Access is not a privilege or a convenience but a fundamental human right.
Without equal access, there is no equality. Our understanding of disability has grown, we know now that it is a spectrum, you meet a person with a disability and you have only met one person with a disability.
From physical disabilities to learning disabilities to psychological disabilities, an individual’s needs vary vastly. Access is a right, a right that we as a community are responsible for ensuring.
Fortunately, HWS students have seen a major change in the services provided at HWS over the last year. Many seniors’ experiences with the Center for Teaching and Learning are much different than the experience of first years.
A large part of this is the change in staff as Christen Davis has joined the HWS CTL as Coordinator for Disability Services. Senior, Livvy Milne, commented, “CTL is good now that [the staff has changed], I used to go into the office and they would print a letter out and we wouldn’t even have a discussion. It felt like once that plan was set in motion freshman year, there was no room for change over time or between classes.” The experience is much different now.
Christen Davis helped explain this, “One thing that I’m not sure all of the students, faculty, or parents understand, and I didn’t understand until working here is that the setup is so different from high school to college. It’s governed by different laws. A lot of students came from where they were forced to [use the accommodations on their Individualized Education Program (IEP)]. What I love about here is that they’re the driver. So, we sit down, we draft letters together for faculty. We can differentiate that letter from class to class [and semester to semester]. Here they can choose what they disclose to who and they can choose [whether or not] to use it. I have students who have double time on their accommodation letter, but they might not have used it at all this year, or they used it every single time. I think that’s such a big difference that when I talk to a lot of perspective students and their families these are the points that I drive. A lot of times they are hesitant to come in because they think it’s going to be the same as high school ‘I’m going to be this kid that gets special education services and everybody is going to know.’ Our goal here is really to make it a private individualized, they’re the driver, type thing.”
First year students with learning disabilities, such as Isabelle Jeppsen, have been very happy with the services they have access to on campus.
Jeppsen stated some of the things that drew her to HWS were, “The relationships that you build with Christen and Sam who are both specifically related to disability services within the CTL. They really will do anything and go at bat for you, that’s something that’s really nice and supportive, and I knew that I wanted when I was looking at colleges.” She added, “The fact that Hobart and William Smith Colleges were open about the CTL on their website, to me, signaled that this was something that they cared about, and something that was really apparent and valued in this school, in comparison to other liberal arts colleges where that distinction was never made.”
She also touched on the importance of having an Eye 2 Eye chapter on campus. Senior chapter leaders, Sasha Carey and Allie Nixon, describe Eye 2 Eye as “a nationwide nonprofit mentoring program that pairs college students with learning disabilities and ADHD with local middle school students with similar diagnoses. We meet once a week and use an art-based curriculum to work on self-advocacy skills and their metacognition.
“Eye 2 Eye is a great program that helps both the college students and middle school students better understand their learning disability through the projects we do,” Nixon continued. “We focus on things like accommodations, perseverance, self-advocacy and many other aspects of being able to succeed to the best of your ability despite having a learning disability. As a mentor, I have learned so much about my learning disability, and I am glad I can pass along these messages to middle school children, as I did not have that luxury growing up.”
Carey added, “I started [an Eye 2 Eye chapter] my freshman year of high school, and part of the reason I was drawn to HWS was because they had an existing chapter. While I was never registered with the CTL, I was able to be a part of a group of students who were all navigating HWS with a learning disability or ADHD, who were excited and open to sharing their experiences with the mentors, mentees, and the HWS and Geneva communities. I couldn’t imagine my college career without this program.”
Allie also reflected on her experience with the CTL after experiencing a concussion her during first year, “When I had a concussion during the first few months of my freshman year, the CTL helped to make sure that I got the accommodations that I needed in order to keep up with my classes. They allowed me to have extra time and work in a quiet room in the CTL part of the library as the classroom setting was overwhelming for me at this time. I was also offered a note taker and access to my computer for a couple weeks after the concussion. I did not feel the need for a note taker, but having a computer in class to take notes helped because I could not keep up with hand writing notes in class without getting a horrible headache.”
The problem with access issues is often that those requiring additional services are usually required to request those services before they are made available.
“I will say that definitely the campus could be improved upon, but I will tell you this story,” Christen Davis said as she recalled, “At the beginning of last semester I had somebody call from Albany, they were a caseworker and they were working with a student who was blind and they were trying to find a college for the student to attend. She was a junior and she was brilliant, but she was blind. We had a phone conference and the lady is crying on the phone because I was the first school out of like thirteen schools to even be willing to talk to them. She said, ‘Is your campus set up for this?’ and I said, ‘No it’s not, but if your student chose to come here, we would do what we had to do’ So I think this office, anyways, is certainly wiling to, if we know, go the mile to make it so. That’s our business, our business is accessibility.”
