The Invisibility of Disability at Amherst

Two years ago, an Amherst sophomore broke her foot. She suddenly found that her life at Amherst became much more difficult. Getting around campus, going up stairs, eating at Valentine Dining Hall— simple, everyday tasks were suddenly strenuous endeavours to navigate a largely inaccessible campus landscape. Unfortunately, Amherst’s Office of Student Affairs was less than helpful. As she described in a recent interview, “I got pretty much zero help … the administration was unresponsive and unhelpful, which I found infuriating.” When she called the campus police for assistance in getting to class, they were dismissive of her requests for help. One of her classes was located on the third floor of Arms Music Building, and the Office of Student Affairs said its location couldn’t be changed. “‘For some reason’; the administration didn’t let it happen,” she said.

The result was a humiliating experience that no student should have to go through: she had to be carried up the stairs. While some professors were understanding of her resultant tardiness, one professor was less than sympathetic and docked her final grade as a result.

According to the website for Accessibility Services at Amherst, “Overcoming adversity is one of the many ways that makes students with exceptionalities, exceptional!” But far from receiving an exercise in proving resilience, disabled students instead experience a lack of knowledge, resources and patience from professors, staff and administrators regarding accommodations and accessibility services. From inaccessible classrooms to questionable policies and inadequate staff capacity, Amherst is far from an inclusive environment for disabled students.

Recounting her experience, the now-senior said, “It was only due to the generosity and support of friends that I was able to shower, get food, and make it to class on a day-to-day basis … not a single professor or administrator directed me to the Disability Services Coordinator … [and] if I didn’t have help from friends, I would have had to take a semester off.” And this was because of a broken foot.

In response to Amherst’s lackluster disability accommodations, we, the Roosevelt Institute at Amherst, have undertaken a campaign to identify accessibility-related shortcomings and advocate for solutions at Amherst. We have conducted a school-wide survey, assembled a cross-college policy comparison, collected student testimonials and formulated concrete suggestions for improvements.

Our survey generated interest from students, with a nearly 10 percent response rate from the entire student body. Of these respondents, over 50 percent said they were dissatisfied with academic accommodations for mental health and curricular accommodations. 20 percent noted concerns with academic accommodations for physical health and for learning and physical disabilities. Over 30 percent felt discrimination related to accessibility within the Amherst community. 43 percent voiced the need for better physical accessibility and accommodations.

We also conducted an accessibility policy comparison between different colleges. Our key finding was that Amherst has one of the highest student-to-accessibility services staff ratio among peer institutions. At 1849:1, its student-to-staff ratio is higher than every other NESCAC, Little Ivy League and Five College institution. By comparison, Connecticut College’s ratio is 850:1, Smith’s is 867:1, and Hampshire’s is 470:1. Amherst stands out for its lack of a Disability Committee and for not considering disability in student diversity initiatives. Case in point: Accessibility Services isn’t even under the auspices of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

These statistics speak for themselves. More importantly, they also translate to various difficulties in the day-to-day lives of students. Throughout our work, we’ve heard many poignant stories from these students regarding their struggles to accommodate in the absence of accommodation. There is a common thread of inadequate administrative support and bureaucratic confusion. One student’s story of events following a concussion exemplifies this. “Even though school administration and my class dean reached out to me for support, I was never directed to Accessibility Services,” she said. “Ultimately, my grades suffered drastically [as a result]. I believe that the college failed me by not following protocol and offering me support through Accessibility Services.” A current sophomore student describes how, due to the college’s refusal to provide adequate resources, for the entire semester, she had to spend five hours on assignments that should have normally taken one hour. Another student felt that their “rights had been blatantly ignored and abused.” Yet another student talked about how she was ignored by Accessibility Services for weeks, despite repeatedly reaching out.

Many students also mentioned physical accessibility concerns. One student’s story showed the trade-off between punctuality and student health. “When I broke my leg, I did not have enough time to get to and from classes on crutches,” she said. “Calling campus police … actually exacerbated the amount of time I was late to class, compared to me simply crutching over. However, when I used campus police to get to my classes, I did not arrive to class incredibly exhausted by the steep hills.” Others mentioned that Arms Music Building and Chapin Hall were completely inaccessible. The Greenway dormitories are only theoretically accessible — think about how you would get to Greenway from Converse without using stairs. Most of the games and other amenities in the Greenway dormitories have not been implemented with universal design, and, as a result, are only usable by certain students.

After analyzing the results of surveys and holding multiple focus groups with students, we found five recurring issues that need immediate attention: professor-to-student interactions, administrative responsiveness and outreach to students with disabilities, facility and classroom accessibility, current offerings and capabilities of Amherst disability programs and the general culture and invisibility surrounding disability on campus. While we acknowledge that some students have had positive experiences with Accessibility Services and feel they were properly accommodated, what has become clear throughout these testimonials is that unfortunately, many students have not had positive experiences and were not properly accommodated.

From this research, the Roosevelt Institute at Amherst has proposed five specific, immediately actionable changes the administration should make to improve accessibility.

1. Disability competency trainings, staffed by experienced disabled people (a mainstay of the disability rights movement has been “nothing about us without us”) should be conducted for professors and relevant staff members. These trainings should educate them about available resources and protocols for properly supporting students. “Staff and faculty need to know about the options they have for accessibility purposes,” one student commented, “and also they need to be able to listen to what the student needs from them, rather than just assume.”

