Students with disabilities can speak for themselves
Section 504 of the United States Rehabilitation Act states, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States… shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” This law, passed in 1973, forever changed how Americans with disabilities are treated. This clause has always applied to universities that receive federal funding. But unfortunately, in almost every institution of higher learning in this country, the vast majority of students with disabilities still face discrimination and inaccessibility all the time. Brandeis is, unfortunately, no exception.
A few days before school started last fall, I was added by a friend to a closed Facebook group titled “Addressing Accessibility at Brandeis.” Its membership was modest, and its posts were sparse. Today, the group has 90 members, both disabled and able-bodied, and conversations pop up many times a week on topics like self-advocacy, accessible transport and allergen warnings in the dining halls. A couple of Messenger group chats have even started from the Facebook group, with titles like “Brandeis is a Participation Restriction,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to language of disability policies.
I don’t remember how early on it was when the idea of a letter to President Liebowitz first arose in this online platform, but it wasn’t long before drafts were being sent around on Google Drive and Facebook, and students and alumni were messaging co-writers of the letter saying they wanted to sign it. The document stated that we, as disabled students and allies, were not angry with Brandeis, but frustrated with the discriminatory policies and institutional indifference to our needs and could not stay silent any longer.
This past Tuesday, the goal of that original call to action came into fruition, in the form of an open forum. Or at least, something like an open forum. A handful of students were frustrated with the setup of the event: round tables with chairs around them and discussion sheets for breakout sessions about accessibility on campus. For many, this felt like a diversion from the original intentions of the event — for students to candidly share their frustrations with the administration about the access barriers they face around campus. The reason for the change in event style was innocent in nature, likely because the administrative event planners did not want to create a space that was crowded and overwhelming. But this judgement call speaks to the uncomfortable truth that the University is making decisions for students with disabilities without consulting them first. We must push back against this.
President Liebowitz spoke at the end of the event, saying that he was both moved and angered by the students’ stories of isolation, discrimination and at times, the dangers to their lives at Brandeis. He repeatedly told us that he is committed to improving conditions for students with disabilities. For this commitment to go somewhere though, it bears on students and administrators alike to make sure that this process continues in the form of partnership and open dialogue. I look forward to the further meetings on this topic that President Liebowitz, Provost Lynch and Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas promised at the forum. But I worry that misconceptions about the needs and goals of students with disabilities will muddle whatever progress we could otherwise achieve.
There is an attitude in higher education and other aspects of public life that views people with disabilities as looking for accommodations in order to get a “leg up” in society. This comes from a lack of understanding of what it means to accommodate someone: to accommodate is to level the playing field, and give someone equal access to what others already have. Making a classroom more accommodating to people with disabilities does not mean guaranteeing their success, but rather their access and their ability to succeed. If this issue were looked at in this way, then perhaps the students would be more included in the conversations that take place. We are not trying to get any unfair advantage; rather we are just trying to be present and engaged in all aspects of university life. Our own personal success is dependent on our own will, but if we are not even included in the discussion, we will never be at the same starting line as other students.
I am so grateful to the offices of the President, Provost and Chief Diversity Officer for beginning this process of commitment to improved accessibility. But I call on you now to commit to something more. To borrow language from disability activist groups like ADAPT, “Nothing about us without us.”