While the office is willing and eager to provide what they can for students, having services already in place would surely make a big difference.
However, there is a first for everything and part of being the first is paving the way for future students. Cheyenne Eisenhut, a first year, is the first students at HWS to have a service dog on campus to help her with her disability.
She recalled her experience in asking to bring her service dog, Koda, when applying, “For me they seemed very supportive of it, they weren’t educated really in what service dogs were and how they work, because they had never had a service dog on campus, but to have a school that was actually supportive and was willing to work with me meant a lot,” Eisenhut said.
Like the students Christen Davis mentioned, Eisenhut had a much different experience with her high school. She noted, “My high school didn’t work with me at all, they pretty much denied me having Koda and so I wasn’t even able to bring Koda to high school, so it meant a lot when they were very supportive of Koda. It was a little bit difficult because I did have to educate them on everything, but it still just meant a lot that they were very supportive, that definitely did greatly affect my decision here and also the fact that they have so many options through CTL and accommodations and what not like that, I never knew I could do that because I wasn’t able to in high school.”
The expectations Eisenhut had for the school were not all met when she arrived on campus, and unlike high school, it was not the institution, but the community that made things difficult.
She explained, “I expected the whole school to stay supportive and I also kind of felt like I was going to belong in a place and I was going to feel safe and welcome, but that’s kind of been the opposite, I sadly have to say. A lot of it is that some of the staff don’t take me seriously, they don’t take Koda and me seriously, I’ve had one staff member sort of harass Koda and me and harass me about my disability and about why I have Koda, they get in my face and are very rude.”
In an effort to make people on campus more informed about service animals she has met with staff members to help them become familiar with what they can and cannot say when someone tries to bring an animal into a public place such as Saga. The root of the struggles Eisenhut has had comes from a lack of understanding and education.
These experiences have taken a large toll on Eisenhut, “Sometimes it does get so bad that I feel like I can’t go out of my room without getting confronted about Koda or about myself because everywhere I go [people] on campus feel like they are entitled and they think that they can pet Koda, even though I’ve told them when she has her vest on please do not pet Koda and they get mad at me, so it’s kind of hard because I deal with that every day when I go out in public, but I don’t need to deal with that [on campus].” She added, “A lot of people also don’t realize the reason why I have her so people do say insensitive things, you would never look at someone in a wheelchair and be like ‘wow I wish I had a wheelchair, it would be so cool to roll around,’ but people do that to me with Koda, they are always like, ‘wow I should get a vest for my dog.’ And that’s something that I hear a lot, and it is very upsetting because I never had any independence until I had Koda and she made a huge impact in my life, so it is very heartbreaking when I hear people who want to misuse the label service dog. She’s also had two years of training, hundreds of hours, I spend a lot of time and energy in her, and for people to just say that, it’s very upsetting. It’s really made it hard for me to feel accepted here and taken seriously.”
Part of accessibility includes inclusivity, which is ultimately left up to members of the community not the administration.
Livvy Milne ’18 also recalled having been given a hard time from peers and faculty, “I feel very unwelcome,” she said about professors suggesting that she “should be able to do this, and [she] should be able to do it like everyone else.” Sasha Carey has had similar experiences in her classes when studying learning disabilities and professors choose to talk about learning disabilities in ways that minimize the experiences of students with invisible disabilities in the class. “They’ve diluted disability into a very single experience or type of person. It sometimes deters me from speaking up because they can read literature about it. But until you’ve lived through it, you will never know what it’s like.” Cheyenne also explained what it is like to have her disability questioned: “It’s hard because people can be very insensitive and I was hoping that it wasn’t going to be like that because, when people look at me, I look like an able-bodied person, but I’m not, so people make judgements right away and they can say really harsh things and rude things, and it does break down your character after a little while, so it’s kind of hard to deal with that on a daily basis.” This is not the experience that HWS wants students to have, but it is really up to the members of the community to change the social stigma around disability.
Susan Pliner, the Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, noted, “While we could always be better, anybody can always be better. Our model is for our students to have access, for example, access to become a better writer. Disability services could always be better at providing support to students too. We’re always working at that and we’re always asking for feedback to be better. While that’s our model, and I think it’s an empowered and enriched model, you can’t get away from the socially constructed stigma of difference and disability. So, people come, students come, faculty come, staff come with all sorts of ranges of understanding or knowledge or experience with disability, which certainly does play out on campus and so our responsibility and role is also to help to make sure that folks are educated in a way that students don’t have negative experiences.” She went on to explain that we live in a world in which people with privilege often make remarks that they do not realize come from a place of privilege and that are discriminatory. “It’s about educating on one end and equipping on the other to engage in those conversations, so it’s always an ongoing iterative process of learning,” says Pliner.
