Disabilities on campus: problems and possibilities

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 7:42pm

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Illustration by Shane Achenbach

 

Editor’s Note: While some communities prefer disability-first language (“disabled person”), others prefer person-first language (person with disabilities). Terminology in this article is adapted to specific communities’ preferences. When referring to disabilities in general, the person-first language and disability-first language are used interchangeably. 

There’s a reason why Michigan refers to its second term as winter semester instead of spring, unlike most other colleges in the nation. From the New Year to the beginning of April, the roads and sidewalks of the city and on campus are both often obstructed with unplowed snow and unsalted ice.

Navigating the 780-square acre campus by foot is already difficult enough for the able-bodied individual. For physically disabled students, or 5.7 percent of the student body, the neglect to shovel makes ramps slick, entries circuitous and commutes more dangerous.

As I trudged 20 minutes from my home on South Campus to the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office in Haven Hall, I was already in a position of privilege with a body I take for granted.

I sat down with SSD Director Dr. Stuart Segal, who also received his clinical psychology doctorate at the University about 40 years ago. 

“Extended time is our number one accommodation,” Segal explained. “This is an incredibly competitive school. By allowing (disabled students) to demonstrate what they know, the idea is that we’re leveling the playing field.”

In his 23 years coordinating the program, Segal proudly said SSD successfully advocated for 63,000 accommodations last year — from extended time to interpreters for the deaf to special wheelchair access. Not a single one was denied. 

The catch is, though, that students must register and request these accommodations themselves. This raises issues of self-identification, stigma and awareness.

Segal summed it up: “(Disabilities are) an area of progress — just not as much progress as we’d like to see.”

The ADA:

The Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated its 25-year anniversary last July. The bill, enacted by the U.S. Congress under President George H. W. Bush in 1990 and amended by George W. Bush in 2009, protects individuals with medical conditions — mental and physical, temporary and chronic, severe and mild — against discrimination. The law universally requires employers and institutions, including schools, to provide public accommodations for disabled people.

Currently, the University is interviewing new candidates for its ADA coordinator position, as current director Carole Dubritsky will retire after the winter semester.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act has been a wonderful way of opening the University to many more people,” said Prof. Petra Kuppers. “But at the same time, the ADA is constantly undercut; it’s constantly being taken back or not being enforced in appropriate ways by local council.”

Kuppers, who operates in a wheelchair, chairs the University’s disability studies program, a field that didn’t exist when she began her higher education around 20 years ago.

After a decade at the University, she said the University was doing an OK job being ADA accessible.

“I might be able to get everywhere, but I might have a very complicated route,” Kuppers noted.

The bare minimum:

As a large public institution, the University definitely feels greater pressure to enforce ADA requirements, though often at the most minimal staffing level.

According to the 2014-2015 SSD Annual Report, the University admitted 727 new students with disabilities last year — an increase of almost 10 percent from the year prior, as well as a record high in SSD’s 41-year history. The current total of 2,474 students registered with SSD has more than doubled over the past five years.

This increase of student diversity is tremendous progress. In fact, compared to all 15 schools in the Big Ten and CIC (Council for Independent Colleges), Michigan serves the most students with disabilities. Yet, of the 15, Michigan also employs the least number of specialist faculty members, a disappointing total of seven — just under the legal staff minimum for disabilities offices.

In short, the University has the least number of people to help the largest group of people who need the help.

Why is this? Simply an issue of timing:

Segal speculated that in the past, Big 10 colleges with lower admissions criteria housed the larger disabilities offices. For example, the Ohio State University’s open admissions policy, which they no longer implement, attracted and amassed more disabled students earlier than Michigan did.

Now though, OSU’s disabled student body comprises 3.1 percent of their total student population, 2.6 percent less than disabled enrollment on Michigan’s campus. Nevertheless, even with fewer students, OSU has developed its resources for decades longer than the University.

“Historically, as a lot more students with disabilities were going into these other less exclusive schools — Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota — it was during an economic time (the ’80s and the ’90s) where there was more money to put resources toward (disabilities offices),” Segal explained.

