This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What initially got you interested in this work and where were you before Amherst?
A: My experience at Hamilton College as an undergraduate student really opened me up to the world of power, privilege and oppression, individual identities, the complexities of those identities and the ways in which we have very different lived experiences and realities. I ended up transitioning from being pre-med to being what was called then a women's studies major — now it would be women and gender studies. I identified that I had a deep passion for social justice education and activism. But I was also simultaneously a student Resident Advisor and fell in love with that type of work. And throughout my next steps, both professionally and academically, I found that my passion was best realized through student affairs type work. So I worked in an accessibility services office at UMass Amherst, I worked in the accessibility service office at Dartmouth College and also as a dean. So really, it was my identified passion for social justice, and in particular, how that can really transform student experiences at smaller liberal arts colleges, which, historically, were not doing a great job on this front and were significantly behind large state schools and community colleges.
Q: What brought you to Amherst specifically?
A: I spent a little bit over nine years at Dartmouth and for me, it was about getting back into a position where I felt I could try to make a difference and where I aligned with an institution's current culture. What you learn is that higher [education] institutions have variable missions, and some have more of a statement around diversity and inclusivity, but there's not the implementation or the direct action behind it. And what I saw from researching Amherst was, since the Amherst Uprising, there is a renewed commitment [to diversity and inclusion]. And I was seeing that commitment across the board, not in just one area, but coming from the president, coming from the faculty, coming from student affairs. [I saw that] this is the ideal time to be at Amherst where change can happen for the better for our students. So that was hugely attractive to me.
And then of course, what you learn throughout your professional experience is which pieces you most enjoy, which pieces you least enjoy and what type of institutional size is best for you. So I had the experience at a large public school with 30,000 students at UMass Amherst. Then I had the experience of being at Dartmouth with 4,500 students, both in the direct student support [role] and then also in more of a senior leadership role where it's more about policies and procedures and supporting the departments with what they need. With [small] schools like Amherst and Hamilton, to me, there's just a higher level of quality of connection with students, where you can really engage broadly and in-depth on what it is that students are pursuing academically; what their interests are; what their student activities and clubs and organizational interests are; how that can help them prepare for their next steps professionally with their career pursuits. And to me, that's what it's about.
Q: What is the role of accessibility services at a college like Amherst?
A: I think what most people might not be aware of is that accessibility service offices emerged out of the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, that passed in 1990. What the ADA says is that we must provide reasonable accommodations based on the disability-related circumstances. So what it looks like [on the day-to-day] is we have an interactive student meeting to get a sense of what their experiences are and what the circumstances are that they've been living with. So it could be a chronic health condition. It could be a mental health diagnosis or [multiple] diagnoses. It could be a physical condition. And at schools like Amherst, what you see is that there's a lot of invisible disabilities. And so it can feel like you're almost alone — it can feel real isolating. I think disabilities are still significantly stigmatized and marginalized and the work to address ableism is not often centered across higher education and within student communities. So my goal is really to help raise awareness, partner with students, partner with faculty and staff to make sure that disability and inclusion and access are central to all of our discussions that have already been spearheaded and started.
Q: You’ve noted that disability justice is the primary lens for your work. Could you briefly describe the essence of what disability justice is?
A: Yeah, absolutely. So in order to describe disability justice, I have to start by explaining some of the other models [of disability] that we see in our society. The first model that we need to consider is the "medical spiritual model" of disability, which looked at people with disabilities as a result of a sin committed by your parents or a prior family member passed down to you. Definitely not a positive, inclusive way of thinking about things. You were shunned; you were outcast; you were put away in a hospital or a psychiatric facility.
Then we shifted from that model to a “medical model”, which still saw people with disabilities as someone or something to be cured. So an example in our local area is the state hospitals that used to exist next to Smith College. People were admitted there and they were tortured, to try to cure them of their disabilities. Then we shift to the “social model,” which starts to improve in that they recognized there were a variety of differences among us, and their goal is to provide accommodations that would increase independence for people with disabilities in society. However, rehabilitation is still the primary piece of the social model. What does rehabilitation mean? We're still trying to fix it in a certain way. Disability justice says we're not meaning to fix any person. [Instead,] we need to think about culture. We need to think about physical structures. We need to think about the ways that those built-in barriers create disabilities and disabling conditions. For example, if you are a person who uses a wheelchair, and you want to go to dinner with friends, and there's no accessibility ramp to get into that restaurant, you've now been disabled by that restaurant. If there is a ramp there, that person has full access to that experience. How do we create barriers? How do we perpetuate disabling circumstances through our physical environment, through our attitudes and through our behaviors?
