Navigating Amherst With A Disability

by Annika Ariel ’19 & Joshua Ferrer ’18

Georgina Kleege writes that “the blind are either supernatural or subhuman, alien or animal…but when we express any of this, the sighted scoff: ‘Don’t be silly. I can see you as you really are… You’re just being oversensitive.” Though writing about blindness, Kleege’s words easily apply to all disabilities. Disability is commonly seen as a problem in need of a solution or an individualized medical issue to be “fixed”, rather than an essential aspect of human diversity. But what could be more diverse than the abilities of the human body?

The social model of disability presents an alternative view. Rather than viewing disability as an individualized medical issue, it views it as a failure of society to include and accommodate everybody. Rather than viewing “accommodations” as special benefits bestowed by the majority on the few, it views them as band-aids that fail to make up the gulf between a society designed to exclude (the one we live in) and a society designed to include everybody. It recognizes the idea of “normal” for the myth it is, one we must come to terms with if we wish to create a truly inclusive society.

We are writing to tell you that Amherst College, for all its pretenses, is very much the same as the rest of the world in the way disability is viewed and treated here. Both of us were involved in Roosevelt@ Amherst which, at the time, was the only student group on campus that did any sort of work or research on disability. In 2017 and 2018, there was briefly a Presidential Task Force on Accessibility and Inclusion; it fell apart due to administrative intransigence and has yet to be restarted. We’ve outlined the work we’ve done previously in the Amherst Student]. In short, a review of Amherst’s disability policies revealed significant deficiencies across a wide range of areas, including physical accessibility, curricular accommodations, faculty and staff awareness, and administrative support. We have advocated for a number of concrete changes, some of which have happened and many of which have not. The Task Force was meant to continue this work, but since its dissolution little has been achieved.

We have a much more practical purpose in writing this beyond Amherst’s inadequate disability policies: to explain how to navigate Amherst with
a disability. Our experience comes from speaking to students, interacting with administrators, and conducting policy research. One of us is blind and the other is nondisabled. We don’t pretend to know every single disabled students’ experience. Every disability is different and every person will have a different experience at Amherst, but we believe these guidelines are helpful to almost all students with disabilities.

A note on our language–the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s definition of disability, which Amherst subscribes to as a legal requirement, is incredibly broad. For the purposes of our piece, we’re taking a slightly different definition: if you identify as disabled in any way, shape, or form, we consider you disabled. Many people who are technically disabled may not identify as disabled, and some people who are not considered disabled under the ADA may still identify as disabled.

1. First and most importantly: find advocates. At Amherst, a good portion of administrators won’t take you seriously if you’re an individual student. This has slightly improved over the years, but not enough to guarantee your rights as a student. Some professors are, quite frankly, horrible with disability and accommodations. Others are amazing. Finding out who is and isn’t great is a learning process where you will, unfortunately, make mistakes. Talking with other students can be helpful, but as the vast majority of Amherst students don’t identify as disabled (even those who receive accommodations and thus are technically marked by the College as having a disability), even this can be difficult. Once you find a (generally tenured) professor or a staff member with more institutional power than you, don’t be hesitant to pick their brain about what is going to work. For what it’s worth, both of us owe most of our advocacy education to Professor Kristin Bumiller.

2. Educate as much as you personally want to, not what others want you to do. Amherst is your place to be as a person. As a disabled person, you are inarguably the smallest minority on campus (Annika was the only person with a visible disability on campus for two years). Directly or indirectly, people are going to expect you to educate them all the time. Whether or not you do this is up to you, and if someone pressures you into representing an entire minority group, you don’t have to. You don’t speak for everyone with a disability. This goes for students asking you as much as for administrators and faculty. It also holds true for other intersecting identities you bring with you to Amherst. You are at Amherst to get a college education, not to be others’ personal tutors in understanding marginalized identities. The former is exhausting enough on its own.

3. The first year of Amherst is stressful for almost everyone–that said, listen to what people are telling you about themselves. This isn’t necessarily their words, but more their interactions and how they seem to feel about your disability. If you have a disability, especially one that affects many aspects of your life, you’ve probably gotten decent at sussing out who is and isn’t someone you want in your life. If someone is awkward or rude about your disability (a good example is when a roommate said I ‘wanted’ my guide dog), listen to what they’re telling you and spend your time with others. It’s not your job to educate everyone (see point 2). You’ll meet better people you won’t have to justify your existence to.

4. Amherst has the money. Some people are hesitant to ask for accommodations because of the cost, even though most accommodations cost under $500 (read: a penny to this institution) and are legally required. Amherst administrators will try and discourage many accommodations, even legally mandated ones. Especially if you’re from a low-income background, accommodations costing money–even someone else’s money– can be uncomfortable. But Amherst has the money to provide almost any reasonable accommodation, and fully including a student in the college is almost certainly a better use of their money than what they’re going to spend it on anyway (see: fancy banquets for alums, the giant clipboard sofa in Ford Hall, and the incessant landscaping). And considering that most accommodations are (as you may have picked up on) legally required, it’s also important to know your rights. But…

5. Don’t just know your rights, know about your rights. You’re not going to learn much about disability history or the disability community at Amherst. Over our combined six-and-a-half years spent at Amherst, there was exactly one course offered on disability. This coming semester, Professor Rangan is offering a course on disability media, the first in at least seven years and likely far longer. To remedy this, there are some foundational disability studies readings we recommend. Keywords in Disability Studies is easily available on JSTOR, Enabling Acts by Lennard Davis analyzes the complicated history of the ADA (and discusses how private colleges opposed it, a fact that one can easily see in a quick trip to Arms Music Center or Clark House, two completely inaccessible buildings), and even a simple Twitter search will reveal the wide and diverse disability community. The American Association of People with Disabilities and National Federation for the Blind are two great avenues to get involved with these issues on a bigger scale. The Center for American Progress has also launched a Disability Justice Initiative.

6. Don’t be shy when it comes to advocating. Getting a basic accommodation that would take an administrator under five minutes can sometimes take weeks (or, in some cases, years. The Office of Financial Aid is still using inaccessible documents, meaning that students who use certain kinds of assistive technology have to rely on friends or family to fill out forms that include information such as income and Social Security Number). Don’t hesitate to find out who someone’s boss is and cc them on emails. Don’t be shy when it comes to asserting your rights. You are at Amherst to get an education and your worth is just as much as everyone else’s. Amherst spends millions of dollars on lighting. If you’re blind, this is worthless to you, but to sighted people, it’s a necessary accommodation. The only difference is who the minority is.

Amherst is already difficult. You’ll have lots of demands on your time, from coursework, labs, and midterms to sports practices and music rehearsals, to managing a social life. Despite what Amherst may say about itself as an “inclusive” college community, expect the same as always when it comes to having a disability. While Amherst has resources for other minorities–and we’re not saying they’re perfect, we’re not saying they’re enough, but we’re saying they’re present–disabled people are largely left to fend for themselves. Amherst is also an institution that, for the time you’re here, will control most of your life. At times, it may feel like you’re constantly dealing with obstacles related to your disability and there’s no way of escaping them. Don’t forget that just walking into town can sometimes feel like a different world, and that taking the bus to another town is always an option. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just to get away.

Disabled students have to deal with the stresses of Amherst on top of navigating a largely inaccessible campus environment. There’s no sugarcoating it: the Amherst grind will be hard, and you will have to deal with lots of questionable behavior from administrators, faculty, and students. Our hope is that these pointers will help provide you some guidance during your time at Amherst. And remember you are never alone. We’re in this fight together.

%d bloggers like this: