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Student groups address campus inaccessibility concerns through education, advocacy, and support

Noah Dantes

Contributing Writer

The long, winding wheelchair accessibility ramp that leads to Montag Center. Photos by Rebecca May.

Interviewed leaders of Willamette student accessibility groups all stated that campus is inaccessible to disabled and [neurodivergent] students, and that the Office of Accessible Education Services (AES) is lacking in scope, support and care. Cited concerns include difficulty getting accommodations, general scarcity of open door buttons, handrails, elevators and other physical accessibility measures, and the “bad attitude” of AES staff.

Matthew Mahoney (‘24), co-founder and former president of the Neurodivergent Student Union (NDSU), said that AES staff view their job as “filling out paperwork” and don’t demonstrate enough care for students: “That really bothers me because I believe that if you work in higher education, you shouldn't see it as purely a job, you should see it as a member of a community…if you're just giving people accommodations, that’s not enough support.”

According to Mahoney, neurodivergent and disabled students don’t get the same level of support other marginalized groups get through the [Gender Resource and Advocacy Center] and [Student Center for Equity and Empowerment and Multicultural Affairs]. AES is responsible for determining and facilitating accommodations for all undergraduate and graduate students at the university. However, AES limits itself to considering accommodation requests, and does not do any education initiatives, advocacy, community-building or provide non-accommodation resources and support. Mahoney said that if the AES office doesn’t want to provide those services, a new department or center on campus needs to be formed: “You end up in a situation where the faculty don't think they need to care about [accessibility] because AES is taking care of it, but then AES is not taking care of it either. It's no man's land—no one has taken responsibility for taking care of helping neurodivergent and disabled students in the classroom and outside the classroom.”

Both Mahoney and Charlotte Holmes (‘22), treasurer of Disability Advocacy Club (DAC), said that it is difficult to get accommodations approved by AES. Sue Minder, the director of AES, said that her role “is not to automatically recommend that that accommodation be implemented” because it first has to be shown that the accommodation will provide the student with equal access or opportunity to the course or program. “My first and foremost goal is…to provide as equitable an experience as possible for students with disabilities and to make sure that they have an equal opportunity to succeed or fail,” Minder said.

All students interviewed said that campus is physically inaccessible to many disabled and neurodivergent students. Andrew Caruana (‘24), president of DAC, cited a general lack of handrails, shower benches, elevators and open door buttons, and the presence of high sidewalk lips. Maya Eshelman (‘23), a leader of Neurodivergent People of Color (NDPOC), said over email that Willamette’s halogen lamp lights and Goudy menu are barriers to those with sensory issues. The entrance to the AES office itself is inaccessible because it's behind a heavy door that does not have an automatic door button.

Door to the Student Success Hub, located on the first floor of Smullin. Photos by Anushka Srivastav.

Minder said that the American Disabilities Act (ADA) waives many buildings on campus from meeting its requirements due to architectural age, and that any modifications of older buildings must meet certain conditions. Minder ensures any student with a mobility-oriented disability gets accessible housing, but said that structural barriers will remain: “I am not saying that I agree with the way that the ADA was structured, but I am not the one who wrote the ADA,” she said. “I am totally blind. So I feel that I have a lot of lived experience as to what it is to go to college where there are structural barriers that are going to impact the students' learning experience.”

Caruana said that because a large part of the disabled community is forced to live in a limited amount of accessible housing, unintentional equity disparities are created between buildings: “It's detrimental to community building, because one, you're not really allowing the disabled community to get the full campus experience, and on the other hand, people on campus aren't really being exposed to the disabled community.”

According to Minder, Willamette bases its accessibility decisions on the law and what other institutions do: “When we're talking about physical access barriers and building codes, it's really important to globalize the conversation and be aware that these problems are not unique to Willamette.” She added that cost effectiveness is an important factor when considering building modifications.

Holmes claimed that while making campus more accessible would be quite costly, the university is losing money in the long run because prospective disabled and neurodivergent students are choosing more accessible campuses. To her, it is a “bad look” for the university not to install small, “budget friendly” improvements, such as handrails. Caruana offered another take, saying that the limited amount of money that goes towards accessibility is “not necessarily out of a desire to cause anyone harm,” but due to lack of thought because “if you’re not disabled, it’s pretty easy not to think about.”

All four students interviewed said that the majority of faculty care about making their classrooms accessible. However, Mahoney said that faculty have often been too reliant on AES to provide accommodations: “We all have a responsibility to create accessibility in a classroom and outside the classroom,” he said. Last November, NDSU led a training attended by over 70 faculty members that resulted in a number of measurable improvements, including more accessible syllabi. Mahoney hopes one result of the training is that faculty will be less reliant on AES in the future.

The NDSU, DAC and NDPOC are the three main student groups on campus that provide space for neurodivergent and disabled students. Only DAC existed before 2020.

According to Mahoney, the NDSU was formed to provide community and “try to make up for what AES hasn’t been doing.” Beyond education initiatives, the NDSU provides a community for neurodivergent students, engages in activism and runs a mentors and peer advocates program.

NDPOC was formed just this semester to create an intersectional space where members can be “wholly [themselves] without compromising other identities,” Eshelman said over email. “I fully support other accessibility groups here on campus, but as we are at a primarily white institution it can be hard to find validation within a primarily white space that does not understand how ones' neurodivergence intersects with one's racial identity.”

Holmes said that DAC works with Willamette administrators to address accessibility concerns, provides education, and discusses disabilities of all types, unlike the NDSU which focuses more on neurodivergence. DAC made a presentation that was used to train RAs, and Caruana has had several conversations on accessibility with Housing that have been “very open and receptive.” However, Caruana said the most important role of DAC is to provide “a space and sense of community for the disabled community to come and meet and share stories and experiences.”

Many students are members of both DAC and NDSU, and the two organizations promote each others’ events and often work together on initiatives. Last year, the two organizations held back-to-back meetings. All three organizations have the goal of continuing their current initiatives and growing membership. “Right now we have a lot of seniors that are going to be graduating, and we've been noticing that a lot less people have been getting involved,” Holmes said.

On the DAC, Caruana said: “It's very much an open door policy, we just want to share our support with our communities, and let them know that they definitely have a voice that is worth hearing and that we want to hear at the club.”

DAC meets on Tuesdays from 6-7 p.m. in Montag, and their Instagram can be found [here].

NDSU meets on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. in Montag, and their Instagram can be found [here].

NDPOC meets on Mondays from 4-5 p.m. in the [E&E].

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