Valerie Navarrete

“At Yale, we praise perfection,” Benjamin Nadolsky ’18 told me during our interview on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. “If you’re not perfect, you’re outcast, you’re the outside man. We want to tear down that notion. You don’t have to be perfect.”

Nadolsky is a senior in Saybrook College, a Kerry Fellow and the president of Disability Empowerment for Yale, a recently founded student group advocating for students with disabilities.

He is also the only undergraduate student on campus in a wheelchair.

“You don’t realize the problems until you are here,” he added, talking about inaccessibility of many spaces on campus like friends’ suites, higher floors in certain academic buildings, and even the walkway between Stiles and Morse Colleges leading to Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

Nadolsky is one of about 700 undergraduates registered with the Resource Office on Disabilities that provides accommodations to students with chronic and temporary disabilities on campus. Since registration is voluntary, the accurate number of undergraduates with disabilities on campus is likely higher.

Despite the fact that even the students registered with the ROD already make up more than 10 percent of the undergraduate population, many issues surrounding disabilities persist on campus and are not sufficiently addressed. Students interviewed raised concerns about the general lack of awareness around students with disabilities, the stigma surrounding them, as well as the University’s reluctance to do more to make campus a more welcoming space for them.

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“Why would you want to make the yale student body less talented, smart, capable by adding more people who by definition are those things?” reads one of the anonymous comments to the Yale College Council Fall 2016 survey. The comment came in response to a statement: “Yale would benefit by having more students with disabilities on campus.” Almost 14 percent of respondents “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the statement.

“This is 14 percent of students who don’t want us here,” said Sohum Pal ’20, who served on the YCC Task Force on Disabilities Resources.

Joshua Slocum ’18 said the stigma was being perpetuated by the notion that all Yalies ought to be “perfect” and that students with disabilities do not fall under that category.

This stigma may even deter some students from asking for help. Lauren Telesz ’20, who is deaf, said when she came to Yale she did not want to ask for resources. Surrounded by “piano virtuosos and politicians in training,” she did not want to be seen as a person in need of assistance.

“There is such a stigma around people being disabled not being able to achieve what Yale students expect of themselves,” said Emma Hastings ’18, one of the officers of DEFY. “In an ideal world, I would be able to tell everyone [what my disability is]. But you don’t want to put on a label that, unfortunately, at this time will work against you.”

A potential solution? Students suggest a push for greater awareness — on both an institutional and a student-run level.

“There aren’t many groups doing activism or engaging people without disabilities in any conversations,” Jack Lattimore ’20, another DEFY officer, said. “Oftentimes people will get some accommodations from the ROD, but the wider Yale community doesn’t hear about these issues as much.”

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Several groups on campus have been advocating for change. For example, DiversAbility at Yale, a group for Yale staff, faculty members and postdoctorates, has recently put up banners around campus to promote disability awareness — four of them are located in the nave of the Sterling Memorial Library.

Other initiatives have also been put in place by various entities within the University. According to Carl Baum, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and the chair of the Provost Advisory Committee on Resources for Students and Employees with Disabilities, the committee has been working on raising awareness about students with disabilities and has been inviting speakers while also working on other accessibility measures.

The committee works with the University on making sure all buildings are paired with handicap-accessible facilities. It also endeavors to make Yale websites friendlier for students with visual impairments, among other outreach and awareness-raising initiatives.

“We have an education subcommittee that deals with educating the Yale community and others about those with disabilities and how things can change to make the University more inclusive,” Baum said.

He added that as part of the subcommittee’s initiatives, they had invited multiple speakers, who specialized, for instance, in alternative medicine and psychiatric illnesses, to campus.

Baum has also been trying to get Representative Rosa Delauro, D-Conn., to come and speak on campus. Delauro started out in Congress in 1990, right when the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.

“Peter Salovey, when he took office a few years ago, wanted to make Yale a more accessible [place] … That’s one of the things we are trying to do,” he said.

Still, Glenn Weston-Murphy, design engineering advisor and instructor at the Yale School of Engineering, said that the University could do “a whole lot better job of improving the way we do design and building on campus.” Weston-Murphy rejoined the committee last year after leaving it about 8 years ago due to frustration at the committee’s inability to affect actual design changes in building renovations and constructions.

He added that many architects value aesthetic features, such as using glass doors which are “notoriously unfriendly” to mobility-device users, more than accessibility. Though the committee gets a voice in the construction and renovation of campus buildings, Weston-Murphy said, they often do not get the blueprints early enough to make all the desired changes.

“When I first got to Yale, there were lots and lots of buildings that were not physically accessible to people,” Weston-Murphy, who uses a wheelchair himself, said. “Now there are just lots of buildings not physically accessible.”

