Renée Echols is completely blind. She has a seeing-eye dog to navigate the University’s campus. She’s also a GSI.

Her stories of struggle with the current administrative system are extensive. In her first semesters as an English GSI in 2007, Echols verbally asked her department supervisor for an aide to assist her with students the classroom, but her request was ignored.

The incident inspired her to become an active member in the University’s Graduate Employee Organization — a labor union that has lobbied for GSI rights since 1976. Echols is now the lead negotiator for the organization and is an extremely active member in contract bargaining processes with the University.

Teaching a room full of undergraduate students can be a daunting responsibility for a graduate student, but that task can become even more of a challenge for a GSI with a disability.

Currently, GSIs with disabilities don’t know to address issues concerning their disability with the University administration. This is a problem that has come on the radar within the last two or three years and has led to a partnership of disabled GSIs and GEO.

Echols, who attends the bargaining meeting with University representatives every week, said there has been a more concerted effort in the last few years to figure out what problems disabled GSIs are facing.

“This is something organized labor has not taken on before,” Echols said. “To understand job accommodations as a right is a fairly new concept.”

Echols said because the GEO is such a strong union, it has been using its power to focus on social justice issues, not just financial parity issues. Echols calls GEO’s disability concerns “groundbreaking” and “historic” because no other union is tackling such topics.

GEO President Rob Gillezeau also expressed pride in the organization’s actions.

“In a lot of unions, it wouldn’t come to the forefront of their bargaining platform just because it doesn’t affect most people,” Gillezeau said. “But GEO is different from a lot of union locals … disability access has been at the top or very near to the top of our priority issues.

“When I taught, I understood exactly what to do when a student had a disability, I knew the process. If I had a disability, I would have no idea what to do.”

GEO’s main concern is equal treatment for people of all identities, especially those with disabilities. Other issues include providing female GSIs with a longer paid leave of absence during and after pregnancy. Receiving adequate childcare subsidies is a constant struggle for GSIs, as the University is always concerned about the cost of these accommodations.

Another issue GEO hopes to resolve is graduate student research assistants’ eligibility for union membership. If they were eligible to join, GEO would double its representation by gaining twice as many members.

Looking for solutions

Echols’s first attempt to verbally contact her departmental supervisor left her with unsatisfactory answers on how to address her need of an aide to assist her in the classroom. The University told her that her accommodation would simply be too costly and such an addition would undermine her authority in the classroom. The situation left Echols feeling frustrated and disrespected.

In the required 100-level English classes, GSIs must design their own course; they don’t rely on a professor’s lecture for teaching material. In Echols’s freshman English classes, students were disorderly — they blatantly passed notes, left during class, used their cell phones openly and even napped at their desk.

Her experience teaching English 124 and 125 was disheartening. Echols didn’t know how she could adequately teach when her students had no respect for her and her disability.

Her second attempt for an aide consisted of drafting a formal letter to the University with help from the GEO, and after weeks with no reply, the University said she should talk to other instructors with vision impairment to see how they handled their situation. This obstacle eventually forced Echols to leave lower-level English classes and begin assisting as a GSI for Great Books, which had a reputation for having more disciplined students.

In order to grade exams, Echols needs her students’ Blue Books to be read aloud to her. Professors often offer to read the exams to her, but when professors don’t offer, Echols is forced to ask her fellow GSIs for help.

“I’m stuck in this awkward situation where I have to ask the other GSIs to read me exams, and that’s just more work for them,” Echols said.

She believes the University should make an effort to actively recruit and consider employees with disabilities. But first, the University needs to make its current disabled employees feel welcome.

“What we are asking is that the University puts such processes into place so that employees with disabilities are able to ask for and get the accommodations they need,” Echols said. “We are sure that our proposals are coming up with some good solutions to the problem, and we hope that the University seriously considers them.”

Hearing the problem

Athena Kolbe is a third-year joint political science and School of Social Work GSI, who is currently teaching Political Science 160.

Kolbe has a hearing impairment. She can read lips, but feels limited when teaching in a group setting because she can’t read multiple people when they’re talking at the same time. She requires the assistance of a CART, or a Communication Access Real-Time Translation. A CART is a person who, similar to a court stenographer, transcribes words into sounds by typing live dialogue. Kolbe’s CART interprets the mood of the room and how her class is receiving her teaching. The CART also lets Kolbe know if her voice volume is too loud or too soft for her students.

