January 31, 2014

The rule, not the exception

Administration and students must actively participate in increasing disabilities accessibility

Although UChicago hosts interesting speaker events and student functions every day, sixth-year Ph.D. student Margaret Fink (A.M. ’07) oftentimes cannot attend—not because of scheduling conflicts, but because she is deaf and, as a result, needs captioning to fully access speaker events. While Student Disability Services (SDS) currently provides accommodations like captioning, students must request them a few weeks in advance, Fink said in a fall interview with Grey City. “Before SDS it wasn’t clear who I should be even requesting the captioning from in terms of if it was for a lecture or not just my classroom experience. And so honestly, for a lot of graduate school, I have just not gone to the events because they don’t [provide captioning]—it’s gonna be a waste of my time if it’s not accessible to me.” That any student feels excluded because of a disability is simply unacceptable.

This quarter, Student Government (SG) has come up with a partial solution to this problem by launching an RSO Disabilities Accessibility Pilot Program. The program aims to make events more accessible to students with disabilities by training RSO leaders to access SDS resources. SG’s decision to find funding for this program, which is slated to be a prerequisite for any RSO applying for SG funding next year, demonstrates their awareness of accessibility problems on campus. But neither the conversation nor the solution should be one-sided: In order to make this campus and its programming truly inclusive to disabled students, RSO leaders and the administration must engage with disability awareness issues beyond basic institutional requirements.

As the Maroon reported, the pilot program has yet to secure funding past its initial stages. The administration can help increase awareness about disabilities accessibility by supporting the pilot in the coming years. It is critical that this program maintain a consistent presence on campus in order to truly make an impact on the student body. While the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities is funding the pilot program, long-term funding is uncertain. The administration must ensure that the program endures; disabilities accommodation should be a given, not something left by the wayside because of funding challenges.

The University is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but as reported in Grey City, many students still have trouble accessing buildings and events. While regulations are in place and on paper, they can only solve half of the problem. Students, faculty, and other community members must play a part as well by actively providing accommodations—even without the request of an attendee. No student should feel like requesting accommodations creates a hassle. Accessibility should be the default, not something that has to be specially requested weeks in advance.

Disability should not be a barrier to a student’s experience on this campus, whether in or out of class. Without proper accommodations, disabled students are denied the opportunity to participate in dialogues and debates on campus. SG should be commended for the step they have taken to remediate the current inconveniences of these students, but the success of their program hinges upon stable funding, as well as the active participation and consideration of everyone on campus—not just those in need of the accommodations.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.

Rebecca Guterman has recused herself from the writing of this editorial.