Cheyenne Eisenhut spoke to this as well, “I don’t get mad at [individuals] because I know they are not educated, I mostly get mad at society, I wish that society was educated in what service dogs are and difference between service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs.”
Cheyenne went on to describe a presentation that she has put together on the subject, which she has presented at Beautiful Minds, a student organization focused on mental health education and advocacy, and plans to present again on campus.
Eisenhut noted, “Some things may seem harmless to say, but they’re really not. One thing I get a lot is, ‘I wish I could have a service dog, I wish I could have my dog with me all the time,’ but to me that’s like wishing for a disability and that’s very upsetting. People don’t realize it’s difficult to have a disability that you have to wake up to everyday. The reason I have Koda is because I can’t do normal day-to-day tasks and she’s the one that helps me with it. It’s difficult to hear them say it because if they were in my shoes then they would know how it is, but they don’t. If I could have a day where I could just go out in public with no worry, just go out without Koda… to go to an amusement park by myself, or do the things that I love by myself… but I can’t do that, and it’s not just because it’s all in my head, it’s all because of chemical imbalance and everything else, and people don’t realize how hard it is to be independent. It’s hard because she has given me my independence and they’re taking that away by saying that. It’s just really hard to have someone be insensitive to you for something that has changed your life so much.”
Cheyenne explained how she expected to have to deal with, “people’s comments, people’s looks, people pointing, people trying to whisper, trying to get attention. I’m used to that, it can be annoying, but I’m used to it and Koda’s trained not to go toward that. Where it upsets me is when people say things that are very rude and that’s where it’s hard, in a way when you first start out with getting a service dog you know ‘I’m going to get people that support me and people that don’t support me,’ but you never know how bad or how mean people can be until you actually are there and you see it and it’s sometimes hard to speak up about it. It’s new every day, you never know what you’re going to run into, you never know if it’s going to be a good day or if you’re going to run into someone who is going to completely shut you down and make you feel like you can’t do anything and make you feel bad. I’ve had those days where I couldn’t go to class because someone said a really, really, bad comment that I just couldn’t take.” Despite the difficult situations that Cheyenne has had to put up with she stated, “I’m happy to pave the way for other people.” However, the responsibility of paving the way for future students does not belong to students with disabilities but to the entire HWS community.
It is also our responsibility to speak up and advocate for a more inclusive and accessible campus on an administrative and infrastructural level. Just this month I had a professor injure her ankle on the stairs in Williams Hall and, while she was on crutches, she was unable to attend class because she could not use stairs and the class was a theatre class that required studio space that could not be moved to a more accessible space.
There are many buildings on campus that are inaccessible. It is not uncommon to see wheelchair accessible showers on the third floor of a dorm with no elevator, or automatic door buttons that don’t work. In fact, when the Performing Arts Center first opened, there were 2-D signs printed in what was meant to be braille, which clearly could not benefit those who they were intended for.
These types of things are the things that we as a community need to start prioritizing. After all, how can we expect disabled individuals to choose to attend an institution at which they would struggle with inaccessibility?
Susan Pliner noted, “As a campus, we have some infrastructure issues that we could certainly be paying closer attention to. I think one of the questions we could be asking is, when building projects happen or when renovations happen is there a disability specialist on the committee? Because there is the letter of the law and then there’s the intent of the law, and if you’re following the letter of the law that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re making an accessible space, and if you don’t know what the intent of the law is you can’t really interpret for the space that you are creating.”
Even Cheyenne Eisenhut who sometimes is in a wheelchair has had to deal with having classes in inaccessible spaces, “I had classes in Eaton all day and I literally had to carry my wheelchair up the steps because I couldn’t get in.”
If we work toward a campus where were not just meeting building codes or standards, but doing everything we possibly can to provide people with their right to equal accessibility we could help students who are already dealing with the hardships and stress of being a college student have one less thing to worry about.
Ignoring the inaccessibility of our campus is no different than saying we don’t prioritize people here who need additional services or accommodations. HWS strives to be inclusive and diverse, but how can we be either of those things without making our campus accessible to differently abled people? Inclusivity goes beyond physical access, inclusivity means taking the time to understand one another and treating everyone with respect.