By Maggie Christopher
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees disabled students equal access to higher education and requires colleges and universities to provide accommodations for students with barriers to their academic experience. However, if an institution decides an accommodation request would fundamentally alter the nature of a program, activity or service, the ADA allows the institution to refuse to provide those accommodations. Instead, staff will engage in an interactive process to discuss alternative accommodations to ensure a student can access the educational program without altering it.
An example at Agnes Scott College is the accommodations for immunocompromised students. With the lift of the mask mandate, some immunocompromised and high risk students feel uncomfortable sitting in a classroom where unmasked students had been within the last three hours. The campus administration decided that offering hybrid or online classes as an accommodation for these students would fundamentally alter the material, so the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) worked with students to figure something out. Professors will require masks in classes with an immunocompromised student. However, some students have expressed concerns that this is not enough. Classes in the same room as a later class with an immunocompromised student are not required to wear masks, and since COVID-19 can stay in the air for up to 3 hours (according to the EPA) some high risk students still feel uncomfortable attending classes in person.
“We’re not looking to say ‘no’ to students,” says Kelsey Bohkle, Assistant Director of the Office of Accessible Education, but “the college can determine that something like offering hybrid courses [or] redesigning a building would cause an undue financial burden to the college, then that is…why something may not be accommodated.”
The heart of the ADA is to create equal opportunities for disabled students, but stipulations like these allow an institution to decide for itself whether an accommodation is beyond its capabilities. This allows institutions to avoid making necessary changes to buildings or services and limits access for disabled students. Compounding this issue is the red tape that plagues colleges and universities, making effective change even harder to carry out. Agnes Scott College’s Office of Accessible Education may hear about an accessibility issue, but as Kelsey Bohkle explains, “we can’t fix it; we have to go contact somebody to go fix it.” First, a student requests something, and the request goes to the administration who talks it through with the Division of Academic Affairs of the college to see if the request is reasonable.
Though Agnes Scott prides itself on being more accessible than other colleges, with approximately 25% of the student population receiving accommodations, students question whether that is enough. Agnes Scott may be better than other institutions, but that is not enough for some students, who still struggle for equal access to academics.
Leah Grace Roberts is a first year student who struggles to navigate campus with her wheelchair. She points out the physical inaccessibility of Agnes Scott buildings and walkways; having to navigate the wheelchair-accessible entrances to buildings and unreliable elevators takes a toll on her academic experience.
“I leave fifteen minutes early for every single class,” she explains, “because if I don’t I am late.” The walk from the dorm to classes for an able-bodied student takes about five minutes, but for Roberts, it is longer because she has “to go completely out of the way” in order to avoid staircases or unsafe slopes.
The Office of Accessible Education acknowledges this. Rashad Morgan, the Director of the Office of Accessible Education, admits the college has “areas for improvement and growth as far as physical disabilities and physical places on campus.”
“As soon as we know we have a student with a mobility impairment, we’re candid about what the campus is, and we love that so many people choose to come here anyway,” explains Kelsey Bohkle.
The permanent features of campus are not the only barriers to students with mobility issues. Temporary structures, like tables blocking elevators in Evans or cords across walkways during filming, limit students in wheelchairs from entering buildings necessary to their academic experience.
“I have to ask people to move their things,” says Roberts. She can resolve some issues by speaking directly with the organizers of the event that is creating barriers, but when something becomes a repeated issue, she reaches out to the Office of Accessible Education.
“It’s a lot of energy,” admits Roberts, “there’s a lot of emails; there’s a lot of meetings involved; there’s a lot of phone calls. And then it also just takes a lot of mental energy, and as someone with a chronic illness that has less to begin with, it becomes a big problem.”
Communication does not end once a student reaches out to the Office of Accessible Education. Sometimes the OAE can reach out to organizations and facilitate a conversation about accessibility when the accessibility issue is easy to remove, like a table blocking a door button. Some barriers like the marble slabs in front of bathrooms or a malfunctioning door button require the OAE to reach out to Facilities.
“Me and Rashad aren’t responsible for the physical accessibility of campus,” explains Bohkle.“That is more the Facilities side of things. Obviously we partner with them on those sorts of things, but we don’t have the power to sort of put an elevator in a building for example.”
Rachael Hunter is one of the OAE’s contacts in the Office of Facilities. She expedites the communication between the OAE and Facilities to ensure things needed by disabled students can be returned to working condition as soon as possible.
“She’s kind of our liaison to the Accessibility office,” says David Marder, the Director of Facilities, “She handled a whole bunch of the stuff that we did as far as door openers…this fall.”
Hunter explains her passion for ensuring the Agnes Scott campus is as physically accessible as possible: “I am willing to put aside some of the other tasks to make sure that this type of thing is getting done,” she says, “without making any of the students who need accessibility help feel othered.”
Hunter recalls a time during lunch when she watched a student in a wheelchair try to access the door in lower Evans, which was broken. “I overheard this poor student say, ‘the stupid door, again, I have to go all the way around,’” and Hunter, who had not known the door was broken before, immediately printed out a sign instructing faculty and students to keep the door propped open during dining hall hours while Facilities were scheduling repairs.
Rachael Hunter is aware of the concerns about the physical accessibility of the Agnes Scott campus. She explains that one of the members of the Facilities department left with short notice, and the department is still waiting on his replacement.
“Unfortunately, he let a lot of the maintenance [on ramps and doors] continue to not get done,” says Hunter, so when she discovered students in wheelchairs would attend Agnes Scott in the 2021-2022 academic year, she was immediately assigned to get things working again.
