Courtesy of Zoe Berg

Starting this fall, first year students with disabilities will have access to a new peer liaison program designed to provide them with support as they adjust to life at Yale.

The University announced Feb. 7 that they plan to pilot an official peer liaison program for disabled students during the 2020-2021 school year, in a partnership between the Dean’s Office and Student Accessibility Services. Seven students in sophomore year or older with knowledge of the disability experience at Yale have been hired to act as mentors for a cohort of disabled first years, giving them guidance as they navigate campus life. 

“It can be quite difficult to navigate college with a disability,” wrote Student Accessibility Services 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.”

This program represents a victory for disability advocacy on campus, emerging in response to demands by the activist organization Disability Empowerment for Yale, or DEFY. The organization also offers its own peer mentorship program for students of all class years, which will continue to run side-by-side with this new peer liaison system.

The peer liaison program took on its current form in 2009, with the hopes of providing first years with older mentors who could connect them with specified resources and support during their transition to Yale. Peer liaisons can act both as friends and sources of guidance on topics such as academics, social life and personal wellbeing. Students have the opportunity to request a peer liaison from the organization of their choice at any point during their first year. 

With a staff of only four, SAS will be the smallest group affiliated with a peer liaison program. The other campus organizations that offer peer liaisons are the four cultural centers, the Office of LGBTQ Resources, the Office of International Students and Scholars and the Chaplain’s Office. 

DEFY lobbied for months for the creation of a peer liaison program for disabled students, believing that it was a fundamental step towards improving accessibility on campus. However, DEFY has been running its own peer mentorship program since 2017. 

“Diagnoses can come anytime, and pre-existing conditions can be exacerbated anytime,” said Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’23, current co-president of DEFY. “Students who aren’t first years are no less deserving of support as a result.”

On April 6, the Yale College Council announced that in the coming year, DEFY’s peer mentorship program will receive funding for the first time in its history. Previously, disability peer mentors had to work on a volunteer basis, as compared to the official peer liaisons who are compensated for their work. 

This shift, along with the University’s new peer liaison program for disabled students, is another change that DEFY has spent a significant amount of time advocating for on campus. They sought funding for the disability peer mentorship program every year since its founding in 2017, and secured it through a partnership with the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. 

Undergraduate mentors in DEFY’s program will now be paid $18.50 an hour, and students with significant financial burdens will also be able to request an additional stipend of $300 a semester. 

“Students with disabilities have a lot of hard-earned wisdom to share with other students,” said Sarah Cussler, assistant director of the Academic Strategies Program at the Poorvu Center. “Formalizing their role and paying them means that the campus support network becomes more explicit. Disability and neurodiversity become a greater part of the conversation when they are institutionalized in this way.”

Peer liaison job offer letters for the 2020-2021 school year were sent out March 15.

Sylvan Lebrun covers local nonprofits and social services. She is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College majoring in English.