Editor’s Note: Arya Singh wrote a column for the Yale Daily News in response to this story that can be found here.
1 in 5,453.
Arya Singh ’22, a first-year student in Pauli Murray college, is the only Yale undergraduate who uses a wheelchair. Last semester, she went to English professor Arthur Wang’s office hours on the fourth floor of Linsly-Chittenden Hall for a brief meeting. The chair lift broke. She stayed there for a total of four hours.
The chair lift does not have a button to open the door, so even when it’s fully functional, Arya is unable to use it by herself. Two Yale fire inspectors arrived 45 minutes later and said they had gotten the call to come five minutes ago. For reasons that are unclear, Yale facilities waited 40 minutes to contact them. When Yale Facilities was called for comment, a Yale Facilities employee said that emergency situations will always be handled within 24 hours. He could not give a more specific time frame.
They ended up calling a mechanic. By the time he arrived, Arya had been stuck for four hours. There had also been a miscommunication. The mechanic thought she was stuck in an elevator, and he and his colleagues did not know how to fix the chair lift. According to him, no one ever needed to use it. They then tried to call the company named on the lift but concluded that it no longer existed. The company, in fact, does still exist but has changed names from Access Industries to ThyssenKrupp Access. However, the company no longer manufactures products or provides parts within the United States, and the address listed on the lift is now a roofing company.
The situation ended in a 911 call, despite Arya’s protests. She did not want to make a scene. She says the firefighters that brought her down were “so sweet,” but they hurt her back in the process, and she had to go to Yale Health. Looking back, she says the incident is “proof that Yale doesn’t have the systems in place that they need.”
“That kind of thing to me is just unconscionable,” her father, Dinakar Singh ’90, said. “What if there was a fire? What if there was an emergency, and your child is sitting there trapped because no one knows what to do?”
That was not the only incident Arya experienced in Wang’s class. She also missed the second meeting of his English seminar when the elevator she relied on to get to class broke. In the end, she did not attend class and instead worked one on one with Professor Wang, a sacrifice he thinks that she should not have had to endure.
There is a minority on Yale’s campus, and campuses across America, that is rarely talked about. They are 10 percent of Yale students. They are almost 20 percent of the United States. It’s the only minority group that we can become a part of at any time: people with disabilities. Students with disabilities constitute a significant portion of the Yale population, but they are rarely heard and often, not seen.
Yale has only one undergraduate who uses a wheelchair, which raises the question: Is there only one college-aged person in the world who uses a wheelchair, wants to attend Yale and is capable of getting in, or are other factors at play?
If you have been to Mory’s, attended the Harvard-Yale football game and sat with your classmates, or visited the offices of the Yale Daily News, then you don’t use a wheelchair. That is how Arya’s father describes the challenges facing wheelchair users at Yale. If you’re more statistically minded, he also puts it like this: According to Gallup, 15 million Americans identified as LGBTQ in 2017. There are about 3.3 million Americans who use wheelchairs. Many of them are elderly, so cut that number in half to get 1.65 million. Yale having one student in a wheelchair is about the mathematical equivalent of having 10 LGBTQ students.
When selecting a college, Arya’s choices came down to Stanford, Barnard and Yale. Yale’s residential college system and strong community values appealed to her. Also, her father served on the Yale Corporation Investment Committee and has remained an active member of the Yale community since graduating in 1990. According to Arya, her father was “very hesitant” for her to apply when they compared Yale to peer institutions like Stanford, whose flat, modern campus and dry climate are more wheelchair-friendly. However, he emphatically asserts that he has total faith in Yale as both an institution and a community. He and Arya are working closely with Yale to ensure that she is afforded the “full Yale experience.”
According to a 2017 Yale College Council report on disability resources, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania “are beyond Yale in terms of campus accessibility and their offices on disabilities.” Both universities have their own buildings dedicated to disabilities programs, and Stanford connects new students to current students and alumni with similar disabilities.
“Logistically, Stanford would have been the right choice just because they have tons of experience with disability,” Arya admitted. “It came down to am I going to go with the more logistical choice, or what feels more right to me.”
Arya went with what felt right, but logistics still played a major role in the decision. She said she chose to attend Yale because the disabilities office promised that she would be in one of the new colleges. Arya has found Pauli Murray to be completely accessible.
“They installed automatic door openers for me for every door I’d ever use there,” she noted. “It’s wonderful. It’s nice that I can go anywhere in Murray that I want.”
But the automatic door openers were a last-minute addition. Arya’s father walked through Pauli Murray with the residential college’s facilities manager this summer.
“I started laughing,” her father said. “It was almost comical. Every single one of the elevators, give or take, were in vestibules with manual doors in front of them. So, you’re in a wheelchair, and you can’t even get to the freaking elevator that’s supposed to be your accessibility device.”
