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Students push for disability advocacy

This article was originally published on Dec. 7, 2015.

College presents unique challenges, often taking a strain on a person’s mental and physical health, and exacerbating existing conditions. This makes disability advocacy an urgent need for many students — though the College has not always proved to be effective in this regard.

The Learning Enrichment and Disabilities Services (LEADS) Office aims to offer services for any type of disability. Assistant Dean of Students and Director of LEADS Joy de Leon works with about 170 students regularly, though she speculates that there’s maybe twice that amount of students with disabilities on campus, as not all report or seek services. Many students have expressed frustration with this ratio of students to staff, which can mean delayed meetings and impersonal support. When de Leon started in 2001, there were two workers for 25 documented students. In December of 2008, the college’s desperate financial state resulted in the cutting of 34 staff-members — including one person specifically for academic advising and de Leon’s co-worker. “In the revision, more roles were put on our office,” de Leon says. She wholeheartedly agrees that understaffing is an issue, adding that having more people on staff would allow the office to forge better relationships on campus and increase resources.

“I find out about students with disabilities from all sorts of sources,” she said, including advance notice from parents, advising questionnaires, faculty interactions and responses on college applications. Once she knows who the students are, “I spend all summer reaching out,” building up a relationship via email and getting as many logistics as possible in place before the school year starts.

Edwin Harris’18 considered going through LEADS but found other solutions. “I’ve decided not to get accommodations because of the bureaucracy involved, and the limited benefits of receiving them, at least for the mental health issues that I deal with,” they said. “So overall the accommodations have met my expectations, but my expectations were pretty low.”

Recently, students have found other outlets for disability advocacy. Last year, Reid Caplan’16 formed the Beloit Cross-Disability Coalition (BCDC), which meets every Thursday at 8 p.m. in the Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) House, with another meeting geared towards action at 7 p.m.

Harris stresses the importance of having the club. “I know a lot of people who have either taken time off or left school because of the challenges associated with disability,” they said. “So not only is disability not talked about, but disabled students are often not physically present to speak for themselves. For those of us who have made it to campus, it’s important to have a community, and an organized means of advocating for our interests.”

The club is an important source of information for members and the broader campus, especially because of a lack of communication about resources. “Some BCDC members didn’t know that things like migraines, depression or anxiety could be accommodated by the school until they joined the club,” they said. “Some didn’t know where the LEADS office is.”

However, because most of the group’s members are disabled, “there’s a big risk of burnout,” they said, adding, “we’ve made some progress, but it can still be very demoralizing to face so many problems with so few resources.” They also note SAGA is not physically accessible to those with mobility issues, which they called “hypocritical.”

While BCDC centers disability activism, Harris would like to see their priorities implemented in other groups. “Other activist groups need to take disability into account, especially if they have an economic or anti-capitalist focus. There is a tendency to trivialize disability activism, or compartmentalize it away from other movements.” they said.

In terms of some of the issues facing disabled students, Harris pointed to the physical conditions of the campus as tangible examples. Most buildings only have stairs, many automatic door buttons no longer function and weather, room layout and the campus being on a hill all add mobility challenges. The club has a number of long-term goals to improve the physical accessibility of campus, though “because these solutions are potentially expensive, it’s unclear as to when or if these changes will occur.” They added, “Other ongoing issues include [improving] food labeling in Commons, health center hours, the accommodations system, security interactions with disabled students and education about disability-related topics.”

Because Harris never sought official accommodations, neither the administration nor most of their teachers know about their disability. In the academic setting, they said, “I’ve received very reasonable, very considerate responses when I’ve been open about mental illness.” Professors have been “responsive” when they miss class or ask for extensions — though they have also heard about negative experiences, such as in the Anthropology and Art departments. In cases when professors are not accommodating, “The LEADS office can’t actually force a professor to comply; a student’s only recourse is to go to the provost,” they said.

However, Harris expresses their disabilities differently in their social life. “I feel a lot of pressure to hide any symptoms that are obvious, and usually only talk about the more common conditions that I’ve been diagnosed with (anxiety and depression), while leaving out the rest,” they said. “When I can’t entirely suppress a symptom — like shaking, restless movement, etc. — I usually withdraw so that I won’t have to explain what I’m going through.”

