This article is published publicly because Deaf Vee and Disabled Academic Collective worked together to collaborate on this piece.

The Truth, unfortunately, is that discrimination on the basis of disability is common in higher education across all universities. Protections for disabled students, including accommodations, accessible environments, and inclusive coursework, are not only absent from the college experience; but stories that are often passed down and told as a warning to new students. Universities across the country are built on the foundations of ableism. For disabled students seeking out a campus that offers the full range of services, the climate is often dim and diminishing with very few satisfying prospects.

Inaccessibility is a norm even at the most prominent Deaf University in the world, Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University, a university with the reputation of being “Deaf centric” does not mean that they are accommodating to all disability-centered needs. In particular, the school has not proven itself to be DeafBlind centric or even DeafDisabled centric. On August 18, 2020, Deaf Vee Journal reported that DeafBlind and DeafDisabled students frequently struggled to access accommodations in the Office of Students with Disabilities. (See  “DeafBlind Oppression at Gallaudet University”) 

One of the students we interviewed shared an interaction with professionals at the OSWD office who refused to believe that they were actually DeafBlind. Jackson explained, “The Office of Students with Disabilities (OSWD) kept demanding paperwork to prove that I’m Deaf-Blind, and an explanation as to why I need a single room.”

Unfortunately the demand to prove, time and time again, the validity of one’s disability status, is a commonality in higher education. Although employees in disability services often do not have any sort of medical degree, these individuals have full access to students’ and employees’ medical files and make determinations on when medical analysis and reports are necessary for “documentation” purposes. As an austerity measure, disability services offices are often used as a tool to try to weed out “fake” cases of people claiming disability. This results in complicated issues for students who take on the burden of “proving” their existence and the extent of their disabilities, regardless of existing medical documentation. Students are then pressured to explain exactly how and why their proposed accommodations will help them, leading to uncomfortable discussions and demands on the students; making them disclose very personal details about the lived experience of one’s medical condition(s) and the challenges they face daily. 

Even if students manage to navigate these unnecessary barriers, they face precarity in higher education. Students are often deeply impacted by either a lack of granted accommodations or improperly granted accommodations. The OSWD has full rights to determine what counts as “reasonable accommodations” and can deny an accommodation at any time according to Gallaudet. Students who are denied often need to escalate these cases and go to the EEOC or launch legal cases against the university to create action surrounding the investigation around them or to finally begin the evaluation process. The time it takes to pursue these resources just to secure access is all-encompassing and taxing on both the mind and the body as students wait for hours and hours hoping to procure approvals from their respective universities. 

The barriers innate to the accommodations process, and the stigmatizing tone through which disability services tend to approach accommodation needs, highlight the social underpinnings of the experience of disability. Recently, Koko, a Black DeafBlind individual, posted a vlog on ASL Connect highlighting this very issue. 

In the vlog, Koko uses the social model of disability to discuss their own experience as a DeafBlind individual. Koko explains, 

“I want to take this opportunity to explain the term, ‘Disability.’ This term means experiencing barriers. Suppose I make a request for specific, clear accommodations, for example, a ProTactile ASL interpreter. Suppose people at conferences, hospitals, lawyers, or any public buildings give me the wrong accommodations. Instead, they give me an ASL interpreter. That is for sighted people. I rely on hand-touch communication (ProTactile). That lack of access makes me ‘Disabled.’ However, if you give me the exact clear accommodations as per my request, that makes me no longer disabled.” (Koko)

When students are denied accommodations, or granted improper accommodations, a chance at equity is lost. Koko makes this explicitly clear in their vlog. When provided proper accommodations, disabled students can integrate into academic spaces fully. Without access to basic accommodations, however, students are saddled with unnecessary labor to advocate for themselves, secure accommodations, ensure accommodations are properly carried out, and intervene when any issues arise. The amount of work they are expected to do in order to coordinate access, on top of their academics, is astronomical and not expected of other students. 