The surge in Michigan’s SSD student enrollment necessitated new developments only over the past five years. Since then, disability registration has doubled as the SSD budget has been nearly halved. From $32,000 eight years ago, the SSD now must operate on $18,000.

While budget cuts do not in any way affect ADA accommodation requests (the office for student life and the Provost’s office cover all extra costs to uphold the law), they do hinder SSD’s outreach potential.

“I believe there are still many more students out there who should be registered, but they don’t know we exist,” Segal said, citing the restriction of outreach as SSD’s predominant problem.

His solution: “We can do a better job frontloading. Students and parents need to know from the very beginning that we’re here.”

Simple, right? Unfortunately, consistent funding cuts are what limit solutions like frontloading.

“(Monetarily), when I have to make a decision between an accommodation and a program for awareness, well, it’s the program for awareness that’s not going to happen.”

And we’re back where we began.

Navigating campus with physical disabilities:

Retrofitting campus buildings:

During her 12-year presidency, completed in 2014, Mary Sue Coleman helmed over 1,830 projects affecting 313 campus buildings, a tab of just under $5 billion. Her Residential Life Initiative alone cost the University $626 million.

Positively, renovations such as East Quad and North Quad have modernized the historic dorms to be more accessible than ever before. On the other hand, buildings constructed prior to the ADA’s passage rarely considered codes of accessibility, and they still dot the campus.

West Quad, originally erected in 1937, had serious accessibility issues long before its $114.5 million renovation, finished this past fall.

“The University probably could’ve done something about it at the cost of several million dollars,” Segal admitted. “But A: was there several million dollars to give to such a project? And B: given that the master plan was to rehab the building in a few years, it didn’t make sense to do something that would be naturally done in the course of the rehab.”

For the Hatcher Graduate Library, last reconstructed in 1920, the iron-ground foundation is especially difficult to retrofit. English prof. Melanie Yergeau, who specializes in digital disabilities communities, called this a “design apartheid.”

“In (retrofitting buildings), accessibility is seen as aesthetically this ugly kind of thing, so ramps and accessible entrances tend to be cloistered toward the back or side,” Yergeau said. “Then, the elevator might be all the way down the hall, then once you get up there, you have to navigate these labyrinth-ian hallways to get where you need.”

Ironically, her own office is tucked away in a closed corridor of the English department, where the lack of a wheelchair-accessible button requires one to circle around the narrow halls to the other side’s entrance.

Social alienation:

Issues with physical access create social impediment, as well. Prof. Kuppers cited the irony behind University-sponsored events and conferences at inaccessible venues, such as Sava’s restaurant where the wheelchair-accessible bathroom is blocked, and The Espresso Bar, on Literati’s second floor with no elevator.

“Can you imagine being a student and you can’t do the hang-out side of things?” Kuppers said. “It’s not just about the thing being accessible, but it’s about being socially and culturally connected, and that’s really hard to do if some of the support structures are not accessible.”

Navigating campus with mental disabilities:

Mental disabilities encompass anything related to the brain, including learning, psychiatric, intellectual and developmental impairments. Examples range from autism to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — as well as mental health conditions, such as depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, and chronic illnesses, such as Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis.

“A big part of the problem is that students come in and don’t realize that mental health issues are technically considered a disability which are all protected under the ADA,” Segal said.

Invisible disabilities:

Physical disabilities (such as visual, auditory or mobility disabilities) comprise only seven percent of all SSD registered students and are almost always visually apparent, whereas ‘invisible disabilities’ make up more than 80 percent. Learning disabilities are the most commonly registered across campus, followed by mental health and chronic health conditions. The most prevalent among learning differences include ADHD and autism spectrum disorder/Aspergers.

Yergeau personally identifies on the autistic spectrum, but she noted, “nobody would know that unless they Googled me … Sometimes people can pass; (disability) is a huge part of their lives, but it’s not always the part of life that people readily notice.”

Stigma:

College campuses — essentially, pools of highly intellectual individuals — are especially difficult climates to disclose any type of disability, especially invisible ones.