Besides visible or physical barriers to disability accommodations, the negative perception of mental illness and other disabilities inhibits health. “Mental illness is still stigmatized,” Harris said. “Even other mentally ill students will contribute to this. Urging others to perform ‘self care’ in a certain, socially acceptable way is one form of this intra-community policing. Getting a hug, or taking a shower or listening to relaxing music isn’t a cure-all. Sometimes the best you can do is cope, however unsustainable or self-destructive your methods seem. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to push a single model of what it is to be a ’good mentally ill person’ in the name of self care.”

While stigma can reinforce limited ideas of self-care, the LEADS office tends to accommodate certain disabilities. The most common cases are mental health (anxiety and depression in particular — “I would say our anxiety has become very visible”), learning disabilities (ADD and ADHD, as well as the autism spectrum and Asperger’s), and chronic illness. In almost every case, students have multiple issues. Generally, third party documentation is required. “I try to take anything – two paragraphs from a doctor, two paragraphs from a therapist,” de Leon said, adding that the goal is to help as many students in need as possible. Even if they don’t have official documentation, the office still tries to provide some accommodation.

Students can also seek help at the Counseling Center, though Harris is frustrated with their limited hours. Another option is Depression Expression, a student-run support group that meets Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. in the Spirituality Room. “If you’re dealing with anything less common than anxiety or depression, options can be even more limited,” Harris said.

Unsurprisingly, time and money are two of the biggest issues in accommodating students. The budget for Disability Services is so small that they often can’t afford to pay the notetakers. Though they can always manage to get some cash, the struggle is continual: “It almost always circles back to, ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’”

With the institution falling through, a number of student groups have taken initiative on specific projects. Alpha Sigma Tau recently received $1,700 from Turtle Tank to install a wheelchair accessibility ramp. After meeting with Physical Plant, the sorority is looking into reopening a side door to connect the ramp, according to Vice President of Operations Emily Mingus’16. She said the sorority “wanted a ramp for a while, but especially now that both of the other sororities are wheelchair accessible, it became more of a priority.”

Former president Emma Bangs’16 said the group hopes to see the ramp, which will likely be concrete rather than wood, installed by the end of next semester, “but there are a lot of hoops to go through.” Because AST is a historical building, the Historic Committee must approve the project.

Turtle Tank also provided $500 to purchase Neckloop telecoil systems to accommodate the deaf, hard of hearing, and elderly, though Alex Billington’18 and Sarah Hodkinson’18, who wrote the proposal, had asked for $1,000. While they are still trying to figure out how many they can make the purchase, the two hope to prioritize usage in Neese Theatre, because “most public theaters have telecoil systems,” according to Billington. They should be integrated “toward the beginning of next semester,” she said.

There is also an ongoing debate between what has to be provided for equal access versus what privileges disabled students. For example, students who need double time on quizzes (so if the time for a quiz is listed as one hour, the student would be allowed two) are continually challenged by professors. In a lot of cases, “I don’t think people question out of resistance as much as confusion,” de Leon explained. Things like that, or special graphing materials for the visually impaired, often just don’t cross people’s minds until they’re immediately necessary. De Leon describes a key part of her job as “trying to know everything about everything,” a process of constantly researching new technologies, materials and methods.

Another recent example is the new printing quota enacted this year, which poses some challenges to student learning, as not everyone can focus reading from a computer screen. The LEADS covers printing for certain students with specific needs.

In terms of future plans, de Leon has continued to ask for more staff. The office has already begun some additional bolstering, including hiring accessibility assistants. The assistants work mostly during the summer, doing 25-hour weeks to create accessible graphs for math classes. This is all in addition to the five Learning Assistants employed through the school year by the office. Currently, there is one LA doing disability assistance and awareness; the others have various jobs around the office, including tutor coordination and publicity. De Leon would like to get two LAs on the disability assistance front, and have the rest of them more actively working on awareness. She also plans to collaborate much more with BCDC, and aims to “continue to drum up resources.”

Harris, who had never been involved with disability activism before college, sees a direct conflict between disability and capitalism. Like other institutions, Beloit College aims to prepare graduates with certain skills and abilities to work — yet Harris argues this is part of a system that perpetuates an oppressive idea of the right way to participate in society. “Disability activism must go beyond securing the ‘right to work’ for disabled people…It is simply impossible for many disabled people to be ‘good workers’ in the sense of being as productive and efficient as non-disabled workers,” they said. “Disability activism challenges how we value people by how much they produce, or what they contribute in an economic sense.”

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