Earlier this month, students with disabilities told the Indiana Daily Student they felt ignored in mitigation testing. They said it was inaccessible, citing long walks and requirements that reportedly worsened their symptoms. They said they felt overlooked in conversations about mitigating the spread of the coronavirus on campus.
Their struggles as students are numerous when it comes to receiving accommodations for accessibility at IU, they said, as well as dealing with online school and getting around campus.
They said to succeed, they often have to be their own advocates, which can be frustrating, tiring and hard to navigate.
Zoom instruction brings challenges
Junior Harrison Getz has bilateral hearing loss, or hearing loss in both ears.
“Once everything went into the Zoom format, it was kind of like a slap in the face almost for people like me,” he said.
He said he had never used an online learning format before, and because of his hearing loss he’s had trouble doing well in classes. He said it’s especially hard when he can’t hear professors well, and masks make it difficult to read lips. This is a problem both in-person —where masks are always required — and in hybrid situations, where some students may be physically in class and some are attending over Zoom, so the professor would need to be masked. Many hard-of-hearing people across the country have advocated for clear masks to be a requirement in school and the workplace.
“They [professors] should be required to wear some sort of clear face mask or something that allows you to see the movements of their mouth,” Getz said. “A lot of times, when someone is speaking English to me it’ll sound like they’re speaking in a different language.”
Shirley Stumpner, director of disability services at IU, said the Office of Disability Services for Students provides clear masks upon request and has provided them for students before.
Christine Dahlberg, executive director of the Indiana Governor’s Council for People With Disabilities, said she thinks it would be helpful for universities to mandate the use of clear masks among professors.
Research shows students with disabilities are at a higher risk for poor mental health. Getz said issues such as anxiety and depression can make it difficult to get even simple assignments done.
Morgan Daly, director of public policy and systems advocacy at the Indiana Statewide Independent Living Council, said online schooling formats can add stress for students with disabilities because some technology platforms may not have services like closed captioning.
“Throwing COVID on top of that is a lot,” Daly said.
On Wednesday, Zoom announced it would provide automated captioning for free accounts in fall 2021, a feature previously only available to paid accounts. The announcement came days after Julia Métraux, a journalist and person who is hard of hearing, tweeted a thread discussing the lack of captioning on Zoom, which she called discriminatory against those with hearing impairments.
Despite these challenges, Getz said his professors have made a decent effort to accommodate him. Many of his professors have structured courses around the needs of their students and are generally understanding, he said.
“Without those professors I probably wouldn't have been able to pass classes or continue the path of education that I'm on right now,” he said.
However, Getz said he thinks there’s still a stigma around students turning in work late or missing assignments--it’s not always that students simply lack motivation.
“There are a lot of factors that play into quote-unquote ‘laziness,’ which I don’t think really exists,” Getz said. “We all just have things that prevent us from wanting to get a specific task done, and for a lot of us that happens to be a disability.”
Sophomore Kal Demaree has degenerative disk disease in her spine, a condition that causes intense pain and numbness in her legs. It comes on randomly sometimes, she said, making it difficult to walk.
She said there were scheduling and accommodation problems with IU’s buses during her freshman year. This made getting around IU’s nearly 2,000 acre campus strenuous. She doesn’t have any in-person classes this semester and used Bloomington transit last semester because it traveled closer to her apartment.
Demaree said one of the biggest problems she’s had with IU’s campus bus service was unreliability. IU’s bus service uses the app DoubleMaps, allowing students to track a specific bus route. Buses were often too early or late, Demaree said. Since she doesn’t use a wheelchair, she said she couldn’t use the accessible van service provided by the Office of Disability Services for Students without proper documentation.
According to the office’s website, documentation for those with “apparent mobility limitations” isn’t required to use the accessible van. For people with limitations deemed “non-apparent,” documentation is necessary and must:
Be written and signed by a medical professional on official letterhead/clinic/hospital forms
Provide a diagnosis/description of the medical problem
Provide an estimated duration of mobility limitations. If an extension of service is needed, the student must submit additional documentation to explain the need for continued service.
Demaree said the inability to use the accessible van and the unpredictability of the campus bus made it difficult to plan her day.
“If they weren’t working, I had to walk what was the equivalent of running a marathon for my body just to get to class,” Demaree said.
When she complained to IU Transportation about the issue, she said she was told she would have to keep track of when the buses came herself.
“It felt very dismissive and like you have to do all the heavy lifting if you want change,” she said.
Campus Bus Service Director Brian Noojin said IU Transportation tries to keep buses running on schedule, but traffic and class times can hold them up. He said all buses provide kneeling features and ramps to make it easier for students with mobility issues to board.
However, Demaree said she’s had difficulty taking advantage of these accommodations. She alleged bus drivers would sometimes refuse to lower the stairs for her to make it easier to board. She said she thinks this is because she only uses back and leg braces and not a more noticeable aid like a wheelchair.
“They were not going to do it unless you had a very visible mobility aid,” she said.
Noojin said drivers are trained to provide accommodations for anyone who asks, regardless of whether they have a visible disability or verification of one. He said he didn’t know why a bus driver would have denied to lower the stairs for Demaree. If a student has a complaint, he encourages them to file it on the Campus Bus Service website.