Q: How does disability justice fit into your role as director of accessibility services?
A: I will be focusing very, very thoughtfully on trying to remove barriers as much as possible. So I've reached out to faculty and I've been in faculty meetings to understand what their experiences have been, what their understanding of accessibility and accommodations are, what support they need to better be able to effectively support students in the classroom. I've been engaging with students as I'm able to. A lot of the student engagement is about literally, "I need this accommodation. Here are my medical circumstances, here's the flare up I'm experiencing, can you help me get X, Y and Z implemented as soon as possible?" So that hasn't allowed for me to have the time [for broader goals] just yet — I will absolutely get there. I would like to have more community conversations with students beyond the Disability Justice 101 program that we just had, because hearing from students is so important on this front to really think about what are the areas that we need to prioritize right now, this year, next year, the year after, to continue to move the college forward, where disability and ableism are central to every conversation and not on the periphery?
Q: The pandemic created a totally new learning environment when it forced everything to go remote. How has that affected accessibility?
A: What we've seen is that [the pandemic] catapulted higher education — specifically schools that have only taught in person — a decade ahead. We're now utilizing actual best practices [for accessibility], practices that lead you closer to universal design by having faculty make more materials readily available and accessible to individuals, by having the lectures recorded so that you can listen to it multiple times if needed to fill any gaps. [The faculty has been able to implement] extra-time testing since [tests can be taken] remotely. It's actually increased access in terms of access to materials content, the modalities.
What we've seen, however, is there's other negative impacts that the pandemic has had. It has highlighted and exacerbated pre-existing structural inequalities based on our identities and the families we were born into. So we have seen students that are from lower income backgrounds not have a space that is distraction-free. Not having access to the resources that are here can also impact you. So what if you are a person from a family that is vehemently opposed to counseling support, and you know that the counseling has been helpful to you while an Amherst student, but now you are remote and out of state and you can't have Zoom calls with a counselor because your family is opposed to it? So we've seen an amplification of existing structural inequalities impacting our students, and that directly then impacts the person's quality of life and their learning and their performance.
Q: What are the current goals of the Office of Accessibility Services and what are the initiatives towards those goals?
A: The first is to learn from the students what the barriers have been. I've heard through students a number of things. For example, campus being really hilly is incredibly inaccessible. And it's not just for students with lifelong disability-related conditions — we also support students with temporary conditions. So if a student has broken their leg, and they have to use crutches or a mobility aid, then being at the top of the [First-Year] Quad and having to go get [Covid] tested three times a week can be a huge challenge.
Another [example is] housing and it's not a challenge, but it's more that campuses don't have infinite number of spaces, and certainly spaces that would meet every single student's need. During J-Term and prior to J-Term, [Residential Life] did an inventory [of housing spaces]. We need to know which rooms have carpet [since] carpet can perpetuate allergens for individuals with severe allergies. We need to know where the rooms are and how many rooms there are that are available without carpets. We need to know rooms where an air conditioner can be installed for someone that has moderate to severe asthma and must have it for sleeping. Knowing the inventory and knowing what exists and the possibilities of each space can improve our ability to better support students.
Q: What has been your favorite and least favorite part of the job so far?
A: My favorite has been meeting students and helping them understand how Accessibility Services can support them. My least favorite has been that the pandemic keeps us all [apart]. While we're able to connect via Zoom, it's just not the same as being able to be all together in person, to keep student organizations who are connected to disability-related themes in some way, moving forward and making a difference. It really put certain things on hold and kept us disconnected.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I have a Covid puppy. His name is Otis and he is six months. He's a miniature dachsund, black and silver dappled and I have a 15-year-old dachsund who's a normal size, so he actually looks like a giant now to me next to Otis. And my wife and I like to go for hikes and explore the wilderness with the dogs. Otis has fallen in love with nature and trails and water so we're doing a lot of puppy training. I also love to read. I remain that type of Hamilton College student — I'm constantly seeking to know: What are current practices? What is the research showing about student experiences in different college contexts? What's the future of higher education? I'm also working on the fourth edition of "Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice." I'm the co-editor and co-author of the classism chapter. So I’m continuing that good work as well, with some colleagues.
Rebecca Picciotto read more
Rebecca Picciotto is the Editor-in-Chief of The Student. She is in the Class of 2022 and is studying philosophy and math.