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Students, faculty with disabilities face accessibility challenges on campus

Difficulties range from the layout of College Hill to accommodation access

Living with a disability on the University’s campus poses physical and emotional obstacles for many community members, who confront accessibility issues in campus buildings and in virtual accomodations alike.  

Providence was recently ranked as one of the worst cities for people with disabilities, placing at 180 out of 182 in a study conducted by WalletHub, The Herald previously reported. The study analyzed factors such as access to health care, quality of life and economic opportunity. 

The problems seen in Providence extend onto College Hill, affecting the lives of students, staff and faculty on campus. 

Thirteen percent of the student body was optionally registered with the University’s Student Accessibility Services as having some form of disability, either physical or mental, according to the Fall 2017 Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Between 15 and 20 percent of the total student body has a disability, a statistic that places the University on par with the percentage of high school students with disabilities nationally, said Tere Ramos, interim director of SAS. 

The SAS office works to identify the needs of students with disabilities and provide resources and accommodations for them, covering everything from housing accommodations to classroom resources. 

According to Ramos, the office’s job is to “make sure that every department in every single office and every aspect of life at Brown includes that student, so they have full access” to all Brown has to offer. “We’re going to (approve accommodations) as long as it’s not unreasonable and it doesn't cause undue hardship,” Ramos added.

Disability Justice at Brown, co-founded by Lead Coordinator Sumera Subzwari ’21, advocates for students with disabilities. Some of its current initiatives include pushing for a standalone Disability Justice Cultural Center, creating a Disability Studies concentration and department, disarming Department of Public Safety officers and advocating for a review of accessibility in all buildings on campus. 

“We look beyond just the superficial markers of diversity and more towards disability justice transformation (at) Brown, and one of the primary things that we really emphasize is the fact that disability often is at the intersection of a lot of different identities and experiences,” Subzwari said. 

According to Subzwari, the University must do more to become equitable for students with disabilities. For instance, the ability to attend classes remotely or watch recordings only became available on a large scale this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though the University had turned down previous requests from DJAB to provide those accommodations. “It’s unfortunate that it had to take something as drastic as (COVID-19) for” this accomodation to become available, Subzwari said.

DJAB has also faced obstacles while trying to create a Disability Justice Cultural Center. The organization has circulated petitions on the issue, and an Undergraduate Council of Students referendum on the matter passed with nearly 90 percent of the vote. 

SAS recently proposed creating a center connected to its new offices in the Wellness Center and Residence Hall, which is set to open May 2021, Subzwari said. But DJAB would prefer to create a standalone center because “not all disabled students necessarily feel comfortable registering with SAS,” Subzwari said. As such, DJAB hopes to establish the center in one of the facilities that will be vacated when the Wellness Center opens.

Lecturer in Language Studies Tim Riker, who is deaf, has also faced barriers in receiving accommodations from the University, he said. For instance, the University has tried to cancel interpreters for virtual sessions of a pre-clerkship elective at the Alpert Medical School. He had to have several conversations in order to ensure his access to an interpreter. 

“I was invited to do a lecture … that fell through because they made last-minute changes to my accommodations due to not knowing where the funds (would) come from,” Riker said. “Access is not a luxury but a basic necessity to be able to do my job.”

“Developing solutions to better support students and employees with disabilities is a priority where Brown continues to make progress in everything from department-level DIAP plans to the University’s overall approach to accessibility of physical spaces and digital content and tools,” University spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “Raising awareness about resources and the processes for requesting accommodations for students, faculty and staff are important elements of that work.”

Beyond academic accommodations, individuals with disabilities at Brown must navigate the physical campus landscape. 

Senior Teaching Associate in Behavioral and Social Sciences Sarah Skeels uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury and taught PHP 1680I: “Pathology to Power: Disability, Health and Community” in the fall semester. Skeels said that Brown is a difficult campus to navigate with a disability in part because it is located on a hill. The layout of its buildings, many of which have accessible entrances that she said are difficult to find, also poses a navigational challenge. “Over the years, they have been slowly making things accessible,” she said. “I think that it is a goal of theirs. I wouldn’t say it’s a priority.” 

In terms of campus accessibility, Ramos said that all Brown community members she has spoken with have “been absolutely committed to the fact that the (Americans with Disabilities Act) is not the ceiling, it’s the floor. It’s the minimum that the law requires, and Brown means to do so much more.” 

Skeels said that the University has always accommodated her accessibility needs, but she does not attend University events unless she has to,  because she never knows “what (she is) going to come up against from an accessibility standpoint.” 

The difficulties of navigating campus, as well as other factors such as Brown’s lack of sports teams for individuals with disabilities, may be deterrents for students with disabilities otherwise interested in the University, Skeels said. “It’s the diversity piece that’s missing at Brown, and Brown is okay with that.”

But the University’s “percentages of students with disabilities align with national standards for high school students with disabilities,” Ramos said. “We need to have more respect and more awareness (for) students that are on campus that have invisible disabilities.”

Ramos added that students with physical disabilities might choose a campus that is more accessible given their individual needs, because the University’s campus is often difficult to navigate with its old buildings and winter weather. “A lot of our students are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and part of the idea of choosing the right college for you is choosing a location where you feel you can be successful,” she said. 

In late November 2020, Riker wrote in an email to The Herald that the University had committed “to make accommodations easier to request and to continue the dialogue about equity and inclusion of people with disabilities.”

Skeels also said that “disability continues to be only looked at as a biomedical phenomenon, as something that needs to be cured and fixed and changed,” she said. Her class, on the other hand, focuses on care instead of cures. “I’m starting to see little bits and pieces of classes starting to try to include … the social model of disability.”


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