Courtesy of Brennan Carmen

In a stride toward increased representation and advocacy, students with disabilities will have access to a designated peer liaison program beginning next fall.

The new peer liaison program is coordinated through Student Accessibility Services — a team that helps provide accommodations to students with disabilities across the undergraduate, graduate and professional schools — and the Yale College Dean’s Office. 

“It can be quite difficult to navigate college with a disability,” wrote SAS Director Sarah Scott Chang in an email to the News. “SAS hopes that the PL program will help make the transition easier for first years and provide a network of support for students by students with disabilities.”

Peer liaison programs, which assumed their current form in 2009, are affiliated with the four cultural centers as well as the Office of LGBTQ Resources, the Office of International Students and Scholars and the Chaplain’s Office. Of these groups, SAS — with a current staff of four — is by far the smallest.

Peer liaisons, who are students with at least a year of college under their belts, help their peers adjust to campus life through personal, social and academic guidance. They can be both friends and mentors to each cohort of first years.

Students with disabilities not only have to make a substantial transition from high school to college but also are suddenly responsible for navigating an often opaque system of accommodations on their own. That’s where PLs will come in: they will be “well poised to help orient first year students in requesting and using accommodations, navigating campus spaces as a student with a disability, and building community,” Scott Chang added.

Months of lobbying from members of the student organization Disability Empowerment for Yale, or DEFY, helped usher in the program. DEFY launched its own peer mentorship program in 2017, which, while functionally resembling the Peer Liaison program, is not run nor funded by Yale’s administrative offices.

DEFY president Mafalda von Alvensleben ’23 said that the new PL program, which serves only first years, will exist side-by-side to DEFY’s peer mentorship program, which will support students of all class years.

“Diagnoses can come anytime, and pre-existing conditions can be exacerbated anytime,” Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’23, who is the vice president of DEFY and the accessibility and disability policy chair for the Yale College Council, said. “Students who aren’t first years are no less deserving of support as a result.”

Adding that the program aims to strengthen support for students with disabilities, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun indicated that other administrators like Secretary and Vice President for University Life Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86 and Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity, Access, and Belonging Elizabeth Conklin have contributed to the new partnership. 

“The whole attitude that an institution like Yale should empower you to thrive and engage with educational experiences has not been a given historically,” Lara Midkiff said. “We have been advocating for more institutional recognition and legitimization, and the PL program is a really visible step in the right direction. It’s a huge win, period.”

In its pilot year, Scott Chang indicated that the program intends to select around five mentors who understand the disability experience at Yale.

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu