STUDENT VOICES: Making Room: Accommodations and Disability at Southwestern
In my senior year of high school, one of the discs in my spine developed a severe herniation, resulting in chronic nerve pain and loss of mobility in my back and extending down my left side. I was understandably nervous about navigating college with this condition while maintaining my GPA. Since enrolling at Southwestern University, my overall experience with accommodations and disability has been extremely positive, with my needs being met promptly and with relatively little effort on my part, at least where the administration. However, because Southwestern is not a state institution, a great deal of accommodation specifics are left up to the professor’s discretion. Several of my peers have expressed frustration with the school’s policies, having had to struggle to have their needs met, often in vain.
I reached out to Jennifer Smull, the Assistant Director of Academic Success, to learn more about S.U.’s accommodations policies. In her role, she works with students, faculty, and staff to ensure that no qualified disabled students are denied the benefit of or excluded from participation in Southwestern’s programs, or otherwise subjected to discrimination.
“Southwestern University is committed to ensuring that all students have equal access to University programs and services,” Jennifer told me. “My goal is to make the process as simple and clear as possible. I welcome feedback from all campus constituents on how I, and the Center for Academic Success as a whole, might improve our services for students– with or without disabilities.”
The university requires documentation of medical disability for most students to receive accommodations, but Jennifer makes an effort to work with students who are unable to visit an off-campus doctor or establish documentation of their disability.
“I recognize that official documentation can be a barrier for some students…” Jennifer added. “Therefore, I also weigh students’ self-reports of their experiences pretty heavily and can usually offer some provisional accommodations as they work on gathering documentation.”
The Center for Academic Success has treated me with respect by fulfilling my needs promptly when they were able. Without their support I would not have been able to continue at S.U., but several of my peers have had a more tumultuous time. I reached out to give them the opportunity to share their experiences. It should be noted that these students only represent a fraction of my disabled peers, and I am confident that the vast majority of those who I have not spoken with have been fully accommodated. With that being said, the experiences shared below come from students who had a medical requirement for accommodations and felt that their needs were not met.
Because the individuals I interviewed for this piece may or may not still be enrolled at S.U., I will refer to these interviewees as Students 1, 2, 3, and 4 for the sake of preserving their privacy.
“I have personally had excellent experiences with the accommodation department at SU,” Student 1 told me. “Not so much through the professors, but the accommodations department themselves have been wonderful. I’ve encountered difficulties with communicating with my professors the gravity of my situation and how it affects me. Many professors just don’t seem to care or even try to empathize. It’s been hard with trying to work through amputation and chemotherapy and everything else when certain professors just don’t seem to give a s**t– excuse my language.”
“I personally feel as if it’s mostly due to the professor’s,” they said, in reference to the cause of these issues. “The academic accommodations department does all they can to work with you, but ultimately it is up to the professors to work with you. Additionally, I do not feel as if there is enough publicity regarding the accommodations department. A lot of fellow students I know with disabilities or struggles don’t even know that the accommodations department exists. So if they try to explain their situation to their professors and receive a negative response, they often don’t know where else to go.”
Student 1 also proposed some possible steps the University could take to become more inclusive as a whole. “The accommodations department should be more widely publicized,” they suggested, “so all students with disabilities can take advantage of it. Additionally, I feel that professors should be required to take some type of seminar on how to best support their students with disabilities.”
While Student 1’s main issues were with the faculty, Student 2 has struggled in her interactions with the administration as well.
“I had a professor who didn’t believe me that I was having a hard time understanding him,” Student 2 told me. “He told me to go to the doctor, and I found out I’m hard of hearing. He was visibly irritated when I told him I now had a documented disability, and in a class I had with him later, he refused to let me retake a quiz on material from an unsubtitled video. His excuse was that I should have been able to make the subtitles work based on the instructions I was given, but I ended up needing a different set of instructions and couldn’t get the issue resolved on time. This was in a very difficult class where every point matters. I know that Ms. Smull had to intervene at least once in this professor’s decision making process regarding other disabled students that semester. At the end of my freshman year, I arranged to move off campus so that I could feel secure in my living space. As a victim of home invasion sexual assault, the idea that staff, RAs, maintenance, etc could access my space at any time caused me daily anxiety. Ms. Smull, the health and counseling departments, and housing all but refused to work with me, stating that I needed to be currently seeing a therapist on a regular basis to prove that this accommodation was necessary. Another student suggested I speak to Ms. Shelley Story directly, something that was never mentioned by any of the professionals I was consulting about this issue, and she was able to grant me the accommodation almost immediately. I still don’t understand why I had to go above the heads of other employees to get this approved.” The third student I spoke to reflected with frustration on their time at S.U. with clear frustration, having had accommodations– or the lack of them– affect several facets of their life.