Facilities paid someone to visit campus and assess Agnes Scott’s ADA compliance, and from that information she compiled a game plan. “Having the plan in place is the first step,” says Hunter, “because we have a relative time frame. It’s just that the timeframe isn’t by the end of the school semester. It’s sort of like a five year plan.”
Hunter understands that five years may not seem promising to students currently facing barriers on campus. She says, “I am so sensitive to the fact that it sometimes looks like we’re inattentive. The cost of doing upgrades and repairs is more than one might think. It’s more feasible to do it in bite-size chunks, focusing on the most student-forward areas of campus first.”
The OAE, Facilities, and administration work together to ensure full accessibility of campus programs. Though physical accessibility is not the OAE’s responsibility, it is important for the OAE to listen to physically disabled students and provide accommodations that make navigating campus easier. The OAE is designed around accommodations for academic support and housing, but including accessible routes on the official campus map would illustrate the school’s dedication to accessibility.
After a semester and a half of navigating campus, Leah Grace Roberts can find her way into most academic buildings by herself with the exception of Buttrick and Bullock. Still, navigating back entrances is time consuming. Roberts comments that attending classes is “easier if someone has all of their classes in a centralized area because then they can figure out that route and stay with that route instead of having to figure out several different routes to several different buildings.” Ensuring that a student in a wheelchair does not have to navigate multiple buildings in one day is one way that the OAE can provide accommodations for disabled students without fundamentally altering campus buildings or courses.
Approximately 25 percent of the campus population is registered with the Office of Accessible Education, and most of those are for psychological and learning disabilities. While Agnes Scott College may be better than other institutions in offering accommodations, there is still progress to be made.
Dylan Bulford, another first-year student with mental health accommodations, explains his experience with the OAE, saying, “it almost felt like they were invalidating me because they would say, like, ‘Oh, have you tried going on walks? Have you tried setting alarms to remind yourself to eat? Have you tried listening to happy music?’ And I was like ‘I’m in therapy, I know this. I’m struggling, and I’m asking you for help.’”
Though the OAE provided Bulford with some accommodations, he feels like he cannot use those accommodations sometimes because of limitations on a professor’s time. For example, taking extra time on a test is difficult because, as he states, “it’s not like I can just stay there an extra 30 minutes after class if a professor has another class or things that they need to do. I have to plan ahead and schedule to take it in the Office of Accessibility’s testing room on the ground floor of Buttrick, so even though I have that option, it’s not easy for me to use it.”
There is no direct form for students like Dylan Bulford to voice their feedback. The OAE says, “If students do experience an issue or they feel like they have not received an accommodation that they should have received,…they can contact our assistant dean of the college Machamma Quinichett to share that feedback.” Feedback about the OAE falls under the general grievance procedure of the college.
“We have a very, very formal…grievance process that is for all things related to the college,” explains Bohkle, “and then we have the very informal process which, you know, if someone had an issue with me they could go see Rashad or vice versa.”
“And I also think Kelsey and myself are not a one-stop shop,” says Rashad Morgan, “like you come in, you get accommodations, and we never see you again. We journey with students throughout their time at Agnes Scott.” Furthermore, he explains, “The OAE provides more than just accommodations to students. They provide academic support, academic coaching, connections with campus resources, etc. They work with students throughout their time at Agnes Scott College.”
Something the OAE prides itself on is their leniency with documentation, allowing for equitable access to some accommodations. “At other institutions they want a full psychological evaluation that’s less than three years old,” says Bohkle. “Those are expensive; they’re hard to come by. [Students] have to connect with providers. So even though we ask for documentation, we’re really flexible about what we take.”
There are some accommodations that do require more documentation, like medical singles or more “high stakes” accommodations that are limited on campus. “And that’s not us saying we don’t believe the student,” says Morgan, “but it’s more because…it’s kind of hard to decipher between…which student’s report requires the medical single more than others’, so just to be as equitable in the process as possible and to be as objective as possible, the college has a housing accommodations committee that meets to review those kind of requests.”
This system works well for some people like Tess Dishaw, who says “Rashad was very helpful [in getting a medical single]. He responded to email quickly, had multiple calls with my parents to help them better understand the process, and worked with my physician to make sure the letter had the correct format.” She describes the process of getting her medical single as an easy task, and describes her overall experience as positive.
For other students, the process went less smoothly. A 2018 alum who asked to be referred to as Sailor Bee describes their experience trying to get off-campus housing: “Agnes made it difficult for me to get [it] because they deemed migraines as not a…legitimate problem,” they say, “I had to get two doctors to verify I had chronic migraines. Even then, they tried to pressure me into staying on campus, and I had to fight to live off campus.”
Leah Grace Roberts recommends disabled students reach out to the OAE, but also to connect with resources on campus. “The OAE is a good place to start,” she says, “but I honestly recommend talking with your professors even before you get formal accommodations.”
Dylan Bulford also suggests reaching out to specialists in the Atlanta area. “There are plenty of therapists in Decatur,” he says. “Not all of them are within walking distance. And I know insurance is so awful to deal with, but a lot of people don’t know if you look on the back of your insurance card, there’s a phone number. You can call the phone number and ask them to send you a list of providers in your area. Just tell them specifically like psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, etc., and they’ll go ahead and send that to you. A lot of places do telehealth, so even if you find a psychologist that you can’t walk to, you can ask them to do telehealth visits.”
“Kelsey and myself are committed to making the student experience as accessible as possible, but it takes a campus to make Agnes an accessible and inclusive space,” says Morgan. Open communication between offices like the OAE and Facilities, students, and administration is imperative to ensuring that Agnes Scott is an inclusive campus where disabled students can thrive and achieve the same academic experience as abled students.
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