Kolbe said that though instructors with hearing impairments have cultivated a close-knit community on campus, instructions are not laid out clearly for GSIs who need constant aid in order to communicate.

After her third year, the University finally understands that Kolbe needs accommodations every time she teaches a class. When she started, it was different.

“At the beginning of the fall semester, I had no idea who was going to be my interpreter. I had no idea if I was even going to have an interpreter when I showed up for class,” Kolbe said.

Kolbe also did not know who would pay for her CART, which roused anxiety about disclosure of her disability.

“In my funding package, when I first got my letter of offer from the University, I was really afraid of being open with my department about the extent of the accommodations I needed because I was scared they were just going to give me a grading position,” Kolbe said. “And it’s really important if you want to go into academia, if you want to be a professor, you have experience teaching classes.

She added that accommodating a GSI with a disability can be expensive and departments may be more reluctant to help if they are concerned about their budget.

The power of the University to refuse accommodations is a major concern for GSIs with a disability.

“Because we are in this weird position of being students and employees, it leads to a situation where a lot of us are afraid to be open about what we need,” Kolbe said.

For Kolbe, everything takes much longer with a disability. The material covered in a one-hour lecture can easily turn into four hours of lecture. This not only affects Kolbe as an employee, but also as a student in the learning environment. It’s also the reason for a push in the GEO contract that would exempt students with disabilities from the 10-term rule, which currently states graduate students must complete their coursework in 10 semesters or fewer.

Kolbe said there are many logistical issues that also affect her experience as a GSI. Since there is no flashing light in her office in Haven Hall, she never knows when the fire alarm is sounding.

“It’s not like Haven Hall hasn’t burned down before. It has,” Kolbe said.

She said the department tried to remedy this situation by having the fire captains come and get her in case of a fire. However, the building’s fire captains leave their office at 5 p.m., and most GSIs work past regular office hours.

Mandatory meetings, like the sexual harassment workshops, are difficult for Kolbe to attend because accommodations are usually not provided.

“There should be a central person that you go to. There should be an office for employees with disabilities instead of me having to send out 50 e-mails to coordinate a meeting I only have to attend once,” she said.

The biggest problem Kolbe faces is that administrators and professors don’t exactly understand her disability. Sometimes their discomfort with her situation is palpable, or they forget Kolbe has complete hearing loss because she doesn’t have a “deaf accent.”

“Sometimes other students, even in my cohort, have been a little uncomfortable because a disability is kind of new to people,” Kolbe explained.

Kolbe has had professors hold personal meetings with her to test the extent of her hearing loss. One professor actually covered her mouth and spoke to see if Kolbe could hear. Because of Kolbe’s deafness, she couldn’t hear and found the “test” extremely insulting.

But Kolbe has learned to deal with reactions to her disability in the teaching and learning arena in her own way. Kolbe picks up expressions and body language to gauge how loud or soft she is talking, or even if her voice is too shrill.

Focusing on the issue

Laura Wernick, a former GSI, is pursuing her post-doctorate education. Her disability is invisible.

Wernick has Attention Deficit Disorder and a learning disability that make it hard to be recognized as a student and professional in need of specific accommodations.

She said the University fails to consider graduate students with disabilities as employees or professionals.

“We are doing academic work here, and the issues are actually institutional,” Wernick said. “I think it’s important to take a step back and see this as more systemic within the larger issue of academia.”

The stigma regarding people with learning disabilities is potent, Wernick says.

Wernick feels that her disability is often ignored or perceived as an excuse not to work. She said often people don’t understand that students with invisible disabilities also need accommodations.

In her pursuit for a faculty position after her graduate student program, Wernick has had a hard time trying to inform people that having a learning disability sometimes prevents adults from practicing traditional methods of teaching. Because people with disabilities are considered an expensive burden, an academic career is hard to pursue when accommodations are necessary.

“The struggle then becomes how you advocate for what you need without then creating a reputation at the University as somebody who is a burden,” Wernick said.

Wernick finds ways to work around her disability; she scans her textbooks to her computer so that it can read them aloud to her. During her graduate studies at the University, her textbooks were scanned halfway into the semester only after constant inquiries. This prevented her from receiving a learning experience equal to other students.

Because of her disability, Wernick had to grapple with the issue of teaching a class when she has a hard time writing on the board in front of the class. Her learning disability results in a difficulty thinking and writing at the same time. When she wrote on the board, most of her words were misspelled. Wernick also could not teach and be a student at the same time, which made it take much longer to complete her program.

Wernick said institutional factors prevent people from coping with their situations.