The labor placed on students to secure and implement their own accommodations is far too much to expect of anyone who is juggling so many things at a critical time in their life. However, academics with secure positions in the academy, especially TT and tenured faculty, can help pave the way for a more accessible academic experience. Although our current climate severely discriminates against disabled students, our future one does not need to and can even work towards true equity among students when it comes to accessing education and information. 

On June 9, 2021, the DAC tweeted a thread encouraging faculty and students to advocate for accessibility rights on campus. The DAC reminded educators that students will face new challenges as universities shift back to hybrid and classroom-based classes. The coming term, the DAC noted, would present new challenges for disabled students. For students who have never stepped foot on campus, the experience will be wholly new. Both second and first-year students will need to navigate the accommodations process to ensure that campus and classroom resources are accessible and ensure that they are familiar with the process. Disability Services will be inundated with far more accommodation requests than what normally happens annually with this new cycle of students. 

Deaf Vee Journal has the privilege to discuss the importance of accommodations in education with Dr. Nicole Schroeder, a disabled academic and Founder of the Disabled Academic Collective (DAC). The DAC is a mutual aid collective made up of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and independent researchers who identify as disabled. Nicole coordinates the group’s website, Twitter account, and Discord server where participants discuss important issues that impact disabled individuals in educational settings. Along with a team of editors and phenomenal authors, the DAC offers teaching resources, blog posts, and outreach through its website. Overall, the group seeks to provide a safe space for disabled individuals to discuss academic ableism in higher education, and a platform for voicing issues of discrimination. 

Incoming students and educators need to be aware that access issues have been a mainstay long before the pandemic, throughout the universities switch to online learning, and that these issues will persist long after a full return to campus. Current policies on a university-wide level, and policing of disability disclosure and access needs, result in persistent ableism in the academy. However, educators and students alike can take lessons away from our collective switch to online learning this past year. For some students, the digital classroom has been the most accessible learning experience they’ve had in college. We must, then, look towards preserving the innate access that was built through online learning and pandemic policies. 

In order to preserve the access offered throughout the pandemic, here are five tips recommended by the Disabled Academic Collective. 

  1. Faculty should use Universal Design for Learning frameworks when planning coursework. That means incorporating flexible assignments, encouraging student engagement, and varying class activities day-to-day. Students should be able to choose how to engage with course materials, and should be given a diversity of assignments. UDL frameworks also require faculty to plan for accommodations broadly, rather than respond to individual requests. By planning for disability rather than responding last-minute to disability, faculty can broaden the basic access standards of their courses. 
  1. Faculty should continue to offer flexible deadlines. Students (and educators alike) have lived through traumas over this past year. Extend grace to students who may be overwhelmed with the switch back to in-person classes. Permit for flexible deadlines without grading repercussions, and try to encourage a steady pace for work while simultaneously acknowledging that many students are struggling right now. 
  1. Students and faculty members alike should reassess the utility of Disability Services. While every campus is required to have a disability services office, these spaces are often overworked, underbudgeted, and frequently used as an austerity tool. While these spaces are vital for securing access, they don’t always function in a positive manner. Faculty should become aware of the services offered, and should review current policies for accommodating students. They should also take note of the flaws inherent to these spaces. Armed with a limited budget and staff, most offices cannot manage to take all cases in a timely fashion, follow up with students to measure the efficacy of their accommodations, or reassess accommodation plans.
  1. Students who feel up to doing their own homework can use the Job Accommodations Network to look up disabilities and accommodations alike. Incoming students entering their first year of college, or students accessing disability services for the first time, can use the Campus Disability Resource Database managed by the National Center for College Students with Disabilities to find direct links to disability services at universities across the United States.
  1. Students who are disabled often find comfort in having support outside of their academic settings. Students can join campus-based groups for disability justice, or they can access digital groups like the DAC which provides broader support across numerous colleges and geographies.