OPINION: Disability ‘access’ is not enough

image displays handicap, male, and female symbols for Disability Day of Mourning
(Annika Larson • The Student Life)

I’ll be real here: Claremont isn’t physically accessible in the least. It’s foolhardy to pretend that these campuses are easy to navigate for those who are physically unable to deal with flights of stairs and broken paths. Even if the 7Cs were easy to navigate, though, mere physical access is not enough.

Access to a classroom is useless to me if I’m not guaranteed the accommodations I’m legally entitled to in order to participate fully in class, or if my disabilities are consistently downplayed. 

When a professor tells me that notes aren’t required in their class so I “probably won’t need my laptop,” I debate saying, “It doesn’t matter what your class requires, the law requires that I be allowed the accommodations listed in the letter I provided you.”

When a professor refuses to fill out a testing accommodations form correctly so that the Student Disability Resource Center can’t contact them when I have a question halfway through my final, I feel like I’ve been told, “You’re not wanted here.”

When my stories on disability are met with disbelieving looks because I “look normal,” I think about all the Friday nights where I’ve wanted to go out and have fun like a “normal” college student but can’t because a week of “looking normal” in classes left me so tired I can barely move.

And I have it easy compared to a lot of people. I haven’t dealt with anaphylaxis from allergens in the dining hall, forced institutionalization or threats of not graduating from faculty who think they’re entitled to my medical history.

None of those things are what non-disabled people typically talk about when they talk about “access.” Yet all of them pose serious impediments to disabled students being included, supported and welcomed in Claremont.

I constantly feel, after nearly four years here, that the only reason I receive half the accommodations and responses I do is that faculty and staff know I’ll raise hell if I don’t. I don’t want to be in the business of intimidation, but I’ll admit, it works to force compliance.

And while I’m certainly not angling for anyone’s pity, I am doing this all while mourning.

I am mourning my friend Arielle Davis PZ ’18, who died in December from complications of multiple chronic illnesses. Arielle was a firebrand, a fierce advocate for disabled and chronically ill students and a wonderful mentor. I miss her sarcastic humor and wry advice more than words can say.

I am mourning the more than 600 disabled people whose lives are celebrated and deaths are mourned on Disability Day of Mourning — disabled people who were murdered by their family members or caregivers within the past five years. I stumble through the seemingly endless list of names and wonder at the evil that exists in this world.

So when I read the famous Mother Jones quote used in Disability Day of Mourning advertising — “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living” — I wish that those in power could understand that disabled students are doing both these things at once. We are constantly trying to reconcile our grief at the deaths of our friends and community members with our need to fight to keep our communities afloat. 

I want so badly to hold out hope that Pitzer College, and all of the Claremont Colleges, can and will do more. There are some amazing faculty and staff allies here and, despite my entrenched cynicism, I have seen people grow and change.

Claremont needs more training on disability culture and accommodations for all faculty and staff across the campuses. We as a community need more transparency in the process of applying for and receiving accommodations and what rights and responsibilities students, faculty and staff have in each step of the process.

The college administrations need to commit to a procedure where community members who repeatedly or flagrantly break laws surrounding accommodations are actually sanctioned. Our governance systems need to ensure that disability policy decisions actively include voices from all stakeholders on campus.

Finally, and most fundamentally, we all need to view disability for what it is: a social identity just as much as any sort of impairment. We need to demonstrate that we value all disabled community members, not just the ones who can speak the “right language” during a presentation.

We could — we must — do these things. They are attainable and reasonable requests. But these actions need to start with a commitment to change from the very top. Change cannot and will not come about from just the tireless efforts of disabled students, faculty and staff and our abled allies.

I refuse to believe that a better world is impossible. I refuse to believe that my actions and the actions of my peers are ultimately futile. I mourn the dead and fight like hell for every single disabled person living, learning and working at these colleges because we all deserve a more just and accessible world. 

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20 is a public health major from Sunnyvale, California. All members of the Claremont community are invited to the Disability Day of Mourning vigil in the Gold Student Center Multi-Purpose Room at Pitzer College on Sunday, March 1 at 1 p.m.

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