“I don’t think the system is set up at all for people with disabilities. That interface isn’t necessarily an easy interface, it is not a typical student experience.”

Finding a compromise

GEO renews its contract with the University every few years. According to GEO President Rob Gillezeau, the last contract was negotiated three years ago, and the bargaining mostly regarded wages. Now, graduate students and research assistants are tackling bigger issues, like parental rights and disability accommodations.

The contract details GSI rights and what they need as an employee of the University. Every Wednesday, the GEO meets with University officials and a lawyer to make compromises for the needs of GSIs and issues concerning their identities. In the meetings, parenting issues, health care, flexible time schedules, salary, among other things, are discussed and handled.

Marie Puccio, GEO solidarity and political action committee chair, said all professors should make an effort to give their GSIs work that aligns with the articles of their contract.

“That’s the behavior I expect and appreciate from professors because as both graduate employees and graduate students, there are a lot of demands on our time, and it is important to make sure our work is kept to what our contract stipulates,” Puccio said.

So far, Puccio believes discussions about disabilities have been received positively, but once money becomes a factor, negotiations become more difficult.

The newly-proposed contract consists of changes to the GSI rights and procedures that would grant those with disabilities more respect, more rights and an avenue to an efficient procedure to obtain aid.

The contract would detail instructions on how to grant aid for disabled GSIs. Puccio said the process for accommodating GSIs with disabilities is ad hoc and not transparent.

“We believe that the University also believes that we should work together to improve the accommodations process and to make sure graduate employees have everything they need to do their job,” Puccio said.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said negotiations with GEO regarding the proposals for disability issues are “inappropriate” to talk about at this time because officials are still bargaining.

Fitzgerald said the bargaining team is studying carefully what the new proposal entails and he doesn’t know how the University is receiving the GEO’s proposals for changes to articles regarding disabilities. Fitzgerald said that by March 1, when the contract is renewed, the amendments the University has made to the changes suggested in the contract would be disclosed.

“Certainly from a university’s perspective, we understand that is an important issue to GEO, and we are at that point now where the negotiating team is working carefully to study that proposal and understand it,” Fitzgerald said.

Romesh Saigal, an industrial engineering professor who is on the University’s negotiating team, said that commenting on the contract at this time would be insensitive.

“We have been talking across the table, so me talking off of the hat would be a very unfair thing to both parties,” Saigal added.

The other five members of the University bargaining team who meet with GEO weekly did not return calls for comment.

Stuart Segal, director of Services for Students with Disabilities, said SSD can help graduate students with disabilities, but GSIs need to contact officials from the Office of Institutional Equity or their individual departments if they need assistance.

According to Segal, the University needs to lay out a more visible and comprehensive way for employees to obtain accommodations for their individual disabilities.

“I think there is a process in place, and I think there are ways that process can become more efficient and more well-known,” he said. “I think that departments and schools aren’t aware of the process.”

New Hope

A newly-drafted disability article was recently introduced in the bargaining committee and will be placed in the revised GEO contract that expires in the beginning of March. It proposes specific changes to the way graduate student employees with disabilities are treated in an educational environment.

The article outlines a plan that would establish a central fund, which would provide funds for resources for disabled GSIs and prevent individual departments from spending money in their budget. These unbudgeted costs have been a main deterrent for the University to employ a student with a disability.

Kolbe said she was excluded from a summer research job because her accommodation would have been too expensive for the University. Other GSIs have had similar experiences. But creating a centralized accommodation fund would remedy the situation and result in more job opportunities for those with disabilities.

GEO also wants the University to implement a standardized process that explains to graduate students where they should go if they need accommodations. Additionally, GEO desires a system that makes it easy to advocate for resources for the disabled.

Increasing the number of semesters in which graduate students can stay enrolled is also important, since people with disabilities have to interpret their course load in a different way. GEO is pushing for language about accommodations for students with disabilities to be included in the letter that graduate students receive upon acceptance to the GSI program so that potential graduate students are aware that they can seek assistance.

Lastly, since some students may feel uncomfortable disclosing their disabilities, GEO is striving for a rule that allows disabilities to remain unannounced to the departmental supervisor. Right now, there is no official policy, but the current procedure forces GSIs to reveal their physical or mental limitation.

Above all, GEO hopes to change the way GSIs with disabilities are perceived.

“You’re oftentimes seen as a problem person, as opposed to a person that really has something to bring,” Wernick said. “It feels like people with disabilities within academia are just barely tolerated.”

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