To fight ableism, hold yourself and the University accountable

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD | September 6, 2018

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. (6)

The University has often been slow to meet students’ demands or interests.  Student groups such as Refuel Our Future and Students Against Private Police (SAPP) have spoken out against the University for its reluctance to fully divest from fossil fuels and for not incorporating enough student input when proposing the private police force bill. Yet in improving disability services on campus, administrators have been quick to respond to the demands of the student group Advocates for Disability Awareness (ADA).  

In spring 2018, students formed ADA and sent a list of demands to the administration. Some of these demands included reinstating former director of Student Disability Services (SDS) Brent Mosser, expanding the SDS staff and office, creating accessibility maps of the Homewood campus and training faculty and staff on disability awareness. 

ADA members held rallies and privately met with administrators. From early on, these students were optimistic that University officials would try to fulfill their demands and that administrators would be able to work together with students for a common cause. 

Just a few months after ADA released its demands, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger emailed a progress report to Hopkins affiliates over the summer about future initiatives for students with disabilities, which directly address some of ADA’s requests. 

Although administrators did not fulfill the request to reinstate Mosser, the appointment of Terri Massie-Burrell as the new SDS director is a step forward in creating a culture of understanding and compassion towards students with disabilities. In her interview with The News-Letter, Massie-Burrell described the difficulties she experienced while earning her Master’s at Hopkins because there were few accommodations for her disability. As someone who can draw from her own experiences as a Hopkins student with a disability, Massie-Burrell may prove a valuable resource and advocate for current students with disabilities. 

Additionally, introducing an Executive Director of Student Disability Services who will oversee disability services at all nine schools and coordinate with the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) is a sign of progress. Currently, Homewood Campus is the only Hopkins division to have an official disability service office. It is unacceptable that the thousands of Peabody Conservatory and graduate students across the University do not have access to adequate disability services, and cohesion between schools on disability awareness is imperative. 

We also commend the University for its decision to move the SDS office from Garland Hall to the first floor of the Mattin Center in the Offit Building, promising heightened “visibility, accessibility, and space for service to students with disabilities.” This initiative has long been overdue. When the SDS office was on the third floor of Garland, it was difficult for the very students who needed the office’s services to access it. We expect that the increased visibility of the office will translate to collective awareness. 

However, as hopeful as we are for the future of disability services at Hopkins, we are still left with some concerns. 

For one, mandatory training solely for new faculty and staff is not enough. While there is an optional online training for current faculty, they should also undergo mandatory training in order to make sure that all those who interact with students with disabilities have the proper background knowledge and sensitivity.

Student accounts have shown that too many faculty members at Hopkins are unwilling or unaware of how to accommodate students with disabilities. In previous interviews with The News-Letter, sources have reported that some faculty members have failed to submit compliance forms. Other sources have said that faculty members have asked students with disabilities why they’re disabled, what they’re doing to “fix” their disability and what’s wrong with them. These are all instances in which faculty have created a hostile learning environment for our peers. 

It’s unlikely that such faculty members would set aside time for the optional training they clearly need. Making training mandatory as soon as possible should therefore be a priority for SDS. 

Hiring an executive director for disability services across all nine divisions is a start, but this also raises questions. What exactly can the executive director do? What else will University officials do to better equip all of the schools? Will disability service offices still be understaffed? Unless administrators make a serious effort to improve disability services across all divisions, a single new executive director may be ill-equipped to make any meaningful progress on disability services. 

We know that administrators are still in the process of responding to ADA’s demands, and we believe that they are sincere in their desire to accommodate students with disabilities. We hope that in the near future, the University’s good intentions will come with more concrete plans and action. 

We want to know how many more staff members the SDS office at Homewood will hire. We want specific timelines for initiatives, including the construction of the SDS office and campus accommodations like accessibility maps. We want to know what measures the University will take to address the lack of resources on campuses other than Homewood. 

Moreover, we’d like to know how administrators will enforce these new initiatives. How can they ensure that faculty, staff and students help create an inclusive environment? 

Ultimately, however, fighting ableism – discrimination in favor of able-bodied people – is not just the University’s responsibility. Nor is it only that of students with disabilities. If you’re a student without a disability, it’s also your responsibility. 

Most of us at Hopkins are privileged in not having to think about disability accommodations, or even think about the challenges our peers with disabilities face. As the University moves forward with its initiatives, it’s time we change that. If we’re to successfully undo ableism at Hopkins, staying ignorant and passive is not an option. 

Instead, voice your support. Call out those who alienate your peers, whether they are professors or your friends. Attend an ADA rally – just being there makes a difference. Examine the ways you may have perpetuated and continue to perpetuate ableism. Those of us with privilege must hold ourselves and the University accountable. 

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