While students with disabilities express a need for accommodations, getting them can be a complicated and discouraging process, students including junior Daisy Luck said.
Luck, who has severe asthma, said she’s tried to request accommodations before but complained there’s been several problems.
According to the Office of Disability Services for Students website, there’s a 3-step process to acquiring academic accommodations. These steps include:
Registering for services by submitting the DSS request for services form and providing documentation of a disability
Submitting a new Semester Request to renew accommodations each semester
And meeting with instructors early in each term. Within the first two weeks is recommended, as accommodations aren’t guaranteed without “reasonable advance notice.”
While Getz said he doesn’t believe the disability service is at fault, he said there is a major flaw in the design of IU’s accommodation approval system. Students may not have enough time to get accommodations if they do not realize they need them until later in the semester, and most students have never had to be responsible for their own accommodations, he said.
“When we look at how higher education is designed, it’s important to note that a lot of it is based off of self-achieved work and motivation,” he said. “But I believe there’s a distinct line between allowing students to have self-learning moments and guiding disabled students through a system that they are usually paying tuition for.”
Luck said requiring a diagnosis can be problematic in itself because not every condition has a simple diagnosis.
“For a lot of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, this has affected them for years before they’re diagnosed,” she said. “A lot of times their doctors know that they’re sick but can’t verify they’re sick, and they can’t get a diagnosis.”
Luck said doctors may not know everything about a certain condition to diagnose it properly or symptoms may overlap between multiple conditions.
Morgan Daly, the director of public policy and systems advocacy at the Indiana Statewide Independent Living Council, said even getting access to a doctor can be difficult because of students’ inexperience with handling their own healthcare. The pandemic makes it even harder because doctors aren’t as readily available, she said.
There are multiple criteria documentation of a disability must meet. Notably, it must be prepared by a healthcare professional in a field related to the disability, have a clear statement of diagnosis and include provider-recommended recommendations for accommodations.
Luck alleged the Office of Disability Services for Students lost paperwork from her doctor, and said she wishes less stringent types of documentation were accepted and taken seriously.
Stumpner said in an email she cannot discuss individual situations and therefore cannot confirm or deny the allegation. But she said to her knowledge, the Office of Disability Services for Students has never lost paperwork because all documents are saved electronically to a secure database.
According to the office’s website, handwritten letters or notes from medical professionals are not accepted as proper documentation. Individualized Education Programs and 504 Plans, which are documentations used in public schools for special education services or other accommodations, could help students obtain services, but may not entirely meet IU’s requirements for documentation. For example, although a student may have used an IEP Program or 504 Plan in high school to obtain accommodations, they may need additional documentation to get accommodations at IU.
The office also requires updated documentation every 6 to 12 months for conditions “subject to episodes of progression or improvement.” Demaree said this has made it difficult to get the accommodations she needs for neurological issues stemming from when she had COVID-19 last year.
She said her issues with reading and speaking after having COVID-19 brought her close to dropping out of college, but the Office of Disability Services for Students only gave her flexible class attendance. The timeline for her condition is unknown, she said, which means she isn’t sure how long it will last or when it may improve. Because of this, getting updated documentation and knowing if or when her condition will progress is difficult.
“The research hasn’t been done on COVID because it’s so new, and they want to know what are you doing, what’s your therapy, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know,’” Demaree said.
Stumpner said the Office of Disability Services for Students does give out accommodations for COVID-19, but on a case-by-case basis. She said a student’s best bet is to talk with their instructor because while the office may not be able to grant accommodations like extensions on assignments, individual professors might be willing to work with them.
“You have to understand that not everything becomes a disability,” she said. “If something is affecting them right there it doesn’t mean that we would give an accommodation based on the Americans With Disabilities Act, but we do talk with students and try to get them to talk to their instructor or student advocates.”
Daly, the director of public policy and systems advocacy at INSILC, said it would be a good idea for universities to preemptively allow accommodations without as much initial paperwork, following up to reevaluate later after a student has had time to get proper documentation to prove their need.
Dahlberg, the executive director at the IGCPB, said people shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s disability or the accommodations they deserve.
“When you make assumptions about what people can or can’t do or should or shouldn’t have, that creates all kinds of social and interaction issues where people are making judgements based on what they perceive — as opposed to the reality — for the person they’re judging,” Dahlberg said.
Getz, the junior with bilateral hearing loss, said he’s tried filling out the necessary forms to get accommodations, but said he found them to be confusing. Receiving accommodations even from just a professor takes extensive conversations between the student, the professor and the office, he said. On its website, the Office for Disability Services for Students says “arranging disability accommodations to provide equitable access is a shared responsibility between the student, the instructor, and DSS through an interactive process.”
However, IU’s disabled students expressed that the difficulty of achieving accommodations often makes them feel left out in the cold. Daly agreed. As students transition from high school to more independent situations like college, she said, they lose support they may have once had. This means it often falls on the students to advocate for themselves, which she said can be intimidating.
Getz said the struggle to get accommodations is representative of a realization he had freshman year: He would be the only one responsible for making sure he got the services he needed.
“Perhaps the system should be a little more guided and less dependent on disabled students to figure this stuff out on their own,” he said. “The university as a whole should really look into how they communicate with disabled students and how they allow access to those things that we need to help us succeed like all of our other classmates do.”