Students with disabilities face many unique challenges during their time at Lewis & Clark. The hilly, stair-heavy terrain and lack of ADA compliance in residence halls makes it difficult for students with physical disabilities to navigate the campus. Many students with disabilities also struggle with getting proper accommodations and have trouble ensuring that professors and classmates abide by these accommodations.
The Disabled Student Union (DSU) is a student-led group on campus which works to create a supportive community for students with disabilities and advocates for a more accessible environment through engaging with administration and the student body as a whole. The idea to form the DSU originated from the Gender Studies Symposium in Spring 2017. President of the DSU Sarit Cahana ’20, elaborated on how the idea came to fruition.
“I applied to do a panel at the Gender Studies Symposium my freshman year, and the theme was ‘Points of Access,’ so I wanted to do something disability-related especially because it was my first year and I was feeling very lonely as someone who was disabled,” Cahana said. “I didn’t really know if there were any other students who were disabled. It turned out that another group had a very similar idea to me and we created a panel on what it was like being disabled on campus.”
Cahana, alongside other panelists, realized there were many problems that needed to be addressed on campus. Thus, the DSU was formed the following fall to continue advocating for students with disabilities on campus.
The DSU nearly dissolved last year due to not having an adequate number of representative student leaders. In hearing about the possibility of the union dissolving, Nicole Lewis ’21 stepped into the role of DSU representative, as she was looking for a way to get involved with the disabled community.
Lewis mainly coordinates with ASLC and works with administration and institutional services. She has spoken at ASLC meetings advocating changes to the administrative processes which students with disabilities must go through in order to obtain accommodations. Lewis elaborated on why many of these students struggle through the process.
“I know that it’s very difficult for disabled students to get accomodations, because you’re required to have a doctor’s note and that can take a lot of time and lot of money,” Lewis said. “I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to receive care, especially if you need to go off campus because that involves transportation, that involves coordinating health insurance. There are so many outside factors that go into even working with your disability.”
The DSU recently released a survey asking for students’ views on the campus’ accessibility. The results collected so far attest to the difficulty students experience in the process of getting accommodations through Student Support Services (SSS) such as extra time getting to class and extra time on exams.
“Just looking at the results of the DSU survey that are starting to come in, there have been some people who have just had to forego accommodations because the process is so difficult,” Lewis said.
Even when students with disabilities succeed in obtaining accommodations, this does not always guarantee that professors and other students will abide by them. This is in part due to professors’ uncertainty about how best to support students. Cahana shared her personal experience with professors not adhering to her accommodations.
“They don’t know what I can and can’t hear,” Cahana said. “They think that my hearing aids do all the work, when that’s actually not true. They don’t encourage other students to speak up. They don’t repeat what students say, which is all in my accomodations letter.”
Cahana is currently focusing on implementing an accountability system for professors, as of right now a system like this doesn’t exist.
“Student Support Services needs to be given more power than they have,” Cahana said. “I think that that’s a really hard thing to accomplish, especially because the system that is set up right now is that professors have all the power in their classrooms, which is really great. But, they can choose, and usually do choose, to ignore students with disabilities.”
Despite all of their hard work, the DSU struggles to be regarded as an important collective voice on campus. Lewis explained that one of the primary reasons for this is a lack of communication on the part of the institution.
“There’s a huge separation between the institution and the DSU,” Lewis said. “(The institution does) disability-related things and try to raise awareness or be accommodating for disabled people on this campus, but don’t even coordinate with that community.”
Additionally, both Lewis and Cahana stressed the importance of non-disabled allies participating in events and conversations surrounding the struggles of students with disabilities. Cahana explained how hesitation to be an ally can result in apparent lack of care for those with disabilities, but that this does not have to be the case.
“For me, I love when people ask me questions, as long as they’re not intrusive, but I feel like people are so worried about asking intrusive questions that they don’t ask at all,” Cahana said.
If you want to get involved with the DSU, they hold office hours every Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m. in their office in Templeton they share with the Queer Student Union (QSU). Additionally, they hold club meetings the first and third Friday of every month at 5 p.m and every second and fourth Friday at 3 p.m. They are planning an event specifically to engage allies who are interested in these issues. If interested in a leadership role in the DSU, they are seeking representatives for next academic year.