Confusion, resentment, frustration, inadequate understanding and a passionate desire for change — these are some of the terms the Working Group on Disability and Access used to describe the current campus climate on disability.
The working group released its preliminary report via email on Aug. 31 in one of its first steps toward addressing accommodation, access and inclusion on campus.
Elizabeth Hamilton, chair of the German Language and Literatures department and Section 504/ADA coordinator, spear- headed the project and hopes that it can begin deconstructing barriers of access that impede many students, faculty and staff from participating in everyday life at Oberlin.
“This has been a labor of love,” Hamilton said. “It has been so exciting, and the energy is positive and constructive even as we are talking about things that have frustrated people and made some people unhappy. The energy is so good because we re- ally feel like we are creating the fabric of a campus that can handle these barriers, that can mitigate them, that can make our College and Conservatory more accessible.”
Eighteen percent of the 994 community members who responded to a January 2016 survey identified as having a disability and 23 percent of responders identified as having a mental ill- ness. Sixty-nine percent of these responders said they have never disclosed their disability with or without formal documentation to anyone on campus, including the Office of Disability Services, Human Resources, a supervisor, advisor, faculty member, dean or any peers.
The report touches on a wide range of issues, from the amount of time and money it takes for students to get accommodation for their disabilities to the enormous stigma still attached to disabilities within the community. Other issues include due-date and attendance policies and the definition of what it means to have a disability.
College sophomore Auden Granger discussed the campus climate toward disability and the misconceptions that are often created as a result.
“Accommodations are certainly one facet of being a dis- abled student, but disability is also an identity category and a facet of diversity,” Granger said. “For the most part, Oberlin doesn’t necessarily seem to recognize that. Disability is still a really stigmatized topic in larger society and one that’s sort of expected to be dealt with privately and secretly, and it makes a lot of people really uncomfortable when you talk about it, even at Oberlin.”
Hamilton also emphasized the change in dialogue that is necessary to fully give students and community members a voice.
“We’re not just talking about building one ramp or putting Braille on one spot where there hasn’t been Braille before,” Hamilton said. “Disability presents itself in very different ways at different times. And so what we want to build is the capacity to enlarge access, so it’s not a huge production when someone says, ‘Hey, I need this in large print. Hey, I need you to repeat that. Hey, I need the lights to be dimmed. I need less noise. I need to walk around a little bit more. I need a break.’”
The group has made some progress since its inception, including the creation of Student Accessibility Advocates through the Office of Disability Services, the creation of the peer mentor services and many upcoming presentations about disability and access.
The group also issued a recommendation that the administration form a permanent advisory committee to work on disability- related issues.
Double-degree senior Rebecca Klein discussed her positive experience as a working group leader.
“I not only met more people interested in disability and accessibility on campus, but I was also able to engage in one of the most productive dialogues about accessibility that I’ve had at Oberlin,” Klein said.
To Hamilton, the conversation sparked by the report served an end in itself.
“Because stigma is so prevalent, just having the conversation was a huge sign of progress — that people will talk, that people will tell their stories, that people want to feel a little less alone, that people want to feel a little less misunderstood, that they could feel a lot more respected,” Hamilton said.
Despite the dialogue, some physical accessibility concerns persist. A longstanding student concern is the inaccessibility of Student Health Services and the Counseling Center, which are located so far west they are practically off campus. In the last few years, student activists have argued for Student Health to move to a more central location.
“Why would you create unnecessary burdens for students to receive medical care?” asked double-degree senior and Student Senate Liaison Jeremy Poe asked. “That just doesn’t make sense to me. And the argument that we don’t have the money [to move Student Health] I think is more so we don’t have enough money the way our priorities are laid out right now. And I think that calls for a reassessment of priorities.”
Given the distance to Student Health Services, students have often asked Safety and Security for rides. And though Safety and Security can give students rides under certain circumstances, its policy makes it clear that they are an emergency-only option.
“We really started addressing finding alternatives to publicize last spring semester when our requests reached a high of 86 requests in an eight-hour time period,” wrote Marjorie Burton, director of Safety and Security, in an email to the Review. “We can’t sustain filling this kind of demand and need to retreat to our base- line, department-wide, as there are already other resources for transportation.”
Burton pointed out that other services for transporting students — such as the Student Shuttle and the Oberlin Connector Transit Service — already exist. However, the Student Shuttle begins at 9 p.m., much too late for many who need rides to CVS, Student Health Services or the Counseling Center.