Letter to the Editor: Accessibility: One Year Later
One year ago, a new movement was beginning to form on this campus, with people from many corners of the Brandeis community coming together. Students with and without disabilities were fed up with the structural ableism and inaccessibility at Brandeis, and after years of frustration, knew that they needed to take action. This action took the form of a letter to President Liebowitz, the Student Union, and both campus newspapers, along with an attached document of anonymous personal testimonies illustrating the discrimination and barriers that students with disabilities face at Brandeis. The planning and drafting of these documents took two months, with much collaboration from a large group of students, and conversations and edits across multiple social media platforms. But our final product was something we would learn to be powerful —- not just a strongly written document, but a new era for disability activism at Brandeis.
We were excited by how quickly President Liebowitz responded to our letter. Within a few weeks, we had a meeting with him and a few members of the administration, as well as representatives from Student Accessibility Support and the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy. A handful of students were able to attend that day, and the administrators listened as we voiced our concerns for the needs of students with disabilities with respect and open minds. We came to the conclusion that day with the President that an open forum for the whole university community would be held at the beginning of the Spring 2019 semester.
The forum was a well-attended event which got quite a bit of attention around campus. Some students were concerned that its location, Levin Ballroom, was hard to access in the icy conditions of the day. Many felt that there wasn’t enough time allotted for students to speak their minds to the administration during the event. But we all left with a sense of a common mission, and knew that the conversation was just getting started.
Many important changes have been made and many important firsts have come to fruition on our campus since the forum and its two follow-up meetings. The opening of the new Office of Equal Opportunity and the establishment of an ADA and 504 Compliance officer can be traced back to the efforts of this campaign. Students now have a designated office and person to go to when they experience discrimination on the basis of disability. In addition, students now can go to new Student Accessibility Support Fellows, who serve as student liaisons to the SAS office; the Fellows are all students who have used SAS services during their time at Brandeis.The hours of the accessible transport vans have been extended, a few construction projects directed at physical accessibility on campus undertaken, and there are now more training opportunities for professors and staff seeking to make their material more accessible.
For all of this, we thank President Liebowitz, the Offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Equal Opportunity and Student Accessibility Support. We couldn’t move forward with our advocacy without strong support and partnership from the University. But in reflecting back on the last year’s progress, we would like to move forward these efforts forward with some new attitudes and goals.
1) We do not want to see the University co-opt our efforts and leave students out of the conversation. We are concerned that the most recent accessibility forum, which occurred on September 26th in the SCC Multipurpose Room, was not widely advertised to the university community. Very few students were in attendance, and there seems to be no plans for another meeting of this sort. It was announced at this event that Sonia Jurado intends to form a 504 committee, but there has been no further public information about what this committee would oversee. We do not want student concerns and voices left out of this committee or any other disability-related planning in the future. We call on the university to keep all communications around accessibility planning and updates transparent, and all events related to this open to the public and well-advertised.
2) We would like to see more structural changes that actually succeed in making the physical campus landscape more accessible. This includes automatic doors with easy-to-locate operating buttons, comprehensive Braille signage and ADA-compliant ramps.
3) Address bias and lack of knowledge of disability across all university departments. There are many contexts in university life in which students can be discriminated against or misunderstood based on their disability. This means that interactions with police, medical and mental health practitioners, service workers and university department staff frustrating and stressful at times. We want to see more training made available to university employees on disability bias and how to improve the accessibility of the services they provide.
4) Meaningful changes to curriculums, classrooms, and events. We would like the university to make real-time captioning (CART) services, ASL interpretation, captioned and audio-described video more widely available for professors and event hosts to use. We believe that the best way to include people with disabilities in university life is to plan accessibility from the start, instead of retrofitting it. Evidence has shown that when class spaces and materials are universally designed to be accessible, students without disabilities benefit as well, contrary to earlier belief that they would be held behind by accessible class design. We would like to see universal design implemented by making PowerPoint slides, accessible format PDFs, lecture notes and audio recordings of classes available to the whole class.
5) We would finally like to acknowledge that this list is not all inclusive, and that what we have offered above are some of the points that we believe are necessary steps towards a fully accessible Brandeis.
— Shoshi Finkel, Jack Rubinstein, Dan Parker, and Marissa Farkas, on behalf of DeisAbility