But Dinakar believes that the oversight was just that — an oversight. Considering accessibility is not a deeply ingrained institutional practice, and details that seem obvious get lost in hindsight.
While Murray has proven accessible, Arya finds the location to be a difficulty.
“I think the fact that it’s obviously segregated from most of the first years is challenging,” she said.
The word “segregated” stands out for obvious reasons. While it is true that all students living in the new colleges are physically isolated from more centrally located residential colleges, most Murray and Benjamin Franklin students do not face any barriers once they are in the area of the other colleges. For Arya, that is not the case.
“Basically, none of Old Campus is accessible. That’s very challenging,” Arya said.
She cannot access any of the suites belonging to her friends on Old Campus. The Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications did not respond to requests for comment on the inaccessibility issue.
Other social spaces have proven inaccessible, in addition to suite parties on Old Campus. Of all the fraternities Arya has visited, only Alpha Epsilon Pi has proven accessible.
Three years ago, a brother of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (now known as LEO) allegedly turned black women away from a party, saying, “White girls only.” Following the alleged incident, which the fraternity denied had happened, many students participated in protests that contributed to the decision to change the title of “Master” to “Head of College,” as well as to rename Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College.
In Arya’s case, there was no confrontation at the threshold of the other three frats that she visited. She did not make it that far. Most fraternities either have steps that lead up to a porch, or steps that go down to the basement, where the party is happening.
“I kind of just thought, this clearly isn’t gonna work, so there’s not really a point having a conversation with them in this moment,” Arya said. “You just turn around and go home.”
Arya did not say which fraternity she found to be inaccessible, but of the fraternities reached for comment, only Alpha Epsilon Pi —the one confirmed to be accessible — replied.
Granted, a fraternity brother did not tell Arya that she was unwelcome, as allegedly happened to students in 2015. But the inaccessibility of the houses speaks for itself. Yet there have been no protests or outcry in response to her experiences. In the midst of Yale’s large activist scene, disability advocacy is a weak point.
A Burgeoning Movement
This lack of awareness around disability was recognized by two separate pairs of students before Arya matriculated, in the fall semester of 2016. Then-sophomore Rose Bender ’19 and a fellow student who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of workplace discrimination had the idea to form a disability advocacy group for Yalies. Then-juniors Ben Nadolsky ’18 and Matt Smith ’18 SPH ’19 had the same thought. Like Arya, Nadolsky was the only undergraduate using a wheelchair in his time at Yale, and he has since become a friend and mentor of hers. Bender and her friend worked separately from Nadolsky and Smith for a short time before realizing that they were doing the same thing. They then combined their efforts to form Disability Empowerment for Yale (DEFY), which officially launched in the spring of 2016.
DEFY broadly defines disability to include both visible and invisible disabilities, mental illness, learning disabilities, chronic illness, et cetera. According to the group’s website, its main goals are to bring the issues surrounding disabilities at Yale to light, foster a community for students with disabilities and fight for greater accessibility. More specifically, they want “greater accessibility compliance among student groups, a center for disabled students, with peer liaisons, a formal language sequence for American Sign Language and Braille, and a department of program for disability studies.”
So far, DEFY has successfully lobbied to establish ASL as a formal language sequence, meaning that it will count towards Yale’s language requirement instead of being classified as an independent study. DEFY has also begun an informal peer mentoring program.
DEFY has also undertaken several smaller projects, with varying degrees of success. Last year they brought the hard of hearing comedian DJ Demers to campus. They installed an art exhibition in the Morse College courtyard protesting the inaccessibility of the Morse-Stiles walkway. The installation featured wheelchairs and signs that read things like, “Yale wants to be an inclusive space for everyone, but is it inclusive for people with disabilities?” Most recently, DEFY attempted a flier campaign for Disabilities Awareness Month in October. Member Paige Lawrence ’21 worked on the campaign but says that they did not have enough people to cover much ground.
But DEFY is accustomed to being short on people. Their meetings are consistently attended by six members, and some board members occupy multiple positions out of necessity. Bender is the vice president, but she is also the secretary as well as the head of the peer mentor program. As a result, they are trying to bring undergraduates registered with the Resource Office on Disabilities out of the woodwork and into a community.
To that end, one of DEFY’s main long-term goals is to convert the office into a cultural house, similar to the Yale Afro-American Cultural Center and LGBTQ Co-Op, both of which provide spaces for students to gather and host community events. Some may wonder whether disability lends itself to a coherent cultural identity. What does a person with dyslexia have in common with someone who uses a wheelchair? According to Bender, all people with disabilities can relate to the feeling of being less than someone else, and the desire not to let disability define their lives.