2. The possibility of dropping one class should be expanded beyond first-year drop so that students who face sudden mid-semester crises have more options to manage their academic load. This is a proposition on which faculty members will likely be voting in the coming months.

3. The college should create a “Buddy System” for those in medical housing and ensure that such housing actually meets the needs of students. Right now, students who require medical housing are unable to plan to room with friends. Allowing them to bring even just one friend could ease this inherently alienating process. It is worth noting that resident counselors are allowed to bring along at least one “RC buddy.”

4. The college should also upgrade its “Office of Disability Services” from its current one-staff-member roster and hire additional staff members with greater descriptive representation. The negligence highlighted in many students’ stories is likely due to the fact that Accessibility Services has only one staff member who, in our opinion, lacks the necessary resources needed by the student body. One person put it very bluntly: “Amherst needs an actual ‘Office of Disability Services.’”

5. Finally, the college should conduct a campaign to increase the visibility of existing disability services. All too often, students are unaware of the accommodations that are available, rendering these accommodations useless. These efforts should focus on increasing general public awareness about resources. With the current system, struggling students must find resources hidden across academic departments, information technology, counseling services and student life, placing the burden on the very students these resources are supposed to help.

Beyond these immediately actionable items, we propose a number of other policy changes that help open up the campus to all students and allow the college to follow through on its rhetoric of inclusion and diversity. Amherst should improve the process of requesting mental health accommodations, which would destigmatize and de-mystify this process. Interactions between professors and Accessibility Services should be better coordinated. Professors should be encouraged to re-evaluate and expand their definitions of “participation” to consider all students’ abilities to participate and the college should expand its diversification efforts by hiring professors with disabilities.

The college should make improving physical accessibility of classes and facilities a top priority. As noted above, many students have difficulty getting around campus, and there are few buildings that are truly accessible. The college should ensure that new buildings meet Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards and renovate existing buildings to meet these standards. In the meantime, policies such as an increased “walking period” between classes and daytime on-call student drivers should be considered so that students with physical impediments can more easily travel between back-to-back classes. It is worth noting that many schools, including most in the Five College Consortium (Smith, Mount Holyoke, and University of Massachusetts, Amherst) have already implemented this system. Classroom accessibility technology must also be improved to meet the needs of enrolled students. Amherst College’s Disability Services, especially services including digital communications, should be made fully accessible. Finally, the administration should actively encourage and aid student efforts to educate the student body on students with disabilities and increase training, awareness and advocacy for groups related to disabilities on campus.

Throughout our accessibility campaign, we have attempted to engage the multiple offices within the administration. The underwhelming response we have received echoes the responses other students have described. Two of our members attended an Association of Amherst Students meeting to send out the school-wide survey mentioned earlier. At this AAS meeting, the Dean of Students wanted the administration to review the survey before its release. Despite his comments, the AAS voted to send out the survey. Several of our members were later questioned by the Chief Student Affairs Officer about this.

After the survey, we continued to meet with the Chief Student Affairs Officer, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and the Accessibility Services Manager. During our first meeting, we were promised a memo on discussion and action steps. On follow-up, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer denied that this was ever discussed. During our second meeting, two main administrators left halfway through. Follow-through from the administration was, at best, inadequate. Then again, maybe this should not have come as such a surprise: the administration has been promising an accessibility task force or committee for the past two years, but failed to deliver. For example, over the summer, the Chief Student Affairs Officer promised to form a task force during the fall semester. Now, at the beginning of March, there has still been no action whatsoever.

Overall, the administration’s attitude has translated into a dissonance between disability and diversity as well as between rhetoric and action. Unlike many other minority groups, disabled students have no affinity group. The resource centers, a mainstay for some minority populations, do not actively work to engage disabled students. Campus culture appears resistant to realizing and understanding the challenges disabled students face, an issue many students have expressed concerns about. As a non-disabled student commented, “I observe a not-very-accepting environment for disabled people amongst the student body.” One student very bluntly expressed the difference between the college’s narratives of diversity and the experience many students with disabilities have on campus: “For all this school says about including the diverse students they bring here, they sure as hell don’t do the best job.” Collectively, our proposals would help destigmatize disability and help make Amherst more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

Disability is a vital part of diversity, not something to be stigmatized or ignored. Therefore, disability should be incorporated as an aspect of diversity in the admissions process, including creating a completely accessible application and financial aid process and conducting implicit bias training with admissions officers to reduce instances of bias or discrimination against prospective students with disabilities. This is especially important in a society where ableist biases are the norm and is necessary to ensure disabled students have equal access to an Amherst education. On the Admission Office “Diversity Programs” webpage, the “Dimensions of Diversity” section does not mention disability. It appears as though the Admission Office has made no substantial effort to recruit disabled applicants. For example, the Common Application was made inaccessible for screen reader users, and the college has made no effort to provide an accessible alternative.

Amherst’s mission statement claims that the college will strive to fulfill the needs of its students who identify as disabled so that they may “seek, value, and advance knowledge, [and] engage the world around them.” We hope the administration will listen to the pressing concerns of Amherst students and adequately respond by making these much-needed changes.

We are indebted to Nora Gayer’s article published in The Amherst Student in 2015, which discusses inaccessibility at Amherst. We have received consent for all students’ quotes in this article.

Joshua Ferrer ’18E
Olivia Pinney ’17
Annika Ariel ’19
Logan Seymour ’19E
Casey McQuillan ’18
Phillip Yan ’18
Lexie Freeman ’19
Mariana Lehoucq ’19
Julia Finnerty ’20