Nevertheless, Weston-Murphy emphasized that the committee still impacts many areas of the University — from aiming to have a positive influence on the outcome on building design and renovations to working with needs of particular students who reach out to the committee or the ROD.

Both Baum and Weston-Murphy emphasized that the committee could be doing more, but that the students’ input into this ongoing dialogue are necessary for the committee to be successful.

“Sometimes we don’t know who has a disability, that’s why even though it’s voluntary, people should go to the [ROD] and register,” Baum said. “There is always more we could do, but we can’t go up to these people and say, ‘Do you have a disability? What is it?’ It is really up to [the students] to declare themselves.”

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Yalies have indeed been stepping up to affect the lack of awareness regarding students with disabilities on campus.

Nadolsky came up with the idea to create DEFY back in his sophomore year, but did not put the plan in motion until last spring.

“If you don’t know anyone with a disability, you can never understand what it is like,” he said. “So we are trying to create a community that can raise awareness about issues related to disability.”

The lack of awareness hinders the social life of students with disabilities, especially early in their Yale careers. For instance, Nadolsky said, most ramps are installed at the back of buildings. This means if he goes anywhere with other people, he often has to break apart from the group. The rest of the group can go through the main entrance. He cannot. Although now his friends usually accompany him to the back entrances, this was not the case when he first set foot on campus.

The same accessibility concerns apply to the residential colleges. In Saybrook, Nadolsky said, only one entryway — his — has an elevator. That leaves him capable of visiting only four other suites in the building, and, perhaps, the ones he can get to by “cheating,” as he called it — cutting through the suites he has access to via the elevator.

Among the student body, the lack of awareness manifests itself not just in stigma but also in the insensitivity in treating disability with an appropriate manner.

Many social encounters were “very awkward” for Slocum, especially during his first weeks on campus.

Early on, he felt “profound isolation” — navigating Yale’s social scene while being deaf was overwhelmingly difficult. Oftentimes, he had to ask people to repeat themselves and had to tell everyone that they had to look at him while they were talking so that he could read their lips. He also had to keep reminding people that he could not hear well at parties, noisy dining halls and at times simply among large groups of friends.

“Sometimes that whole process can be kind of disheartening. It can be kind of tedious,” he said. “Especially if you’re tired, had a rough week and midterms and finals kicked your ass up and down.”

Other students also emphasized that having to explain their situation time after time was exhausting and draining.

Pal, who has cerebral palsy and used to wear a brace, said that the emotional labor he had to go through in explaining his disability to people was particularly burdensome.

“When I was in a brace, I got so many ‘Oh, what happened?’ [questions],” he recalled. “Sometimes I would try to explain the entire story of how I became disabled … but then, in other instances, I would just make up stories that I tripped or fell. I lied and told things that would be easier [for others] to understand.”

Raising awareness about disabilities among the Yale population at large, Pal said, would alleviate the burden on students with disabilities of constantly having to explain themselves.

The same idea holds true for Rose Bender ’19, who wished to keep the details of her medical condition confidential. Her illness flared up during her first year at Yale, but the people around her could not quite understand how to handle it empathetically.

“I was just really feeling sick all the time, I didn’t want to go to class, but I had to do it, and it also happened during finals,” she said. “Then I felt like I couldn’t talk to people about it because they were like, ‘Oh, everybody gets sick! Just drink water and go to sleep,’ and that just doesn’t fix it.”

Statistics also suggest an extreme need to raise awareness about students with disabilities on campus. Out of 1387 respondents to YCC’s Fall 2016 Survey, almost 50 percent either “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with the statement “In my opinion, Yale students recognize that there are students on campus with disabilities and actively think about the challenges that these peers face.”

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While most students maintained that the social transition was at times the most difficult, they, of course, also had to adapt to the new academic environment at Yale.

Judy York, the director of the ROD, said that many students come to her office late in the semester to register. These students say that they had not done so sooner because they thought they wouldn’t need any help in college because “it would be different.”

“That’s really awful because, if anything, more than likely [college] is harder,” York said. “Coming to college doesn’t mean an … illness will be exacerbated or exaggerated, but it does mean that you don’t have the same kind of social support, personal support you do when you live at home, typically with family.”

But even students who do ask the professors or the ROD for help still struggle.

Slocum said that due to being a Chemistry major, he has mostly taken lecture classes with which he has little issues. However, seminars were difficult for him — hearing everyone was sometimes challenging, and so was communicating that to professors.

Telesz, who uses an FM system to get the professor’s lecture transmitted directly to her hearing aid, needs the lecturers to always use a specific microphone so that the system works. Still, especially in big lectures, professors do not always remember to do so.

