Open letter: Brandeis is failing its disabled students

Note: This letter was originally published in The Brandeis Hoot. The letter itself is a near-exact copy of an email I sent to interim student accessibility services director Scott Kalicki, explaining why I was uninterested in arranging a closed-door meeting where my concerns would be Heard and then promptly and completely forgotten. Unfortunately, I suspect that these complaints will already be familiar to disabled students at most other US universities.

Dear Brandeis Administration, Board of Trustees, Office of Budget and Financial Planning, Student Accessibility Support and Counseling Center,

Thanks for asking me what I need as a disabled student to feel welcome and succeed here. I need actual support — in the form of professionals advocating for me and my right to participate and belong in class and executive function counseling. It’s immensely disappointing that neither our “Student Accessibility Support” nor our mental health services on campus are equipped to help with executive functioning, so that’s out, which leaves us with advocacy. You’ve heard me out asking for accommodations, and I’m grateful for that, but I require more. I’m still not able to participate in my classes meaningfully; I still need more to be done. And, too much of the time, your priority during our conversations is to lead me back toward our disappointing and lackluster set of “pre-prepared” accommodations, rather than actually making change to construct an environment in which I can succeed.

Student Accessibility Support (SAS) has an obligation to provide me the necessary support to succeed at Brandeis — I’d love to receive that support. But before I come to the table, I want some guarantee that SAS will be working for me, and on my behalf, to provide me with accommodations — not on behalf of the administration and a board that sees Brandeis as an investment vehicle more than an educational institution existing to make as little change as possible. I’m sick of professors not knowing what my accommodations are because nobody bothered to tell them and/or they didn’t bother to read their letters; I’m sick of last-minute preparations for exams planned months in advance; I’m sick of accommodations making my life harder; I’m sick of being left behind and left out of the classes I’m going five figures into debt to participate in.

Are you going to work with me and my disabled peers to give us the learning environment we were promised? Or are you going to work with the administration to preserve university profits and avoid making changes for the disabled “problem students” who are too mad to shut up and accept the scraps of accommodations they’ve been offered by an unprofessional, understaffed, and reactionary organization?

I want to know what you’re doing to change SAS. It’s falling short in a lot of catastrophic and obvious ways, as last year’s open letter to President Ron Liebowitz showed. What are you doing to enact the institutional-level change that needs to happen in order for disabled students at Brandeis to be given the opportunities and access we’ve been promised? Our time here is limited. My time here is limited. What have you been doing? What will you do to fix the enormous failures Brandeis has demonstrated to its disabled students before I graduate in a year? And if it’s “impossible” to fix these failures, I want to know why. I want to know why it is acceptable for me to be collateral damage, and I want to know why we’re okay, both personally and institutionally, with disabled students falling through the cracks, with our education being manufactured to fail and thoughtlessly thrown away.

Meeting with staff and administration — deans, presidents, directors — takes time and energy from me — precious, valuable resources that are intensely limited due to my disability. I want some assurance that we can do more than offer blank platitudes to each other. Spending my energy fighting for accommodations makes it harder to attend classes and focus on my work here. I don’t want explanations for why the system isn’t working; I want actions that fix it. Here’s a tiny list of a few of the accommodations and changes I want, off the top of my head. Make no mistake, this list is scattered and incoherent. It’s scattered because that’s all I can muster. That’s all I can get out of my brain today. In the words of Porpentine, “I am too sick to write this article.” All I can squeeze out between sickness and trauma and therapy and an unending stream of homework and essays and obligations. It’s not a comprehensive and formal program of change to fully reform Brandeis into a functional institution. It’s a set of specific failures that I want addressed 30 years ago — or, if Brandeis is aiming for second best, — today. These failures are overlapped and intertwined.

Here’s what I want:

  1. Material acknowledgment that I had to and have to work harder than my abled peers for the time at Brandeis when I didn’t have accommodations, and during the times when my accommodations have been inadequate or a majority of my energy has been spent attempting to navigate student accessibility (i.e. my entire college career so far). This could be in the form of extra credits awarded for each class (to reflect the additional effort and time I had to put in, compared to my peers) or in the form of a flat increase of the grades for each class (to reflect the limited time and resources I had to work with, particularly during exams, compared to my peers). I’m open to other options, but those two seem like the most obvious, reasonable, inexpensive, and non-disruptive.

  2. An alternative schedule that would allow me to focus intensely on one subject, because my disability prevents me from jumping around and managing four or five different schedules and four or five different professors who like to communicate in four or five different ways. A schedule that lets me dive deeply into the material and excel in a way that a scattershot choice of four or five different areas of knowledge prevents.

  3. Accommodations that focus on areas other than test-taking. Dramatically restructured lectures, with slides that present a coherent narrative for students to follow. Slides available online before the lectures.

  4. Courses restructured for chronically ill students who need to miss class on a nearly weekly basis or greater, allowing them to participate without excluding them or leaving them behind.

  5. A 30-student cap on every course, including introductory courses. This would mean splitting large courses into as many sections as we require and hiring additional faculty to teach those courses, focusing on underrepresented and marginalized academics.

  6. Failing to provide accessible and thorough course materials (including interactions through LATTE, timely responses to emails, assignment postings, syllabi, course texts, etc.) should be a tenure-revoking offense — just like failing to meet any other job responsibilities would be.

