The University and the United States at large experienced a racial reckoning this summer. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Black and Brown communities in particular highlighted the ways that the American healthcare system was built to serve primarily white people and how other communities have been marginalized in terms of medical access. People of color with disabilities have especially faced roadblocks over the years. 

Although disability rights and advocacy have increased in recent decades, there are additional connections between race and accessibility that require further exploration. As a part of an ongoing investigation into accessibility on the Brandeis campus (see part one of this series) the Justice sat down with both students and administrators to dive into the question of accessibility and race on campus.

According to a report by the National Disability Institute, “Having a disability creates extra costs for people and can limit their economic opportunities. This can be especially difficult for people of color who already have poorer outcomes in education, income and employment, and who also are less likely to be fully banked and more likely to use predatory financial services.” Like at most other American institutions, Brandeis students of color with disabilities may face additional challenges when it comes to navigating college life. 

Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act/Section 504 Coordinator Sonia Jurado explained the process of getting accommodations for disabilities at Brandeis in a Nov. 16 email to the Justice. The process begins at Student Accessibility Support, where students are asked to provide medical documentation of their disabilities. From there, she said, SAS staff members will work with students regarding “their needs and any barriers they have encountered to their success as a student at Brandeis.” Then, she said, “From this dialogue, together they will identify what reasonable accommodations can be put into place to help lessen or remove those barriers.” Jurado specified that this process is the same for all students, regardless of race. 

The problem

Anna Clements (Ph.D.) ’23 is studying how institutions affect students of color with disabilities in the context of the school-to-prison pipeline at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. In an Oct. 23 interview with the Justice, she talked about how one aspect of life for people with disabilities — acquiring accommodations — is influenced by race. 

Clements explained that people with disabilities are frequently expected to advocate for themselves when it comes to getting professors, colleagues and others to honor their accommodations and disability needs. The SAS website notes that “essential programmatic requirements cannot be altered and are determined by faculty and departments.” This means that if a student with a disability wanted accommodations beyond those enforced by SAS, they would have to work it out with each individual professor. For example “Academic Accommodations Defined” — a document that SAS provides to professors — says, “When students do request an extension of an additional day or two (as students can), the response is the instructor’s prerogative.” This is where self-advocacy comes in. A student who wants an extension on an assignment due to a documented disability would have to convince their professor to grant the extension.

Clements spoke about how being a person of color with a disability adds even more barriers to the self-advocacy process. For students of color with disabilities, she explained, “There’s a double-need for self-advocacy. You have to advocate for yourself as a non-white student, and … as a student with a disability.” In her own experience “as a white student with a disability,” Clements continued, disability self-advocacy is exhausting enough on its own. For students of color, however, they are often forced “to choose between, ‘Do I fight against the racism, or do I fight against the ableism?’” She added that “I don’t know anyone who has the energy to do both effectively.”

Additionally, Clements spoke about how race can interfere with the process of getting the proper documentation for a student’s disability, which SAS requires in order to receive accommodations. According to Clements, cultural differences between a person with a disability and the person who is evaluating them can lead to the evaluator misinterpreting certain behaviors as an aspect of the disability, increasing the possibility of an incorrect diagnosis. In 2013, 16.4% of the psychology workforce was made up of people of color, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. Having access to culturally informed evaluators, Clements explained, is a privilege that students of color do not always have.

As Clements pointed out, people of color have more trouble than white people when it comes to accessing documentation of a disability. Communications Specialist at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy Finn Gardiner MPP ’18 named a number of other reasons for this unequal access, such as the large financial cost of acquiring repeated and current documentation for a disability and especially the tendency to associate Black disability and trauma with deviancy and criminality. For example, Gardiner said, autistic Black people are chronically underdiagnosed, “not because the person of color is less disabled than the white person, but because the white person had advantages that the person of color did not.”

White professors will sometimes reflexively — yet often unintentionally — disregard the needs of a student of color with a disability because society is “primed to pay more attention to what a white person says,” Gardiner said.  

Possible improvements

Gardiner stressed the importance of listening to students of color when they advocate for themselves. “A lot of people think you can only have one marginalization or one difference at a time, [such as] ‘if you’re Black, you can’t also be disabled,’ and that’s not true,” Gardiner said. “We can have more than one experience at a time.” 

Gardiner explained the different accessibility barriers students of color face — namely issues around generational trauma and personal trauma. People can experience psychiatric disabilities from the repeated trauma of experiencing racism. He said that although he has noticed a recent effort by professors to acknowledge the far reaching effects of these traumas, that was not necessarily the case when he first arrived at Heller as a graduate student four years ago. He noticed that professors were frequently not listening to students of color who had been traumatized. 

Professors and educators alike need to recognize the collective trauma of experiencing racism firsthand, Gardiner said. He continued that professors often fail to acknowledge the pain and trauma that can come up for students of color when discussing topics like institutional racism. Something as simple as a content warning during a class that is discussing sensitive material could make a big difference, Gardiner said. It is important to acknowledge that students of color will be affected by discussions of trauma and to “acknowledge what we [as students of color have] gone through collectively,” Gardiner urged. We must work to create a space in the classroom where students of color can be a part of dialogues without “feeling as though [they] have to do all of the work of explaining why racism is wrong,” Gardiner said.

Within Gardiner’s interactions at the Lurie Institute, he said he has noticed that people at least try to acknowledge intersections between race and accessibility; however, there is a broader issue within society at large in which race and disability are seen completely separately from one another. The failure to acknowledge these intersections results in numerous problems, both in and out of the classroom. Thus, it is important to have students of color involved in more of these conversations. 

Although Gardiner has not had any personal experiences with University Police related to mental health, there generally is an adversarial role between the police and BIPOC, especially in relation to mental health. A person of color who is experiencing mental health manifestations is more likely to be criminalized, shot or persecuted according to the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

Gardiner urged that police officers not “arrest as soon as [they] see a person of color having a [mental health] crisis,” and that instead they should learn de-escalation techniques. However, any training surrounding racial and/or health and trauma sensitivity would need to be continuous in order to be successful. This could not just be a “one off, ‘don’t be racist’” training, he said. This would require continual monitoring and continual trainings to ensure that students of color going through crises are not criminalized unnecessarily. 

At Brandeis, University Police are first responders to emergency situations, according to the Black Action Plan. This includes instances of intoxication or mental health-related situations. Since these issues are not criminal ones, having police respond to these instances “makes people feel less safe because we are increasingly aware of the fraught relationship between people of color, especially Black people and the police,” Gardiner said. He agreed with the sentiments expressed in BAP that people properly trained in mental health response, such as counselors or a mobile crisis unit, would be better equipped to handle these cases. However, he stressed that there still would be a need for trainings about the connections between race and mental health/accessibility even if mental health professionals were the primary responders.