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Forum highlights issues with accessibility on campus

Members of the Brandeis community shared experiences with disability and frustrations with accessibility on campus at a community forum, where administrators pledged their support in resolving these issues, on Tuesday.

From the transportation and housing available to students with disabilities, to the quality of food labels in the dining hall, to the amount of paperwork needed to prove learning disabilities and more, members of the Brandeis community described accessibility on campus as inadequate.

“This is unacceptable,” said Sasha Manus ’21, who shared her experiences as a student with cerebral palsy and called on the university to do a better job meeting its professed dedication to social justice and inclusivity. Manus described being locked out of classes due to a lack of accessible buildings, being hospitalized after having to use a step stool during lab and having to wait weeks for appointments with Student Accessibility Support (SAS).

She said she had been hospitalized after eating food from the dining hall and had been called a “brain-damaged twat” by a professor when she tried to get a class moved to a wheelchair accessible classroom.

“I chose Brandeis because I love the community, but every time I am here,” she said, “I feel like a second-class citizen.”

Other students and community members shared similar experiences. Chris Christian ’19, who described herself as a student with a “connective tissue disorder and a neurological condition” and who sometimes uses a wheelchair but other times can walk with just a cane, said she has gotten locked inside buildings while trying to get from one elevator to the next.

Anna Henkin, a PhD candidate in the biochemistry department, talked about how being a graduate student means existing in that somewhat “invisible space” of not being an undergrad stating that “it is honestly extra hard for us to get any support with disabilities.” She described herself as having both learning and physical disabilities and said that she doesn’t feel comfortable telling her professors about her disabilities.

“The things that professors say make me feel like if I ever told them I had a disability, they would never take me seriously. I would never get good projects. I would never get to publish papers,” she said. She also spoke about difficulties getting to class without excessive planning and difficulties communicating with the disabilities office.

“The culture cannot be so hostile,” said Henkin. “So hostile when you admit you are imperfect. We are all, obviously, imperfect. But having vulnerability does not make you weak, and that is the message that is always being sent.”

The forum was the result of an open letter sent to President Ron Liebowitz last semester by the group Addressing Accessibility at Brandeis, an advocacy group founded by students within the disability community at Brandeis.

The letter aimed to start a conversation about accessibility on campus. “This is not a letter to tell you we are angry,” the letter states. “This is a letter to tell you that we as a Brandeis community are hurt, harmed, and demoralized when not everyone has access to this campus.”

In a subsequent meeting with Liebowitz’s team after the letter was sent, the group gave a list of departments, representatives and faculty members that they hoped would be able to attend the event, including: Beth Rodgers-Kay (SAS), Ombuds, Dr. Joy von Steiger (Brandeis Counseling Center), Matthew Sheehy (University Librarian), the Department of Community Living (DCL), Sodexo and the Academic Services Department.

Professors Steven Gulley (HSSP), Neil Simister (BIO), James Morris (BIO) and Maria de Boef Miara (BIO) were also invited as they could “include and provide meaningful insight to the discussion.”

Gulley, who has been at Brandeis since 1997—initially as a doctoral student—has been a wheelchair user since he was a teenager and reflected on his time in college prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). “My experience at Brandeis was filled with as many empowering things as it was with difficult things,” said Gulley during the forum.

While Gulley identified with a lot of the students, he was also saddened by the manner that Brandeis was being talked about. “There is history here, folks,” said Gulley. “And I hope you can take time to study it, but it will not make this pain go away, but it will keep us grounded in where we came from. And that might help us know a bit about where we are going.”

Many of the previously mentioned departments and individuals were in attendance at the forum, including Liebowitz, Provost Lisa Lynch and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stewart Uretsky. Mark Brimhall-Vargas, the Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion moderated the forum alongside Kim Godsoe, the Associate Provost for Academic Affairs.

Lynch provided affirmations to all members of the Brandeis community that the Provost’s office will be looking at “developing a set of accessibility indicators that measure the progress we are making on this campus.”

“Accessibility is a shared responsibility on this campus,” Lynch said, “that starts from the top.”

Rachel Steinberg ’20 and Emily Dana ’19, two of the main organizers of the forum, were both disappointed by the outcome of the event. In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot prior to the forum, Steinberg said she wanted the forum to “start a dialogue … and clear up misconceptions and open communication between students and faculty.”

Both Steinberg and Dana had expected the format of the forum to be open for all concerned students and members of the Brandeis community to voice their concerns to members of the administration, rather than the small group discussions that were utilized at the event.

Liebowitz was the final speaker at the forum, voicing words of gratitude to the student organizers of the forum and all the people in attendance who partook in the conversation. Real-Time Captioning (CART) Services were also available to provide increased accessibility for hard of hearing individuals, so that they could more easily participate in the discussion.

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