Updated September 13, 2018 at 11:20 a.m
At the close of the second week of classes, a crucial time for students seeking disability accommodations for note-taking and extended deadlines, Barnard’s Office of Disability Services is currently staffed by just two full-time employees who together must handle the accommodations for close to 500 students.
Over the summer, Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 Coordinator Carolyn Corbran announced that she would depart from her role, leaving the office in the hands of Accommodations Coordinator Nicole Bartolotta and one other full-time staffer. Even before Corbran’s departure, however, ODS is an office that has historically been understaffed and has failed to advocate for its students.
This lack of staff is especially an issue now, as the office is overwhelmed by students seeking accommodations for their classes in an especially hectic time of the semester.
Maria Antonella Pereira, BC ’19, said she was forced to wait months before an in-person appointment was available, and as a result, she did not receive the accommodation she needs for her hearing impairment for the first week of classes.
Marina Chiaramonte, BC ’21, said that acquiring accommodations through the office has only become more complicated since Corbran has left.
“They need to have more people in the office, especially since [Corbran] has left,” Chiaramonte said. “I had a lot of trouble dealing with the ODS office last year, but she was the one who ultimately gave me the accommodations that I needed. Her being gone has made the process infinitely more difficult. The process that I went through last semester to get the housing accommodations I needed was stressful at best, pretty atrocious at worst.”
According to Alicia Lawrence, executive director of Residential Life & Housing and current interim Dean of the College alongside Dean of Studies Natalie Friedman, there is an ongoing search for Corbran’s replacement, and she expects that the position will be filled “in the coming weeks.”
“We’re looking for someone who will connect with students, so to that end we’re looking to have students involved in that interview process,” she said.
Lawrence also said that the office plans to hire a fourth full-time staffer to coordinate student accommodations and assist faculty in implementing accommodations once Corbran’s replacement is hired. Additionally, Lawrence said that Barnard’s Title IX Coordinator and Executive Director for Equity Molree Williams-Lendor has been assisting the office and providing leadership during this time. The college has also hired three part-time graduate student workers to assist in administering tests and completing other tasks this semester.
Many students have expressed that they hope the new head of ODS will adopt more of an advocate approach in contrast to Corbrans’ philosophy, which, as she discussed in an SGA meeting last October, pushed students to stand up for themselves “because in the ‘real world,’ no one would advocate for them.”
Many students considered this stance to be dismissive and an excuse to not fully assist them. During this time, students like Antonella Pereira resorted to coping on their own rather than seeking accommodations through ODS.
“I found the process of actually implementing such accommodations quite fatiguing, and after struggling with mental health [issues] that semester, I essentially stopped going to ODS altogether,” said Antonella Pereira said. “In a way, it was easier for me to study twice as hard, read everything twice, [and] get notes from peers than going through the process of getting actual formal accommodations.”
For the same reasons, Jaelyn Wingard, BC ’22, believes that students should be consulted and further involved in the search for Corbran’s replacement. Wingard also hopes that an individual who identifies as having a disability will be hired.
“It would be a good way to have representation from someone who is more sympathetic, because that’s their mindset,” Wingard said. “They understand what it’s like to not have an accommodation and want one.”
Several students have also recommended establishing a student advocate role who would act as an intermediary between students attempting to seek accommodations from the office and the office itself, though such a position mainly exists at larger state universities. Lawrence stated that such a position has not been considered before.
“I don’t know that there has been a focus on adding a position specifically as an advocate per se, because all of our staff in the ODS serve as advocates for our students every day,” she said. “But it’s certainly on the table that we would want to think about expanding positions, expanding services.”
Many students, including former SGA Representative for Student Health Services Valerie Jaharis, BC ’19, argue that such staff members are crucial because ODS has not been a successful student advocate in the past.
“Over the years at Barnard, students have had to fight against the office that was made to support them just to get our accommodations afforded to us by federal law,” Jaharis said. “The ableism disabled college students face in a system that was never made for our is exhaustive and the last thing we need is to be fighting our biggest ally.”