She also expressed concern: while she was “fortunate enough” to already own the device that helps her at Yale, the University does not provide an FM system or hearing devices to students free of charge. Her school district back home, she said, would help her upgrade her device every five years or so. It would be helpful to students, she added, if Yale always stays on top of such innovations and technology, subsidizing them at least partially.

Pal said while professors are usually “wonderful” in one-on-one situations, they might still not be doing enough. He cited specifically the no-laptop policy some professors have in place. He said that for him, due to his condition, it is easier to type. But, requesting to use the laptop in class and then being the only one to have such permission draws unnecessary attention to students who receive this accommodation.

Hastings said that faculty members should perhaps receive more training in terms of how to accommodate students with disabilities.

York concurred and said that the ROD could be “more proactive” in orientating faculty.

“There have been attempts to provide information on disability to our [new] faculty in their own orientations,” she said. “The tough thing is, [the orientation] is so packed with so much information that trying to carve out a piece has been difficult, if not impossible.”

She added that the ROD does provide training to foreign language instructors, as for many first years, language instructors are the only lecturers seeing them daily.

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To help first years both with social and academic transitions, DEFY piloted its own peer mentorship program this year, pairing first years with upper-level students with disabilities.

Bender said that DEFY hopes to get the program officially recognized through the Dean’s Office in the future so that peer mentors can get paid just like their counterparts in the cultural centers. The Dean’s Office, she added, told the group they will be more likely to get recognized if they can get the program up and running with enough student support on their own first.

“I think it is important to have that as a resource on an ongoing basis even if students don’t immediately turn to it,” Slocum said. “I, personally, took a few months before I admitted that I was struggling with my transition [to Yale].”

Bender also recalled that not knowing anyone with a similar illness or an illness at all while she was going through her first year was very isolating.

But a few months after she got better, through a complete coincidence, she met someone at Yale with the same diagnosis. That person got sick and had to leave Yale for medical reasons, but for the next year they still gave each other support as pen pals.

“I just want there to be people whom I don’t have to explain everything to,” Bender said. “That’s where I think the community of people with disabilities comes in because you don’t have to go through every detail and they can fill in the blanks. That’s just really refreshing.”

To establish such a community permanently, aside from lobbying the Dean’s Office to officially recognize the Peer Mentorship program, students with disabilities on campus have repeatedly called for the creation of a center for students with disabilities akin to the cultural centers.

The space, Bender said, would show that Yale is committed to its disabled students just as much as to its other minority groups.

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When talking about creating such a center, all students brought up the fact that the ROD itself is currently occupying only a tiny space in the former Writing Center and is long overdue for an expansion.

The ROD shares the space with the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. It only had two people on staff servicing around 800 students — from Yale College and other University schools — until four years ago when an additional position was added. Another hiring happened in January, bringing the total number of staff members up to four. The ROD services both people with chronic illnesses and disabilities and students with temporary conditions, such as concussions and broken bones. Over the course of the semester, among other duties, according to York the ROD administers about 1200–1500 exams for Yale College students who require accommodations.

York said that a change in location would be a “win-win situation” for both the ROD and the RITM. However, because the Hall of Graduate Studies is closing for renovations, now would not be a feasible time for the ROD to move, she said. York added that while she thinks the ROD could take on one more staffer in another year, until it has relocated, no such hirings will be possible, as the office has “run out of space physically.”

While the students praised the work of the ROD and that of the Provost Advisory Committee, they criticized the University for not allocating more resources towards the ROD and disabled students in general.

“Judy York is a lion of a woman,” Slocum said. “That woman will get you what you need when you need it, she will support you no matter what. But it’s this weird feedback cycle — because the ROD does such a good job with resources they have, Yale administrators don’t think [the ROD] needs more.”

Pal concurred by saying that Yale does not “really want to spend money on disabled students,” and often does only the bare minimum prescribed by the ADA. He added that the lack of a disabilities studies program and faculty doing research in that area also does not reflect well on the University.

York said now that DEFY and a few other student-run organizations sprung up around campus, the newly generated student interest will be “extraordinarily powerful” for spreading the word about the issues and drawing everyone’s attention to the cause.

“Sometimes [change] won’t come about in your four years at Yale, but you’re making a difference by speaking up and moving forward,” York said. “Much of this University reacts to student motion and movement, and that’s how things are created around here.”

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“At Yale, we praise perfection,” Nadolsky told me during our interview.

And we do. We strive for a 4.0 GPA and quantify our worth in getting the internship of our dreams. We get caught in the rush of desiring to achieve and often forget to make space in our lives for others.

“We want to tear down that notion,” Nadolsky said. “You don’t have to be perfect.”

Anastasiia Posnova anastasiia.posnova@yale.edu .