“In all cases there are outside factors leading to stigma against whatever it is that’s a part of you,” she said.
Students and employees alike agree that turning the Resource Office on Disabilities into a cultural house would be beneficial. One anonymous response to a Yale College Council survey on disability reads, “PLEASE do something to bring the disabled students together. I feel so isolated but don’t fall into the other ‘underrepresented’ categories. We should have like a ‘cultural center’ for people who are proud of their disabilities and want a student support network.”
Erin Braselmann, the associate director of the office feels the same way.
“A disability center would be awesome,” she said. “I think every college should have one in America and the world. [Universities] often talk about diversity and inclusion, but disability isn’t at the forefront of people’s thoughts when they’re talking about diversity and inclusion. Disability is clearly a form of diversity.”
Before it can be a cultural center, the disabilities office must first function effectively as an office. A report on Yale’s disability resources published by the Yale College Council in February 2017 identified the Resource Office on Disabilities as one of the areas most in need of improvement.
If you search “35 Broadway,” the address of the disabilities office, on Google Maps, it will lead you to a store called Fatface. The office is invisible from Broadway Street, which means visitors can easily miss it if they don’t consult the office’s website. The homepage has directions telling students where to go.
While peer institutions like Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania have whole buildings dedicated to disability programming, Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities is a small, shared space; 35 Broadway is also home to the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration; the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Department and various professors’ offices. Until recently, it was also the location of Yale’s Writing Center.
About 10 percent of Yale students, both graduate and undergraduate, are registered with the office. That is more than 900 undergraduates. According to its website and a staff member, the office has a permanent full-time staff of four people. This ratio is, to say the least, unrealistic. On any given day, the staff may have to proctor up to 75 exams on campus. At the beginning of the academic year, there were only two full-time employees: Director Sarah Scott Chang and Associate Director Anthony Kulikowski. The other two staff members were absent for personal reasons.
Resources are strained, and students with disabilities have fallen through the cracks. Lawrence was accidentally excluded from the list of students given additional exam time. As a result, she took a midterm exam without the accommodation in spite of suffering from a chronic illness. Another student, a senior in Hopper, receives letters from the office that explain to professors the academic difficulties posed by his disability. Typically, he has the letters within the first week of the semester, but last semester he had to follow-up several times to receive them. Without the letters, professors have accused him of inventing or exploiting his disability to excuse his shortcomings in class. Associate Director Erin Braselmann was disturbed to hear that a student had such an experience and asked to be put in touch with him, despite the fact that the situation has been resolved.
That kind of attentiveness seems to be common practice at the office. Associate Director Kulikowski spent the Sunday before the last week of classes working from home in order to coordinate exam accommodations. Arya’s father called both Kulikowski and Chang “lovely people,” and none of the students interviewed blame the Resource Office on Disabilities for its oversights. Rather, they wish that the office had more resources.
When asked if the office has the resources needed to be effective, Braselmann responded, “I think we make it work, definitely. I mean, we have to, and we all love the work that we do here. I’m not necessarily sure if we need more, but I think if we had more, we could do more things.”
She said that with more resources, the office could advocate and provide education on disability issues on campus.
As Braselmann said, the office manages, but it lacks the resources necessary to do more. Braselmann would not disclose the budget but emphasized that they “provide reasonable accommodations when necessary, even if they exceed the budget at the time.”
The Will and the Way
While all disabled students interviewed said that they would love better accommodations, they are more interested in something that the Yale administration cannot provide: support from their peers. Bender admitted that she is more interested in pushing for social change than changes in university policy. Arya said that she “loves Yale,” but that students haven’t “developed an awareness about [disabilities].”
“They are not in any way mean,” she added. “But they don’t go out of their way to include people.”
When asked why she thinks Yale students are literate in most civil rights issues, but lacking in their understanding of disabilities, Arya pointed to the lack of visibility for disabilities on campus. Bender agreed and said that there is a feedback loop where “No one talks about [disability], so nothing is changed. Nothing is changed, so there are no reasons for more people with disabilities to come here.”
The Resource Office on Disabilities website states, “Often, the physical barrier is the easiest to remove — the attitudinal barriers are much more difficult.” This seems to be true among a community of students who are known, even criticized, for being sensitive to minorities’ needs. As of right now, Arya and her family — and the 900 undergraduates registered with the resource office — are betting on Yale, especially the students, to make them feel welcome.
At the end of an interview, her father said, “Let’s for now give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and say that we’ve done well. But in three, four, five years if the numbers haven’t improved, I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we really the people we thought we were?’”
Monica McDonough | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Feb. 9: A previous version of this story stated that Dinakar Singh toured Pauli Murray College last summer with its designer, Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65. In fact, he toured the college with its facilities manager.