Pomona’s pandemic changes add to disabled students’ frustration

Drawing of a girl in a wheelchair in front of Big Bridges and next to some cardboard boxes
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

This summer, Pomona College announced that due to COVID-19 precautions, students would not be allowed the same flexibility with move-in as in prior years. 

But the new rules didn’t impact all students equally. The resulting issues added yet another topic to a long-needed conversation about accessibility and resources for disabled students on Pomona’s campus.

When Rachel Howard PO ’22 first heard of the new guidelines, she contacted Pomona’s administration in May about move-in accommodations. She requested an early move-in, because as a legally blind person, she required extra time to adjust back to campus. She was on track to get a seeing-eye dog in August, which would also necessitate a transition period.

“It’s really important for me to be able to learn routes to classes and relearn the places on campus and how to get to different places,” Howard said. “I need to be acclimated to campus before classes start, so that I’m [on] an equal playing field with my peers.”

Howard also asked administrators to allow one or both of her parents to help her with move-in. Both of her parents are fully vaccinated and said they were happy to get tested before arriving and follow any other health precautions.

“​​There were just a lot of things that I needed assistance with that only someone who kind of knows how those things go and someone that is more comfortable with me and I’m more comfortable with could help to be able to do,” she said, especially in reference to the assistive technology that she had to set up in her dorm. 

Pomona completely denied her request to allow her parents to assist, Howard said, and they only allowed her to move in two days early. The college told her they would provide names of a group of students a week in advance who would be available to help move her in. Howard said this alternative worsened when she didn’t receive the list of names until less than 48 hours before move-in. 

“I was going to have to disclose my disability [to my peers] to be able to get the help that I needed and I wasn’t really all that comfortable with doing that,” she said. 

Instead, on Aug. 26, Howard enlisted one of her professors to help set up her room, as she felt more comfortable discussing her needs and accommodations with them. The student group helped carry her boxes from the car but left her belongings in the hall for her and her professor to unpack.

When Howard was first struggling with getting accommodations this year, she reached out to another disabled Pomona student who was experiencing similar issues.

The student, a Pomona senior who asked to remain anonymous, was recently disabled. In the summer of 2019, he unexpectedly tore the labrum in his right hip, later discovering that this was in part a result of an undiagnosed genetic disease, femoroacetabular impingement.

The student had multiple surgeries with varying levels of success and after his second surgery in March, he reached out to Pomona’s administration to request accommodations similar to Howard’s. Specifically, he asked if his parents could help with move-in since he would still be in his recovery process. 

The administration declined his request, despite his parents being “fully vaccinated and the best-equipped people to help [him] with the specifics of his move-in needs,” he said.

His move-in requests weren’t the only ones denied — he was refused any sort of aid in moving around campus, such as accessible transportation or help from campus safety. His family ended up having to rent an electric wheelchair.

Due to his slow and difficult recovery process along with the lack of accommodations, he decided to take a leave for the fall semester. Even now, he said, he is experiencing some difficulty due to the college’s pressure to decide whether he will continue his leave of absence for the spring 2022 semester by Friday, if he wants to retain priority in housing and class selection, with a hard deadline of Dec. 10. He said he is unsure if he will be able to make a well-informed decision about his recovery by then.

Housing aside, modifications to campus services this semester have raised problems for other students with disabilities.

Erin Tallman PO ’22 requires a specialized diet that the dining services at Pomona often cannot provide. In past years, Tallman has been on a partial meal plan and relied on cooking many of her own meals. However, like all Pomona students living on campus, she was required to be on the unlimited meal plan this fall.

Other students with more severe eating restrictions do not have the luxury to make the dining hall work, Tallman said. 

“The issue isn’t eating in the dining halls so much because they have been able to feed me, they’ve been able to find things to make it easier, occasionally,” she said. “But, they’ve essentially changed what counts as reasonable accommodations and they’re saying that COVID-19 safety is the reason for it. And then the COVID-19 safety part isn’t actually being followed through on.” 

“I’ve learned over my life of living with my disability that it’s usually better to cut out the middleman in that process, which is essentially the accommodations department.” –Rachel Howard PO ’22

But students said they’ve been encountering barriers to receiving accommodations at Pomona long before this semester.

Tallman said communication about accommodations has been insufficient since her first year. In fact, she was not directly provided with much of the logistical information — such as when and how to renew accommodations — until this year.

Howard expressed a similar sentiment, saying that attempting to secure accommodations long before she arrived on campus her first year was impossible. She wasn’t informed of certain procedures until after classes had started, she said, and by that point it was too late for her to ensure necessary accommodations. 

“I’ve learned over my life of living with my disability that it’s usually better to cut out the middleman in that process, which is essentially the accommodations department,” she said.

While higher institutions across the country often fall short of their disabled students’ needs, Howard said Pomona in particular has a history of disorganization and miscommunication. 

According to Howard, the Pomona accessibility office is in part simply overworked, with a caseload of approximately 300 students and faculty. 

Tallman said she feels that the department has always had a problem with communication.

“In my experience, the main non-COVID problem was just lack of communication and information that I should have had,” she said. 

“In recent years, Pomona has strengthened its commitment to serving the needs of our disabled students, faculty, and staff in several ways – from undertaking a study of our resources and services to hiring the Director of Accessibility Resources and Services dedicated to serve this population of our College community,” Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Tracy Arwari said in an email to TSL. “The COVID-19 pandemic, remote instruction and in-person public health protocols have changed how we approach accessibility and thus our campus protocols have evolved to reflect our need to balance public health and safety with individual needs.”

Many disabled students have responded to the administration’s oversight with community efforts, most prominently through the club DISCOVR. The club creates a safe space for disabled students to talk about their grievances and receive support from their peers. 

But Tallman emphasized that DISCOVR shouldn’t have to compensate for the administration’s flaws and that official disability resources should be widely accessible to all students. 

“That’s information that you shouldn’t have to be in the right social group to know, you shouldn’t have to get this information from your friends,” she said.

However, the problem is wider in scope than simply granting accommodations and increasing communication, Howard said.

“Academic accommodations are kind of the bare minimum of the law … there’s a lot that we can be doing that I think goes above and beyond that and then also just fits in with Pomona’s mission statement [of uplifting marginalized students],” she said. “Disability tends to be a subject that is relatively taboo to talk about, and people feel really uncomfortable or weird discussing [it]. And I think there could just be more education and stuff done like we do with other minority groups to bring that into our more centralized conversation.”

Tallman, Howard and many other disabled students continue to advocate for increased dialogue around issues regarding accommodations and ableism that are often overlooked on Pomona’s campus.

Two months after Howard’s experience with move-in, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on the grounds of discrimination for denying reasonable accommodations. The complaint was currently under investigation as of late August, and she said she has not received an update since then.

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