Administrators update community on accessibility

October 4, 2019

Several student and faculty groups informed the community about the changes in the university’s accessibility in the Shapiro Campus Center on Thursday. Representatives from these groups each spoke for five minutes about the updates and plans that their groups face. 

Dean of Academic Service Erika Smith said that on Sept. 16, the university posted a national search for a new director of student accessibility support to succeed former Director Beth Rogers-Kay. Rogers-Kay, whose retirement was announced in an email on Sept. 6, will be leaving the university after 14 years. Smith said that there were a “few hiccups” with the transition but that the team in place has been doing a good job.

“[Rogers-Kay] was in conversation with me about it,” said Smith, who was Rogers-Kay’s direct supervisor. “I worked with the team, and continue to work with the team, to shepherd the transition. She was great in helping us to transition in the beginning of the academic year. There was a little bit of messiness because there was a little bit of uncertainty in the beginning of the year, but that’s really all I can share.”

Scott Lapinski, accessibility specialist for graduate students, said that Student Accessibility Support (SAS) is trying to raise awareness for its services. The department has been tabling and having a student panel, a new link on the website for accessibility issues, and faculty development. The SAS’s services seek “to promote the growth of undergraduate and graduate students through individual connection with students, campus-wide initiatives, and collaboration with others in the Brandeis community,” according to the Brandeis University website.

A graduate student in the audience, however, said that a lot of the resources that were mentioned were targeted at undergraduate students and that graduate students “weren’t welcomed.” She said a lot of graduate students don’t know that they are allowed to get accommodations. 

 Vice Provost of Student Affairs Raymond Ou said that the current mechanism requesting accommodations is being evaluated. He also said that Debra Poaster, medical director of the Brandeis Health Center, will have a more “abbreviated” schedule for the rest of the semester, and that an announcement will be released soon with more information. 

Vice President of Operations Dick Reynolds gave examples of “one-offs” that the university has been doing, such as making the Starr Plaza in upper campus more accessible, within the “combined rubric of looking at everything in terms of universal design principles” and within the requirements that are enforced by “various local and state authorities.”

“I think you’re all abundantly aware that this is topographically a difficult campus, so we’re also constantly looking at just sidewalks and conditions of sidewalks and alike,” said Reynolds. “And frankly, to make it clear, our people can’t be everywhere all the time. We need your help. If you see something, let us know.”

Reynolds said that the Task Force 4, the fourth task force laid out as a part of President Liebowitz’s framework for the future, is also hopefully nearing the end. He said that this program created plans for the near-term developments on campus including renovations, creation and demolition of campus buildings. These plans will support the recommendations that came from the first three task forces, according to Reynolds.

Reynolds also said he will be succeeded by Lois Stanley on Oct. 15. 

Matthew Sheehy, the university librarian, talked about new accessibility developments such as access to a program that allows books to be ordered in a digital format and having a service that delivers optical character recognition (OCR) documents so that they can be read to you. 

Sarah Ferguson, Brandeis’ web accessibility specialist, said the parking office has added an email address so that it can be digitally contacted and that there is a new report button so that you can report concerns on Sixty percent of the main website is now accessible, and they are continuing to make the website more accessible, according to Ferguson. She also said that OCR software is being added to scanners on campus. The software is currently on scanners in the Gryzmish Center and the Mandel Center and five other places on campus will have the software put in. 

Senior Associate Provost Kim Godsoe gave a list of many initiatives that have begun in the school, including increased resource accessibility for people doing research and many physical accessibility updates that have been made in the Heller School.

“We know that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done, but I also want to highlight that we are trying to make steady inroads in a lot of places,” said Godsoe. She said that the accommodations are not limited to students but also available to faculty and staff. 

Sandy Ho, a research associate at the Lurie Institute, said that Lurie has regular speakers, and upcoming speakers include Rebecca Cockly, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at American Progress, who was awarded as 2020 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. 

Sonia Jurado, inaugural director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, said that her goal is to think about how goals can be addressed in the future. She said she thinks that a 504 Committee would be the next best step and that she would like to hear from members of the community that would be good for the committee, ideally before the end of the semester and that she can be reached through the Office of Equal Opportunity. 

“I wish I had known that these resources were available, and there can be amazing progress that can be made, and if students don’t know how to ask the right questions, ask the right people, find the right link, we’re not going to be able to make our own materials accessible.” Shoshi Finkel ’20, one of the original students that drafted the letter to President Liebowtiz asking that their accessibility concerns be addressed. She said that she appreciated that their concerns have been taken seriously. 

Jurado said that, like other 504 Committees on other campuses, they are looking at how to best make that information available to everyone.

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