By Amelia Eichel
Concerns about accessibility and accommodations for disabled students at Lewis & Clark prompted a round table discussion at the 2017 Gender Studies Symposium. Some of the speakers and audience members at this round table decided to create a community on campus where students could voice those concerns. After a semester of organizing, finding a meeting space, getting a senate representative and choosing a name, the Disabled Student Union (DSU) began its education and advocacy efforts in Fall 2017.
DSU was originally going to be called “Empower.” One of the founding members was concerned that not enough students would identify with the label “disabled,” but the group decided that using that term would help decrease the stigma associated with it.
“When we were Empower, nobody really knew who we were,” DSU organizer Taylor Walters ’18 said. “People are often uncomfortable with the term ‘disability,’ but we thought that was an important part of our identifier in terms of campus destigmatization.”
One of DSU’s main goals is to work with Student Support Services to improve collaboration between disabled students and professors. While disabled students will often meet with professors to discuss accommodations, there are no regulations in place to make sure that professors are following through with the accommodations that students need.
“On my letter (that I give to professors at the beginning of the semester) it states that I need captions on videos for my hearing loss,” Sarit Cahana ’20 said. “Professors will often forget or won’t check beforehand if there are captions on the video. It’s been a continuous journey of professors never remembering captions or forgetting to face me or to speak clearly. A lot of professors will go down into a mumble. Discussion classes where the chairs aren’t in a circle formation are basically impossible.”
DSU has many ideas for how to improve student-professor communication in these circumstances. For example, Cahana said that the disability trainings LC currently offers should be mandatory for all professors.
“They should be mandatory, because the teachers that are not very good at accessibility are the ones that don’t show up to the trainings,” Cahana said.
There are also some classroom policies that discriminate against disabled students. Prohibiting laptops and mandatory attendance are two of the policies that DSU is trying to make more flexible for disabled students.
“There is no institutional check that makes sure that certain classroom policies aren’t discriminating against or disproportionately affecting people with disabilities,” Peter Saathoff-Harshfield ’18 said.
Saathoff-Harshfield has a visual impairment.
“I have this retina thing where the center of my retinas don’t work,” Saathoff-Harshfield said “That’s where the rod and cone light receptor cells are packed most densely and they get more sparse as you get further and further out on the retina. Since I’m missing that most dense part with the highest resolution, whatever I look directly at is essentially blank and everything around it is normal. The main implication of that is that I can’t read. Like at all.”
Saathoff-Harshfield does everything on the computer, and he uses a screen reader software which allows him to navigate the interface and reads text out to him. He does not do any of his assignments on paper, and does not have any writing implements.
“Anything that is inherently designed to be on paper assumes that you’ll skip various things on the page,” Saathoff-Harshfield said. “Those assumptions aren’t true for how I’m using the materials. Using textbook PDFs with a screen reader is a huge mess. A lot of times it reads out the copyright statement in the middle of a sentence because it’s written on the bottom of every page. It’s confusing and takes me way longer.”
Saathoff-Harshfield is working to raise awareness about the inaccessibility of websites and software that are not compatible with screen readers. WebAdvisor, which is 20 years old, does not work with screen readers and is necessary for every LC student. He is graduating this year but hopes that by advocating for disabled students, he will make life at LC easier for students with disabilities in the future.
Due to the discontinuation of Safeway’s medication deliveries to campus, DSU is trying to set up ride shares to get students their medications.
Walters is working as a consultant on a theater thesis by Emily de Lorimier ’18. This forum theater project depicts acts of oppression that disabled students could encounter on a day-to-day basis. Walters consults on the disability theory portrayed in this project.
“In a performance last week, there was a scene in which an administrator suggested that the student should drop out of college,” Walters said. “These are all things that have happened. A lot of disabled students on campus could tell you a story about a time when someone said something like ‘are you sure you should be here?’”
The organizers of DSU hope to create a strong, inclusive and accessible community for disabled students on campus. They have organized their leadership to reflect their goals for LC.
“Our club follows more of a collective organizing approach,” Hera Dewan ’19 said. “This means that we try to refrain from hierarchical positions and instead we have ‘organizers.’”
DSU also makes sure that its meetings are accessible to all.
“We are really comfortable with people showing up late to meetings or not coming at all and just making sure we take notes,” Walters said. “We always make sure there are chairs in the space.”
Most of all, the organizers want anyone at LC with a mental or physical disability to feel like they have a space to be surrounded by peers and talk about issues that they can relate to.
“I think a lot of people just put up with stuff and are suffering when they shouldn’t have to,” Saathoff-Harshfield said. “Through the DSU, we can actually work to improve these things.”