Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 28, 2023

Students with disabilities report exclusion and discrimination on campus

By MOLLY GAHAGEN | October 28, 2021


Students with disabilities at Hopkins have reported difficulties in receiving accommodations from Student Disability Services (SDS) and a campus culture that is not inclusive. SDS is responsible for providing services like assistive technology, mentoring services, accommodations and accommodation letters that are shared with instructors.

Foundational issues with accommodations

Senior Caroline Cerilli defined two categories where issues have been presented for students with disabilities. 

“The first one is very foundational and just making sure that disabled people have access to the same material as every other non-disabled student. This is just a matter of basic accommodations,” she said. “The second would be actually creating an inclusive culture where the disabled can really be part of the community and participate and be relevant and not just have to fit into the culture.” 

Cerilli noted how the University’s self-advocacy model in requesting accommodations has proven to be a challenge for students, as many of them don’t know exactly what they need and might be unsure of what kinds of accommodations would work best for them. She noted that this onus being placed on the student gives them little leeway.

Students also mentioned how the portal where students request accommodations, Accommodate, initially also required students to send their accommodation requests directly to professors.

Sophomore Zandy Wong claimed how some students found it uncomfortable to disclose their disabled status to their professors.

“With the new system you would have to send out those requests for accommodation letters to professors yourself. So [you had] to disclose that you're disabled, and students weren't necessarily comfortable with that,” she said. “So, that was a big issue for many students, especially if you struggle [with] mental health issues or something like that.”

After student complaints, the system changed to have accommodation letters automatically sent to faculty.

In an email to The News-Letter, Director of Media Relations Jill Rosen described why the system was implemented and how it has changed.

“We implanted Accommodate in June 2020 when SDS moved to a university-wide database so that all the JHU schools would share an electronic, online system, making it easier for students to register across divisions,” she wrote. “For a period after launch letters had to be issued to students during the transition but starting this past spring, most schools (including Homewood) began sending letters directly to faculty through the Faculty Portal.”

Campus culture

Cerilli commented on how the campus culture and dialogue do not necessarily incorporate disability into the conversation and make those with disabilities feel they can’t discuss the issue freely. 

“The idea works really great if we have a supportive campus culture for that and if a person knows exactly what they need,” she said. “But we just aren't [at the point where] everyone feels comfortable asking for what they need.”

Wong echoed this sentiment, adding how arrangements for disabled students are often seen as advantages over other students without disabilities, rather than as a way to level the playing field.

Laurel Maury, a graduate student in the Engineering for Professionals Program who has previously written op-eds for The News-Letter about her experiences on campus with a disability, discussed her impression that many faculty lack acceptance for those with disabilities.

“I've had three professors now [who] talked about my disability or accommodations during lecture, and that's illegal, but the law under which it is illegal, [Family Educational and Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), is] not a strongly enforced law,” she said. “If a professor wants to talk about my disability during lecture, the department may talk to them and ask them not to but [there] doesn't appear to be any sort of [mass] push to prevent teachers from doing this.”

FERPA provides rights for disabled students, including the right to file complaints in the event educational records are disclosed, violating a student’s privacy. 

Maury shared another incident where an instructor singled her out due to the perceived inconvenience of providing her accommodations.

“[A] professor would just tell me that I was being unreasonable by asking for this, but the thing is I'm not asking for it,” she said. “I present medical paperwork to Hopkins and we discuss my needs, and then Hopkins asks him so it technically is his managers asking him, but he comes at me.”

Rosen responded to these allegations by referencing the University’s policies around disability. 

“Institution-wide faculty training on disability inclusion, accessibility, and accommodations were provided and recorded in 2020 and 2021,” she wrote. “School specific faculty trainings will be delivered throughout the current academic year and scheduled in an ongoing cycle into the future. Additionally, faculty are required to ensure their courses are accessible and to provide reasonable accommodations in partnership with SDS and other campus services.”

Issues during the pandemic

The challenges imposed by the transitions between in-person and online learning modalities during the pandemic have been felt acutely by students with disabilities, who noted inconsistencies in receiving accommodations.

Last fall, then-freshman Alex Fialon struggled to understand and attain accommodations to help with his ADHD.

“I kind of went in first semester completely blind just with the SDS accommodations and I wasn't even sure what the range of accommodations [was],” he said. 

Fialon sought help from the counseling center, but the office turned him away. 

“I reached out to the ADHD department specifically. It took like a while for them to contact me back, but basically they said that because of COVID[-19] they had no one to give me specific support for ADHD,“ he said. “They also didn't have anyone to prescribe me medication which was really important.”

Cerilli noted difficulties receiving captions for online lectures, leading to her dropping a course.

“I personally had expectations of captioned live Zoom and captioned recorded videos, and I would get these emails from someone in the SDS office saying, ‘I'm working on them; don't expect them any sooner,”” she said. “But it wasn't up to me. My professor would post a video 24 hours before I would watch them, and SDS wouldn't have them captioned for another couple of weeks.”

Ideas for change

Many students with disabilities believe foundational reforms and shifts in campus culture should occur. Wong suggested the University offer online modalities to accommodate those with disabilities.

“With the transition back to in-person learning and normal ‘college life,’ I am really worried that disabled students [will be] left behind again. A lot of students struggle with chronic illnesses [which] make them more immunocompromised or build issues that you know just make it hard to get around,” she said. “The pandemic has really shown us that classroom environments and activities can be made fully accessible [with] a virtual option with low cost to the school or the population that you're working with.”

Fialon discussed different initiatives the University could implement in order to create support systems for students, such as an ADHD support group where members could talk with each other and provide moral support. He also noted how every time he called the Counseling Center, they would always be booked as they were overwhelmed.

Rosen described efforts to increase staffing within SDS.

“We have been increasing staffing for SDS. A new Executive Director was hired in 2019 to recommend and oversee changes to the SDS structure and systems university-wide. Two university-wide SDS staff members were added,” she wrote. “Four additional SDS positions have recently been shifted from part-time to full-time roles, serving SPH, Homewood, Peabody, Carey and SAIS. Even more staffing enhancements will be rolling out in the near future.”

She also described how SDS conducted listening sessions and surveys for students with disabilities.

“This information is being used to facilitate changes both systemically and within SDS,“ Rosen wrote. 

Cerilli reflected on the need for a more inclusive campus environment.

“I think it's something that we just don't really talk about on campus. Disability is not really very included in our notion of diversity on campus,” she said. “I have yet to find broad spaces that are very inclusive, even if there are individual moments where people say ‘Oh yeah, thank you for bringing it up.’”

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