Students react to recent accessibility improvements

Last names were omitted at interviewees’ request

In the College’s renovation of Olin Science Center’s basement (bright colored chairs, anyone?) Kate McLaughlin, the College’s Associate Director of Student Access and Disability Services, walked into a lecture hall to meet a panel of students who had volunteered that night to explain their accommodations and disabilities at a wellness seminar.

One of these students was Emma, a neuropsychology major with a pile of blonde curly hair and classically nonchalant approach to her own disabilities.

“I had a professor the other day who went on a rant about how embarrassing and disruptive it is for people to leave for the bathroom in the middle of class. Like I already know people are staring at me!” she told a room full of first-years with a big smile and no hesitation.

The College has always been proud, like many other institutions, to point out its progressive policies and inclusive mindset. We like our “firsts” as much as anyone does; the first all-male college in New England to accept women, for example.

But also not unlike other institutions, history is guilty of one progressive oversight that seemed a bright idea at the time; moving to the Hill.

The attraction of small liberal arts colleges to cold New England hilltops is not entirely clear (or at least, not to this hilltop-dwelling reporter.) But as on-campus activism has pointed out in the last several years, this has created accessibility issues on the college’s campus which have required urgent consideration.

Accessibility issues at the College stretch beyond physical accessibility, a fact that has become more accepted in recent years due to the slow stripping away of the stigma that continues to surround learning disabilities and mental illness.

The panel that met in Davis that night answered several questions but asked one of each other: as the college grows, how do they see accessibility growing with it?

They had many answers.

College President David Greene’s ambitious walking-campus plan has seen some attractive developments in front of Mary Low dormitory. Although the walking area is attractive, it limits driving access to the side of the building most accessible to the elevator. When Emma moved in to Coburn dormitory which is attached to Mary Low, she had to park on the back side of the building. As someone who becomes easily fatigued and has to monitor exertion due to dysautonomia, she was forced to rely on movers and her family but was quick to acknowledge that this is not a possibility for everyone.

If walking-only spaces are expanded, the student panel agreed that it should be easy for students to be dropped off at an elevator-accessible entrance if they use a vehicle or security escort. And although some buildings have elevators, the social limitations of being forced to avoid certain inaccessible spaces remains undesirable, but hopefully, fixable. “A person who cannot use stairs is severely limited as to which floors and buildings they can even visit,” Emma reminds us.

Restrooms in resident halls can create another issue. As Colby continues to grow its incoming classes and appropriate housing has to be considered, there is an opportunity to revisit this issue. “I sometimes experience urgency/GI [gastrointestinal] emergencies and need accommodations to live in a single, but I was told that there is no option to live in a single with a private restroom when I asked in a prior year,” Emma said. She was able to choose a single near a restroom. According to her, although this usually works out, it is very stressful to experience an episode in a public setting. She also fears that a restroom might be occupied, requiring her to run to another one urgently.   “It would be great to have more single access stalls and some rooms with their own restrooms incorporated to changes to campus when planning future resident halls,” she said.

Hannah, another student on the panel, receives accommodations for dyslexia, a disorder she was not diagnosed with until her junior year at the College. “I thought I was stupid because it took me an hour to read ten pages,” she told the group.

She expressed joy- and also concern- about a new testing center that McLaughlin had recently announced to students. The testing center was proposed to solve the problem of an inefficient and sometimes ineffective policy of having professors independently find spaces for students with extra time to take exams. She wondered if there would be individual rooms within the testing center, or if people would people be coming in and out. That could be distracting, she thought.

She discussed the fact that although about 30% of students in high school receive accommodations, only 13% receive them in college. McLaughlin agreed that this was the major hurdle; a stigma that prevents students from even asking for accommodations in the first place.

She wondered if the new testing center would have anything to do with testing students for learning disabilities, a process that still seems unclear to students at the College who wonder if they may qualify for accommodations. “Can Colby make that process clearer? Can they publicize these services better?” she asked.

The students on the panel spoke with me about their experiences discussing their accommodations with professors. Most experiences were good, but not all, and there was a mutual agreement that there was likely a simple way to solve this. “At least mostly,” added one of the students.

“I spoke with a professor who was great and so understanding but told me that no one had ever talked to faculty about how accommodations worked,” said Emma. She brainstormed with the other students about a faculty program to universally educate professors on accommodations and all the disorders that go with them; learning disabilities, mental illness, physical disabilities.

As President Greene’s Dare Northward campaign pulls together a new and improved the College, there are more opportunities to address accessibility on the College’s campus that go beyond the ramps newly built on campus. But mostly students wanted one thing: acknowledgment and support of their self-advocacy. The accommodations panel that met that day in Olin was one promising way of doing so; the room filled with people interested in learning more. “People came to my party!” said McLaughlin, and the sentiment seemed to fit just right.