exam?

I’m humbled to have spoken to Jerore, and hearing about her experiences has radically changed my perspective. Obviously, the stories of SSD and the experiences of disabled students at the University are sometimes contradictory. Hearing these stories and recognizing their rich complexity is perhaps the first step toward a more accessible and equitable campus.