Talks Spark Discussion of Disability Rights


Meg Parker

College sophomore Caleb Knapp, College juniors Johan Cavert and Rachel Sanders, and College senior EmmaLia Mariner ask Eric Wagenfeld questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act following his talk.

Eric Wagenfeld, Oberlin’s director of Disability Resources, delivered a talk Monday afternoon called “Understanding the ADA,” which explained the implications and meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law passed in 1990. The talk was the first in a series of lectures sponsored by the Student Senate Health and Wellness Working Group.

The series is just one component of a growing resurgence of discussion surrounding disability rights on campus. Several upcoming events are scheduled to increase education and facilitate conversation about disability justice and advocacy.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals. The legislation helps ensure that disabled people have equal access to benefits and employment opportunities. It also protects disabled individuals from discrimination in places of public accommodation like restaurants and hotels, as well as protecting individuals in state and local government services and in telecommunication.

Wagenfeld emphasized that people often misunderstand the ADA. In addition to confusion stemming from the size and complexity of the law, Wagenfeld believes that many students are confused about what rights are protected by the ADA in higher education specifically. The laws protecting K-12 students are very different from the ones put in place for colleges and universities, which are only covered under Section 504, subpart E.

“Subpart E basically says that if you are an otherwise qualified student, we cannot say you can’t come here or be here because your disability would be too expensive or something like that,” Wagenfeld said in his talk.

He also noted that students often come to Oberlin expecting to receive the same accommodations they received on the high school level.

“The biggest difference between high school and high ed is that [in higher education] you are entitled to equal access, and we can’t change the pedagogical nature of the class,” he said. “There are certain things that we cannot do; while in high school, students are used to everything they ask [being required of schools]. So we are going from ‘anything I ask will be taken care of’ to ‘some things I ask may not fit into the law,’ and there are times where ‘no’ will be the answer.”

The next lecture in the series will be “Service and Support Animals,” presented by Dr. Jane Miller, a practicing psychiatrist. It will cover legislation regarding emotional support animals and service animals, and will take place Feb. 23. It will be followed by “Studying Disability Before and After the ADA” with Associate Dean of the College Elizabeth Hamilton on March 6.

“The point of the series is for education and celebration of people with disabilities,” said College senior and Student Senator EmmaLia Mariner, who helped organize the lectures. “It’s for the sharing of knowledge of the ADA and disability justice.”

Mariner noted that the Student Senate Health and Wellness Working Group was motivated to host this series to increase education and understanding.

“I think that knowledge about the ADA is really important for us disabled people to know about — to know when we can ask for our rights, and when we aren’t given our rights, and for a little bit of history,” she said. “This is a civil rights issue, and the ADA was earned with intense activism and intense social pressure.”

In addition to this series, there have been several efforts made across campus that strive to make disability rights a priority. Eric Wagenfeld, who just finished his first semester as director of Disability Resources, hopes to make the process of registering for accommodations simpler and more accessible for all students in the future and has developed a three-to-five-year strategic plan to accomplish his goals.

“We are going to streamline the process and make it far less confusing,” Wagenfeld said. “We will continue to work with faculty for a universal design for instruction, which is an important part for a campus accepting responsibility as a whole for accomodations. We really just want to make Oberlin that much better — making the process simpler, making the campus more accessible, and reducing the burden on students to get things done.”

Students recognize his efforts.

“I think he’s on the right track, and I’ve seen things starting to improve,” said College sophomore and Student Senator Caleb Knapp. “With the resources that [Wagenfeld] had from the start, things are definitely improving … but it’s going to take time.”

Aside from the development of a strategic plan to increase accessibility, spaces on campus have been modified to increase access. A ramp and a lift were recently installed in the Multicultural Resource Center. Mariner explained that these events stem directly from student activism on campus.

“[The MRC ramp] reflects a trend of a lot of disability advocacy that reaches the level of administration and a lot of administration problem-solving concerning the budget issue.”
Mariner is confident that accessibility will continue to increase. “Seeing change in our four years at Oberlin is rare, and I am really proud of being a part of that change and also talking to people who are here for longer and making sure this is on their radar and on their priority list for the future.”

Some believe that these improvements are long overdue and are not enough to make Oberlin an accommodating place for students with disabilities.

“[Disability Resources’] rapid transitions and under-budgeting makes being a disabled student here very difficult,” College junior Rachel Sanders said. “There are no guaranteed accommodations.”

Others grant that some improvements have been made but emphasize the need for more students to become involved in advocacy.

“I’m disabled and I see other disabled people [at these events],” said College junior Charlie Rinehart-Jones. “But I do not see other people who don’t know [about Disability Resources there].” Reinhart-Jones also noted that those affected by disability rights “is such a big umbrella of people, with all different kinds of differently-abled people.”

A few campus organizations have formed in attempts to involve more students in disability justice. One such group is Obility, which aims to “create and foster an environment within which ongoing discussions surrounding disability, ableism, and advocacy for disability justice can thrive and develop,” according to Obility’s mission statement.

Disability rights has been a growing conversation on campus since protests broke out regarding staffing shortages in October 2017. Twenty-three percent of Oberlin students are registered with the office.