“My overall experience has been fairly difficult,” Student 3 told me. “As for professors and staff on campus, they treat me with the utmost respect and understanding. However,” they added, “administrations, academic success, university relations, etc. have basically treated me like a pawn. I withdrew for a semester for physical issues. When I came back, I had a service dog. I asked for a room for myself for accommodations, and I put Bob Flinders in contact with Jennifer Smull by email. I was put on the second floor of Herman Brown, a building with no elevator. I use a wheelchair often throughout the year. I had to lock it in the kitchen because there was no way to get it up the stairs. My service dog has been falsely accused of tripping or threatening people. He has acted out twice, the entire time he’s been on campus, and all he did was bark without stopping. It went over my head and directly to the dean of students, without contacting me. When they did contact me, it turned out no complaints came from professors. They all were false claims made by administration. I feel like it was done to silence me.” Student 3 also cited specific issues with a member of the S.A.P. staff. “He doesn’t respond to emails. When he was, I was able to meet with him. However, I was falsely told that my finaid should be reinstated. I’ve had to S.A.P. appeal for three semesters because of his lack of truth and because of his inability to contact students. I think all these problems are caused by administration and certain departments. I think that professors and staff (maintenance and food services, etc.) are amazing! They are so helpful and kind. All the other departments that are supposed to be there for students do almost nothing to help. I think we need a new person to handle accommodations, as who we have now doesn’t do a good job. This university is not disability friendly. I think that they need to create a disabled student panel to talk about these issues. Problem is, I don’t know who they’d ask. It’s almost as if the school is too far gone when it comes to care for students, especially those with disabilities. I want to see it fixed before I graduate.”
The fourth and final student I interviewed had, like me, a mostly smooth experience during their time here.
“When I first went to SU, my helpful advocate was the Assistant Director of of Academic Success, and not really anyone else. They went on to study law, and I was sad to see them go. A new person came to do the job, but they didn’t really put in as much effort in making sure my unique needs had a voice outside of my own. SU lacked a disability community that I desperately needed as a disabled person embarking on my life without the support of family…I was alone in my fights for accommodations against the many departments I had to work with and this only got worse over time.”
Student 4 went on to provide more specific examples from their experience, particularly in the academic sphere. Students with disabilities often need accommodations in order to complete their coursework and, if faculty fail to provide these accommodations, the students’ grades can suffer as a result.
“For the most part, testing accommodations went smoothly— mostly, I assume because there’s a considerable population of students with invisible disabilities…I was left to struggle against the very people in charge of my grades and much of my future. My professors literally refused to believe me at times. That said, I had a couple of professors who were understanding, and I will remember their respect to my overcoming barriers.”
“The department I chose to major in had very little to no content on disability incorporated into the humanities-based lessons,” they continued. “I ended up hearing virtually nothing about disability from faculty and it should have come as no surprise when I wasn’t met with support when I struggled from lack of accommodations from the faculty in the department.”
Student 4 viewed these struggles as minor in comparison to what they faced during their last couple of months at Southwestern.
“Of all my woes with the school, I only discovered how petty and ableist the administration can in my most stressful semester – Capstone. I’ve heard that the school is in deep financial trouble. This coupled with the misconception that disabled people’s accommodations are much higher than they actually are, probably was the justification that the administration used to circulate the news I’d be seeking communication with them. They ended up ganging up and refused to meet with me.
When asked how the university might improve their accommodations policies, Student 4 provided me with several possible routes that could be explored.
“I believe that there can be a lot more representation of disabled students and faculty, and actually listen to our requests instead of acting interested only to abandon it all with no results. I’ve met a lot of individuals with different types of disabilities on campus, but they never had a cohesive group or contact point outside of the person who was supposed to advocate with us about accommodations. The school had many events that were not inclusive of wheelchair users like myself – including but not limited to Homecoming on the grass each year. I believe that the school has a lot to work on – from making wheelchair accessible buttons on doors for us to use, or have representations of disabled people around the school, and so forth.”
As I mentioned before, I’m certain a great deal of disabled students at S.U. have their needs met promptly and with ease. The statements above come exclusively from students who have had issues with accommodations. These interviewees are not a comprehensive survey of disability at Southwestern.
That being said, I think the anonymous testimony above could be an indicator of wider problem with inclusivity that many schools– S.U. among them– face. If there is even one student, let alone four, being disadvantaged by their needs not being met, can we really call this school accessible?