ADA Compliance Necessary to Support Disabled Students

Taylorlyn Stephan, Contributing Writer

Over 20 percent of reporting Oberlin students self-identifed as disabled or as having a mental illness that causes barriers to access and inclusion on an August survey conducted by Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. So why is there a persistent belief that Oberlin does not have a community of varying abilities? Based on my experiences with a chronic illness and talking to other disabled students, I noticed a divide between invisible and hypervisible disabilities. There are few students who are very visibly disabled, and this is likely related to the sheer lack of buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and disability services offered by Oberlin. The lack of services such as personal assistant services, appropriately-brailled signage or elevator access makes navigating Oberlin an impossibility for many physically disabled students.

Many dorms on campus lack elevators, including most of the heritage houses and co-ops. Warner Center, the second floor of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, the Art Library, Hales Gymnasium and most restaurants and shops in town are not wheelchair accessible. There are rarely American Sign Language interpreters at College-sponsored events. Transportation services are dismal in the area, and students who need to leave campus for medical services require a car, a friend to drive or, if finances will allow, a taxi or Uber. The Office of Disability Services focuses primarily on academic-related issues and not daily assistance. While ODS attempts to hold one or two social events for its users each semester, there is still a severe deficit in the support needed to create an Oberlin disability community.

For Professor Maureen Peters’ biology seminar, I attempted to do a photo exhibition on disability as educational outreach to the College community. My project was flagged for Institutional Review Board approval with “greater than minimal risk” for “the enrollment of participants with impairments, disabilities or psychological disorders,” despite its premise as an art installation rather than a research study. When I expressed surprise to a friend, they joked that it’s almost like disability cannot exist unless someone externally reviews and officiates it. Disability in higher education and academia often seems confined to those of us with invisible disabilities — who can pass as able-bodied — and those of us who can “rise above our disability” to be successful.

Successful disabled people who do “rise above” are often are used as inspiration porn, which is dehumanizing and undermines our achievements. Disability inspiration porn simultaneously makes it harder for other disabled folks to achieve success if they need more accommodations or take longer on certain tasks, because disability is viewed as a monolith and non-disabled people only celebrate select disability narratives.

Visible disabilities — typically defined as people who use a mobility device or whose body is “marked” by characteristics like limb and muscle definition loss and/or speech impediments — are the most frequent disability inspiration porn narratives. Invisible disabilities — chronic diseases like cancer and autoimmunity, learning disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia and mental illnesses such as anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — are frequently derided; individuals with invisible illnesses are frequently assumed to be faking it or asked if they are better now. But despite these heavy connotations, the actual overlap between those who can be readily seen as disabled and those who pass as able-bodied is conditional and situational. Oberlin students fall into both of these categories, yet many report feeling invisible. Additionally, students have told me that when their disability is acknowledged, they still lack the resources to truly succeed.

In response to these misunderstandings and narrow views on disability at Oberlin and beyond, I propose the following guidelines for addressing disability, adapted from College sophomore Tavi Gerstle and other anonymous submissions:

First, do not think of ableism as a bonus oppression to tack on to other oppressions.

Second, know that we are not broken or wrong. Our disabilities affect every aspect of our identities and daily lives.

Third, remember that we are part of your communities. Normalize us, our access needs and the possibility that there is always a disabled person present.

Finally, Oberlin needs to commit to making itself more physically accessible and prioritize the inclusion of a diverse disabled population.

Support the disabled Oberlin students in your community and value their narratives and contributions. Disability is a vital and often-overlooked aspect of diversity, and working to fully integrate current disabled students and welcome prospective ones will only improve Oberlin.