  7. Sign language interpreters, large print, and braille materials available on request without needing a documented disability or any form of means-testing.

  8. Banning “no-electronics” policies that single out disabled students who use electronics as access tools and exclude disabled students who are not rich enough for a diagnosis. New policies which explicitly recognize that nearly all electronics, including cell phones, can be and often are access tools.

  9. Assignments to be posted to LATTE (the name of Brandeis’ Moodle instance) in a timely fashion — in general, for LATTE to actually be used promptly and correctly. Failing to put all the information about my assignments and courses in one place (e.g. with hidden syllabi, alternative course websites, critical announcements sent through emails and not otherwise posted to the course page) makes coursework unmanageable and leaves me (and in general, the most vulnerable students) behind.

  10. I want better syllabi from all my professors, including all texts, assignment dates, and lecture material (at least down to the nearest week) to allow me to prepare for my courses. I want this information without having to email back and forth or meet individually with professors (as I did with every professor this semester).

  11. I want an end to requirements for medical documentation to receive accommodations. If Google and JP Morgan can give me ADHD assessments poorly disguised as “personality quizzes” that they can then use to discriminate against me in the hiring process, we can figure out some way to make accommodations easier to access. (And yes, both of them did do that to me. I even kept screenshots.)

  12. Increased student wages. My summer internships pay more than three times what I make at Brandeis. (An immense privilege!) Why doesn’t Brandeis value my talents? Increased pay would let me devote more of my time to keeping up with the classes I struggle with.

  13. An independent council of disabled students and faculty members with a budget and the powers to enact changes to accommodations and university policy and to terminate professors with a history of misconduct.

  14. A safety net for all students, but in particular new students. My first-year advisor didn’t meet with me or reply to my emails for an entire semester, leaving me to figure out everything on my own. That’s water under the bridge for me, but I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

  15. I want professors who want to teach. Professors who are hostile to students who ask questions or express interest should not be tolerated. It doesn’t serve students for the administration to force professors who only want to do research to teach courses. Similarly, I want Brandeis to hire professors based partially on their skill as educators, not exclusively on their expertise in their field. Given that the vast majority of courses are taught at the undergraduate level, it doesn’t make sense to prioritize incredibly specialized knowledge over the ability to share the basics within each field.

  16. Mandatory accessibility training for every staff and faculty member on campus, so that I never get a look of surprise (or get scolded in front of a class) when I use an accommodation again. I should not need to explain my disability or my accommodations to professors who are capable of talking to SAS directly, because my time and energy is precious and limited. Having SAS “encourage that I self-advocate” is infuriating and counterproductive and has resulted in accommodations nearly falling through multiple times.

  17. I want at least half of the SAS staff to be disabled, and for a dramatic increase in SAS staffing. Roughly 1 in 4 American adults live with a disability. Brandeis has a population of 5,800 students, and let’s say that a single employee can effectively manage accommodations for about 50 students (probably stretching it). That works out to 29 SAS employees. Why do we not have that currently?

  18. Similarly dramatic increases to Brandeis Counseling Center (BCC) staffing, reflecting the inability of mental health workers to adequately care for caseloads larger than 15 or 20 people at a time. An end to the policies that use group therapy to triage “low-priority” students. A dramatically increased budget. More than one trans therapist. Disabled therapists and an actually accessible building. An end to waiting lists for intake appointments in their entirety. Therapists specializing in learning disorders, ADHD, psychosis, OCD, PTSD and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), personality disorders, dissociative disorders, and plurality. Therapists working in politically aware frameworks who are able to adequately address external stressors in a way that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) does not. Therapists who don’t reproduce trauma within their sessions, in particular with disabled students, trans students and students of color.

  19. Admissions quotas for physically and mentally disabled students commensurate with the general population. Admissions quotas for students of color (and in particular for Black and Native students) and poor students commensurate with the general population. I want the unbalanced student population corrected in four years and the staff and faculty demographics corrected in six years.

  20. Increased transportation options on campus as well as to Waltham and Boston/Cambridge, running at least twice as frequently. The ability to reserve space on a bus at any time (arbitrarily long or short) in advance of the bus’s journey with decreased barriers to entry and support for mobile devices in order to make driving a car no longer a necessity for students who live off campus.

  21. Wheelchair accessibility for every floor of every building on campus — including Skyline, which, despite the tour guides’ brags that it’s the most accessible building on campus, has heavy, difficult-to-open, manual interior doors. I want tour guides to announce every building that isn’t wheelchair accessible when showing the campus to prospective students. And I want real accessibility, not just “well technically you can get to Goldsmith 300 by entering Volen across the quad, going down a long hallway, taking an elevator, crossing the skybridge, and passing through several heavy and non-automatic (i.e. not wheelchair accessible) doors”-style accessibility. I want the wheelchair-accessible routes through campus to be direct and convenient, not coiled through back hallways like they were designed by Wile E. Coyote.

I’m tired of the avoidant non-responses I’ve gotten from SAS in the past year, and I’m tired of wasting my breath in closed-door meetings. I hope we can make some broader changes to allow me to succeed here, as well as my disabled peers and future students, many of whom are not as eloquent or as aware of their poor treatment as I am.

The last time I met with SAS, I was told that “there’s not a brick that doesn’t move” when it comes to accessibility. Here are some bricks. Let’s get moving.