Op-eds, Opinions

Sauber ’20: The irony of SEAS’ inaccessibility

Op-ed contributor
Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Before coming to Brown, I had never felt discriminated against as a result of my disability. Despite the crippling anxiety that I have dealt with since the first grade, it was always my towering stature and poor eyesight that made me feel like an outsider in my community. Mental health issues were unsurprisingly prevalent at my small private high school in the middle of Washington, D.C., and most of my peers felt comfortable enough to discuss and share their struggles with mental illness.

As September quickly approached and my matriculation to Brown became imminent, I grew more and more excited about the idea of studying at a university that most likely would boast an average height taller than five-foot six-inches. When I arrived on campus, I immediately felt at home among the similarly-sized basketball and volleyball players. For a moment, I felt blissfully content, and all of my insecurities faded away. That is, until classes and my subsequent involvement with the Student and Employee Accessibility Services began.

I would expect Brown, as a liberal institution, to provide students with progressive care. At the least, I expected the basic standard of treatment that the law requires. My accommodations have not been viewed as a collective interest of the office, and instead I have been blamed and reprimanded for the mistakes of the SEAS office and university professors. SEAS’ tendency to lean toward internal efficiency — due in part to the sheer number of individuals with disabilities at Brown — has forced me to navigate several breaches of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a piece of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of any type of disability, physical or mental, alone.

Generally speaking, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — essentially the predecessor of the ADA — states that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability” be excluded from or discriminated against in any program that receives federal financial assistance. In terms of accommodation services for students with disabilities at postsecondary institutions, colleges must provide services where necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service, program or activity conducted by a public entity. To summarize, the University cannot legally exclude students who have documented accommodations from fully participating in basic University activities and must provide resources or make necessary accommodations so that each student may benefit from equal opportunity.

Since the beginning of my college career, I have dealt with unfair treatment in regard to the accommodations that I undeniably should have. When a professor accidentally mixed up accommodations for the first midterm of my freshman year, I was obliged to perform a series of anxiety-provoking tasks — including taking my exam in Salomon 101 with 200-plus students (instead of a private room), turning in my exam and walking to an unfamiliar building at 9 p.m. to finish the test with my extra time only to find the front door locked.

On multiple occasions, I have spent nights before major exams fighting for documented accommodations that I am legally required to have, limiting valuable study time and increasing anxiety leading up to the test. The night before an exam, a teaching assistant told me that to receive extra time to take that exam during the 50-minute class period (I had been granted accommodations for an extra 25 minutes), I would have to stay after class to finish and miss half of my concurrent 1 p.m. class. Therefore, I was given the choice between forgoing my extra time or missing class. After a series of email exchanges with SEAS and the professor and TAs of the course, at midnight I was left with no response and no answer.

Approximately two hours before the exam the next day, the professor affirmed that missing class was my only option to receive the extra time. I was denied participation in a program or activity — my class — which is not only illegal, but also heightened my anxiety significantly. What’s more is that the email conversations the night prior caused me to lose several hours of valuable study time. These incidents obviously affected my performance on these exams. I receive accommodations to alleviate my anxiety and to put me on a fair playing field. Instead, I have regularly been subjected to unfairness that has ironically resulted in more stress, a ten-fold increase in anxiety and lower grades. Despite my attempts to communicate with SEAS both prior to and after these incidences, these situations keep occurring and SEAS has failed to properly accommodate me.

Frankly, I expected more from my dream school. I was thrilled to be a part of the liberal, open-minded and unprejudiced university that had been at the top of my list since I was a child. And while for the most part this has been my experience, I have been disappointed in not only the way I have been treated by professors, but also in SEAS’ lack of responsibility in holding professors accountable for these errors. If Brown truly is the progressive institution that it purports to be, then the mental well-being of students should be viewed as a priority, not merely a threat to the efficiency of the administration. Brown has a responsibility to provide fair treatment to all individuals it accepts into its gates.

Elyse Sauber ’20 can be reached at elyse_sauber@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.