Letter sent to Liebowitz calls for reform on accessibility

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November 9, 2018

The group Addressing Accessibility at Brandeis sent a letter asking for an open forum to discuss accessibility on campus to President Ron Liebowitz this Thursday. The letter questioned whether Brandeis was truly accessible to those within the disability community.

The letter was authored entirely by the members of the disability community at Brandeis. The letter was followed by over five pages of signatures from members of the community and advocates. Another document, which includes testimony from anonymous students with disabilities about their personal experiences with accommodations at Brandeis, was also sent to Liebowitz.

The letter begins by describing the disability community, which makes up roughly one tenth of the Brandeis community, according to the letter. It clarifies that the statement doesn’t come out of anger but rather says that the Brandeis community is “hurt, harmed, and demoralized when not everyone has access on this campus.”

The letter continues, “We are baffled at how a school with Brandeis’ mission to be welcoming can be so exclusive of those with disabilities or participation restrictions. More than anything, this is a letter asking for our voices to be heard, seen, or signed.”

It goes on to describe how an open forum to discuss campus accessibility should be held. It states that administrative faculty, the accessibility support team and at least one representative from the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at the Heller school should be present for the forum.

The letter connects improvements in accessibility policy to the mission of Brandeis. “We understand how expensive of a process this is and are asking what we can do now to pave a path for later generations of students,” it states.

It continued, “Brandeis has shown willingness to work with its minority populations time and time again in regards to activism. Conversation has happened through student activists in many Brandeis movements, and we intend for it to happen here. At its core, our message is simple: when access is increased for all students with disabilities, Brandeis will move closer to truly fulfilling its mission.”

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Rachel Steinberg ’20, who contributed to the letter, described her struggle with getting accommodations for her connective tissue disorder. Steinberg asked for medical underload so she could maintain her GPA but was denied.

Steinberg also does not have accommodations for being hard of hearing because for an accomodation letter to be given to a student, they must have a doctor’s note regarding their disability from the last six months. Since Steinberg’s hearing is not expected to improve, she does not have a recent doctor’s note and no longer has access to the doctor who diagnosed her.

Another contributor, Shoshannah Finkel ’20 described how the accommodation letters don’t always help. “If you look at the wording of those letters, it’s actually a suggestion to the professor. They don’t have to follow what it [the letter] lays out. The only thing they are bound to is giving students extended time for tests,” she said in an interview to The Hoot. “I’ve had a lot of professors not even look at the details of my letter.”

Finkel continued, “It just feels that they are so apathetic to my needs and my academic success. I’ve had a professor in my chemistry class tell me to just quit because I just couldn’t do it.”

Finkel described how the idea to write the letter began, with a post on Facebook talking about how inaccessible the Brandeis campus is. After she got comments with similar complaints, Jack Rubinstein ’20 formed a Facebook group chat and Leah Channen ’20 formed a Facebook group shortly thereafter in September.

From there, many students contributed to editing the letter and then signatures were collected after Oct. 22. Rubinstein emphasized that they tried to circulate the letter through different cultural communities at Brandeis, as disabilities affect everyone. He also said that he understands that money can be a obstacle to making Brandeis more accessible but knows that there are some cheap and free options, like a public forum, that can help.

Emily Dana ’19, a contributor to the letter, emphasized that part of the purpose of the letter was to show that students who felt they couldn’t stand up for themselves were being fought for. “I want other people to see that someone is fighting for them even if they don’t feel comfortable being the one to put their story in or being the one to stand up,” she said to The Hoot.

Steinberg also emphasized that “we’re not here to be angry” and that the letter was meant to create a better future for students with disabilities. Dana reiterated this point, saying, “We’re hoping for a better tomorrow, not a better today.”

Dan Parker ’21, a student with a disability, told The Hoot that there is an accessibility support team on campus that assists students with disabilities to ensure that all their needs are met and able to navigate campus more easily. “They make sure that students can have access to their work, make sure that the school is accessible, make sure that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is being followed at the school, making sure that school has accessibility in mind and making sure that students have practical access to other aspects of campus life.”

When asked if he believed that the university was accessible to students, Parker stated that, “I think that the school tries to but fails to.”

Parker highlighted on the issues of accessibility, especially for first years. He noted that Massell Quad was the only area on campus that was wheelchair accessible, yet the accessible suite had no hot water or heat during the winters. He also described how the entirety of North Quad is inaccessible to some students with some disabilities because of the stairs.

He also stressed the fact that accessibility is a very generalized term. The accessibility for a blind individual is very different than an individual who uses a wheelchair.

The letter included an attachment of five pages of testimony from anonymous students about their personal struggles with disability access on campus.

One student described their experience with Gastroparesis, a chronic illness that causes them to become very weak and unable to get around campus easily. They requested that they be allowed to park behind their residence hall to ease this struggle with transportation but received a delayed refusal from the parking office, and when they tried to take the disability van, they discovered it was “extremely unreliable and hard to get in touch with.”

A student described how they were told to give up on their college career because they were “clearly incapable of finishing [their] college degree,” and another student described how they hadn’t heard from the new accessibility advisor and hadn’t received their disability letters this semester.

One student, who described themselves as legally blind, said that professors had repeatedly ignored their accommodations for large print materials and their difficulty getting to the Health Center and Brandeis Counseling Center due to the cracked and uneven pavement.

The authors hoped that these personal accounts would exemplify the shortcomings of accessibility accommodations at Brandeis, said the letter.

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