By SHELBY KAPPLER
In the past few months, issues of diversity and representation on campus have surfaced, including articles on gender equality and social class. These are popular and important concerns. However, there is one voice missing, and no one seems to notice: disability. This has been a difficult article for me to write, as I’ve had a sense of ‘systemic blackmail’ that comes from nowhere specifically. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is common advice, and while this is not what I intend to do, I fear it may come across as such. . I want those who have helped me to know that I greatly appreciate everything they’ve done, and that I would be struggling if not for them. That said, this article is a commentary on my experiences and what I’ve noticed during my year as an exchange student at UCU.
Upon arriving, I was surprised to see no other students with disabilities (SWD) around campus. After talking with different faculty members, I learned that I am the first student with a visual impairment to attend UCU in all its 18 years. I wondered how was this so. Obviously students with visual impairments exist in the Netherlands; they go to school and pursue post-secondary education. And the university doesn’t discriminate based on disability – right? Maybe not on purpose.
The problem is that this campus is not set-up to handle students with disabilities. Even though SWD are not deliberately discriminated against, they are not made to feel very welcome either. Due to the lack of resources available, it can be very difficult for a student who needs additional accommodations to be successful.
One may not realize the full extent of this, but navigating a school setting with a visual impairment can be quite difficult. Getting to and from classes is usually easy- as long as classes don’t move and no unexpected obstacles arise. In class, I must seat myself in such a way that I am close enough to see what little I can on the screen, but far enough from windows to avoid glare. Finding audio textbooks or accessible scholarly articles (readable by text-to-speech software) is nearly impossible, as is watching movies with subtitles. Interaction, too, is difficult because I cannot recognize faces, make eye contact, or see non-verbal gestures. These are all things necessary to fully participate in academic and campus life, but are often taken for granted.
At my home university in Wyoming, USA, a state-mandated department called University Disability Support Services (UDSS) helps with most of these things. UDSS works with qualified students to arrange accommodations and provide resources. The staff are trained in how to help specific disabilities and will communicate with professors on how to handle different situations. The department stays up-to-date on the latest assistive technology, even lending this equipment for student use. It is UDSS’s job to ensure that each student gets the individual attention they need to level the playing field.
Further, disability is present on the University of Wyoming campus. A student organization called Abilities advocates for the rights of students with disabilities on campus, and works closely with the event planning staff, the accessibility committee, and administration on these issues. UW also offers a minor in disability studies, which is coordinated by the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities. These various organizations ensure the integration of SWD and keep disability a relevant topic.
While everyone at UCU is very willing to help, the school does not have the resources to accommodate a visual impairment. It is not a lack of kindness or readiness to learn on the helper’s part, but a lack of know how and experience. Therefore, the pressure of finding solutions falls on my shoulders. I become stressed and fall behind while trying to find a solution or “make do” with what I’ve got. If I can’t resolve the issue on my own, I feel like a burden asking for help from professors or classmates who have their own workload to deal with. It is a long, very involved process to get the materials I need, resulting in much frustration and inconvenience on my end.
I propose that if the university had a specific person or department dedicated to disability support, the system would be much more streamlined. In theory, this position would have connections within and outside of UCU and be knowledgeable about reasonable accommodations. UCU administration could reach out to national disability related organizations for information on disability studies and networking, or could contact special schools for SWD in the Netherlands for advice on assistive technology and teaching support. The person in this new position would acquire assistive technology for student use, check for accessibility of class materials and make adjustments if necessary, and overall ensure a low stress experience for the students involved. They could also serve as a consultant for accessibility at administrative or student hosted events. Advertising this support would show students with disabilities and other universities that UCU is inviting and accepting of everyone. UCU would increase its diversity, promote competition between universities, and provide opportunities for students with disabilities to be recognized.
In the short term, UCU faculty and students can focus on a culture change within the bubble. It should be clear that SWD are welcome at all campus events. This may include reserving seats toward the front, advertising in multiple formats, or offering hard copies of scripts. Hosts should expect SWD to attend and prepare accordingly. Using these inclusive practices will show that disability is not an afterthought, but that careful consideration of SWD was taken into consideration during planning. It is also important to keep in mind that it is not a concrete term. Disability encompasses more than permanent impairments, but also temporary injuries or illness. For change to happen, we must recontextualize disability and understand it is a common part of everyday life. Inclusion is not simply a practice; it is a frame of mind.