Slow, special, developmentally challenged, not that bright. These were explanations offered to my mother when it seemed that I was unable to read. Turns out, the muscles in my eyes are underdeveloped, making it exceedingly difficult to coordinate and drag them across a page. In other words, my eyes are rather clumsy, turning d to b and a to e on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, thanks to the tireless advocacy of my mother, I was able to find compensatory mechanisms and receive accommodations that enabled me to thrive academically. However, at a university level, the barriers to equitable education for people with disabilities, including neurodivergent people like myself, remain omnipresent. So, as I log onto my Zoom classes and settle into this new semester, I am reminded of how disabling school can be.
For one class, I was unable to do the readings because the PDFs provided could not be used by any variety of screen readers. For another, the font on the slides was so tiny that my head was pounding by the end. Only two out of the five classes I’m enrolled in mentioned disability policies and resources. Finally, none of these classes initially had automatic closed captioning available for live or recorded lectures, despite Zoom’s inclusion of an automatic live transcript function. Professors can hardly be held responsible as many may have not been informed that captioning now exists. Nevertheless, the lack of institutional support for classroom accommodations forces students with disabilities to fill in the gaps themselves.
To take a class at Yale, people with disabilities must do enormous amounts of emotional labor, including hours spent in the form of emails between professors and Student Accessibility Services, or SAS, to receive even the most basic accommodations. This is not including the amount of self-advocacy, access and privilege required to get the necessary documentation to prove that you need said accommodations and are not “faking it.”
Additionally, Yale gives its faculty a great deal of control over class structures including attendance policies, testing and homework formats and classroom conduct. Though this may appear beneficial, the lack of regulation on class policies allows for rampant discrimination against students with disabilities.
For example, Yale’s only official attendance policy stipulates that class attendance requirements are determined entirely by the professor and no extensions will be granted without a dean’s excuse unless stated otherwise. This is prohibitive for students with disabilities for many reasons. Firstly, Yale’s campus is astoundingly inaccessible, making getting to class on time, if at all, particularly difficult for those of us with mobility issues (outside of Zoom). Secondly, being disabled often means that health related emergencies are the norm, so missing a class or an assignment is rather inevitable. Thirdly, though many of these issues can be resolved with a dean’s excuse, this option is contingent upon a dean’s compassion and understanding for your situation. Though many students have positive experiences with deans and professors, there is no University-wide policy that ensures accountability and protection for students with disabilities when things go wrong. In essence, students with disabilities are at Yale’s mercy when it comes to equitable access to their education.
SAS does the best it can to communicate the needs of students with disabilities to faculty and administration. However, they have neither the capacity — three people are responsible for all of the accommodations for the undergraduate, graduate and professional schools — nor the power to make any substantive change.
Beyond policy and class structure, attitudes towards the kinds of work and qualifications required to constitute an air of “academic rigor” at Yale are narrow, antiquated and blatantly discriminatory to anyone that does not check the boxes of being a white, cis, straight, able-bodied man. This manifests itself in many forms. For example, from my interactions with other students with disabilities, many have pointed to the rigidity of STEM curriculums and hostile classroom environments as reasons why they are no longer interested in the field. Perhaps it is because they “couldn’t hack it.” But maybe it is because many labs needed to fulfill STEM requirements involve standing for six hours straight every week even when you have chronic back pain and an artificial femur.
Thankfully, Yale’s student body has changed from a once-limited demographic. Yet, the policies and philosophies that guide what it means to receive a Yale education have not undergone the same evolution, leaving a large gap in support for those on campus who need it most. To change this, we must re-examine ideologies that govern our ideas of academic potential and worth, as well as begin treating students like human beings who carry their life experiences into every aspect of how they are able — or not able — to show up in an academic environment.
I came to Yale because, despite my “challenges,” I love to learn. Yet the barriers to accessing my education have made it, at times, near impossible to do just that. This is the reality of many students with disabilities on this campus, and it fills me with indignant rage.
It should not be the responsibility of a person with disabilities to ask, plead with, negotiate or fight for accommodations at every turn. Rather, it is the duty of the University to protect its students through robust administrative support and policies that ensure that the most basic needs of this community are met. Finally, making an effort to acknowledge a student’s humanity in the classroom is paramount to the broader mission of inclusion that Yale is attempting to achieve. I assure you, making space for that is not a sign of weakness, but one of compassion and strength that will help its students not just survive, but thrive.
MAFALDA VON ALVENSLEBEN is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.