“This problem of stigma is not unique to Michigan. I just think people really keenly feel it here because it’s a really prestigious university, so to say that you have a disability, it makes you very vulnerable,” Yergeau said.

As a consequence, many students neglect to request accommodations even though they need them.

Ignorance:

For disabled individuals, the problem of ignorance surrounds lack of awareness to SSD’s existence and the accommodations available. For nondisabled students, ignorance often causes well-intentioned charity groups whose missions run counter to the disabled people they serve.

For example, the autistic community has long struggled to boycott Autism Speaks, arguing that the organization, while seemingly well meaning, actually promotes the eradication of autistic people and suggests backwards cures. Both the foundation and its college chapters don’t include any autistic voices either.

Yergeau understands how hurtful the group can be on campuses, but she said the well-meaning students simply don’t recognize the true motives of the organization.

“I’d like to see people being more open to conversation,” she suggested as a potential solution. “Autistic people constitute 1 to 2 percent of this campus … (so it’s important to) defer to autistic students, staff, faculty in conversations pertaining to autism.”

The solution?

Finding community:

Segal, Kuppers and Yergeau all mentioned community as a way to mitigate ignorance and galvanize advocacy. One glance at Kuppers’s cluttered bulletin board demonstrates how vibrant the disabilities community really is. Each October marks a month of disability workshops and panels where both disabled and able-bodied students may join the conversation. Upcoming events include a wheelchair basketball game at Crisler Center; the Disability Culture Salon visual arts showcase in late January; Crip Futurities conference in early February — and too many more events to note. Later this semester, SSD will host its 41st Anniversary All-Day Conference.

“Often, when people talk about disabilities, it’s always either how do fix them or fix the problem medically,” Yergeau said. “Even accommodations can have that kind of focus.”

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Active Minds student group certainly offer numerous support services for mental health, but students who newly develop conditions like depression during college have varying comfort levels with treatment.

“It’s hard to think about (community) in terms of depression because often people’s experiences are so overwhelmingly bad,” Yergeau said, “but I think that people do want to be in community with people who are having the same experiences and not always in the context of a support or therapy group.”

Another integral community is The University of Michigan Initiative on Disability Studies. UMInDs began as an interdisciplinary collaborative between grad students and staff, of which Prof. Tobin Siebers, who passed away last year, devotedly chaired. Funded by LSA, Rackham Graduate School and the offices of the Provost and Vice President for Research, UMInDS offers formal graduate-level classes as well as workshops and seminars.

“UMInDs is more culturally focused,” Yergeau said, addressing how UMInDs veers away from medical perspectives of disability. “What does it mean to have a disability culture? How do we generate a network of support? Thinking about diversity on campus socially, narratively.” 

Disability as Diversity:

At a leadership breakfast last February, University President Mark Schlissel launched a campus-wide conversation to improve diversity — an initiative he would continually update throughout 2015. Major themes in his strategic diversity plan included creating scholarships to increase economic diversity and aiming to hire more racial minority staff to boost ethnic diversity. The disabled community wasn’t specifically encompassed in diversity.

Anna Schnitzner, the coordinator of the Council for Disability Concerns and the disability issues informationist at Taubman Health Sciences Library, has worked on campus since the ’60s. She hopes to see disabilities further integrated into Schlissel’s “ground-breaking” campaign.

“Before, disability was not recognized under the umbrella of diversity along with race and gender and sexual orientation,” she recalled from her half a century on campus. “We have not concentrated on real diversity — for everybody. And what could be more diverse than disability?”

Yergeau agreed. “When people encounter disability, especially something like learning disability, the tendency is to think ‘I don’t know if this student can make it here’ rather than to think ‘wow, this will add such a great dimension’ to diversity,” she said.

In addition to growth in disabled student counts, interviewees indicated the need for neurodiversity among staff, such as Yergeau and Kuppers, as well.

“I would love to have more faculty with disabilities, but at the same time I would love to have more support systems in place to ensure that they can succeed in this environment,” Kuppers said. “They include thinking about access but also adjusting.”

Ultimately, progress is slow and often frustrating, but progress is evident. Progress is possible.