On April 3, 2019, the plastic chairs that lined the Broadway Room of Lerner were dotted with students ready to talk about the challenges of having a disability at Columbia. Dierdre Radigan, a senior in General Studies, opened the town hall by speaking about her experience as an undergrad at Georgetown 12 years earlier. “I sat there facing all these problems that I had no idea how to solve and couldn’t have any perspective on. I felt like my life was falling apart, and I didn’t know who to talk to,” she said.
Radigan’s experience at Georgetown is not dissimilar to that of students with disabilities at Columbia, who often face an arduous, bureaucratic process to register their disability, as well as feelings of social isolation and alienation. Social stigmas can make it difficult for students with disabilities to find a community to share helpful resources among one another, to make disclosure to fellow students and professors easier, and to find classroom experiences that don’t single them out. Without support systems in place, though, administrative and social change can feel unattainable.
What would it look like to have a more centralized support network for students with disabilities?
The Americans With Disabilities Act, which sets the standard for most public accommodations, defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” In the 2018-19 academic year, 2,702 students from across the University—approximately eight percent of the total student body—registered with Columbia Disability Services, a number up by 15 percent in the last year and 58 percent in the last five. The majority of those students received accommodations for a psychiatric disability, ADHD, or a learning disability, according to the office. In the 2018-19 academic year, DS provided 25,103 specified accommodations, such as additional time for test-taking or note-taking services for individual courses.
It used to be that many students with disabilities didn’t go to college. Thanks to growing awareness of disability and developments in technology, medicine, and law, an increasing number of students are able to attend college, given the appropriate accommodations. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of students with disabilities who enrolled in colleges across the United States grew by 19.3 percent, compared to 8.6 percent for the general population. In 2016, according to the Department of Education, 19.4 percent of college students reported having a disability.
However, getting to college is only half the battle. Securing the accomodations one needs to succeed can be an incredibly daunting process. For one, college demands increased self-advocacy from all students. For many, this is the first time they must navigate complex bureaucracy without the help of experienced adults. And for students with disabilities, the stakes of failure can feel much higher.
In order to get registered with Disability Services at Columbia, one must collect and submit an application, which includes a history of previous accommodations and documentation of their disability obtained from their medical services provider. They must then bring this documentation to the office in person, which generally takes around three weeks to process, during which the student does not receive accommodations. Based on the student’s documentation, the office determines whether the student is eligible for the accommodations they have requested.
This process may become even more complex depending on the degree of access one has to their health care providers. Robert Vogel, a Columbia College sophomore and Columbia College Student Council disability services representative, has both diabetes and cystic fibrosis. When seeking accommodation, he got documentation of both illnesses from a specialist in cystic fibrosis. DS accepted the documentation for cystic fibrosis, but required that Vogel track down additional documentation from a specialist in diabetes. Madeleine Lemos, a Columbia College junior, who is hearing-impaired, was unable to register until her sophomore year because of delays in communication with her audiologist at home.
Jamie Lerner-Brecher, who graduated from General Studies in 2019 and was the former GS disabilities representative, says that DS’s structure works best for those who have been evaluated and had support throughout their primary and secondary education. But as Radhika Mehta, a Columbia College sophomore and vice president of the class of 2022, points out, that level of previous support is a privilege. “A lot of times students don’t know what to ask for. They don’t know exactly what it means to even have academic accommodations.”
Like other offices at Columbia, DS faces common administrative challenges that limit its capabilities, though the office has tried to remedy these issues in recent years by hiring new staff members.
Academic accommodations require further action from students: They are responsible for bringing a letter of approval from DS to each of their professors, which each professor may either accept or reject. The student must then either return the signed letter to DS or initiate alternative accommodations. If students need test-taking accommodations, they must report those tests to DS three weeks in advance of each test, three weeks in advance of the first quiz, and six weeks in advance of a final. Professors can waive this requirement if they choose.
Vogel tells me that in some of his classes, he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember the dates of quizzes that far in advance, and has therefore had to take quizzes without the accommodations he is supposed to have.
However, change might be on the horizon; last year, DS piloted an alternative method for exam scheduling. This method allowed for two things: Students could submit a shortened version of the testing accommodation form, and in lieu of signing each student’s individual form, faculty provided DS with exam information. According to DS, both students and faculty had positive experiences.
Columbia Health also works with student organizations and individual students to gain feedback. In particular, the Student Health Advisory Committee is comprised of undergraduate and graduate representatives and often includes disability services liaisons from councils.
But extending outside of DS, another, perhaps more pernicious influence on students with disabilities is the skepticism from professors and other students, which, whether intentionally or not, demands that students with disabilities ‘prove themselves.’
What’s more, some students have disabilities that are judged as too serious for them to succeed at Columbia. According to the ADA, universities are only required to provide reasonable accommodations if doing so would not alter the nature of the service provided.
In a more general sense, some students feel that they are discounted because they don’t fit into the traditional mould of an Ivy League student. “Columbia is a top tier school,” says Lerner-Brecher. “It’s very difficult academically, and so there’s this underlying assumption that if you have a disability … that makes you not equal, not worthy of being there.”
Other students are treated as though their disabilities aren’t serious enough, that their accommodations are undeserved or, worse, an attempt to get an undue advantage. Vogel gives the example of the air-conditioning unit in his room. He tells me that when people come to visit his room for the first time, they always want to know why he gets to have it. He’s hesitant to tell them of his disabilities, because he says, “people who don’t know me or people who don’t know what I go through are just instantly viewing [my accomodations] as me having cheated the system.”
As I interviewed students for this piece, many of them emphasized the difficulties they had faced due to their disabilities—in the ADA’s language, the “substantial limitations” they had fought against. After witnessing it several times, I start to wonder if it is a reflexive habit, used to dispel the notion that these students are somehow trying to pull one over those around them.
Lerner-Brecher tells me that she’s noted the preconceptions of those around her, how professors are more willing to honor her accommodations because she has a physical disability. And given that many disabilities are not immediately apparent to an outsider, this can lead to suspicions from the general population of exaggeration or fabrication, made worse by widely-publicized cheating scandals like Operation Varsity Blues, where students have feigned a disability in order to be granted testing accommodations. When students without disabilities cheat, they contribute to a growing mistrust in the students that do, in fact, need accommodations. Lerner-Brecher tells me that even generally well-meaning students without disabilities who request unnecessary extensions or take the elevator—picture the line that forms in front of the Hamilton elevator every morning—aren’t always conscious of “how much more difficult that makes it for students that need it.”
For some students with disabilities, this means constantly having to justify the space they occupy at Columbia. These attitudes are particularly salient in the relationship between professors and students. Professors understandably want to make sure they aren’t being taken advantage of, but, again, this means that students with disabilities feel like they are constantly under suspicion. As Vogel tells me, “The best thing a professor can do is listen and believe students… it makes you feel better about when you need to reach out for help, if you know the professor really is not distrustful.”
Lerner-Brecher, who started college as a student without disabilities, tells me that being on the other side of assumptions of ability for the first time was very challenging, even with little things, like taking the elevator. Lemos gives the example of parties on campus. The noise overwhelms her hearing aids, making her come off as “cold.” People then assume she won’t want to go in the future, making her feel like the odd one out. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” she says.
It is for this reason that, if given the option, many students at Columbia choose not to disclose their disabilities to administration, faculty, or even their peers. “I don’t usually bring [my deafness] up because I've developed techniques to pass as hearing and function pretty well at Columbia's campus,” Lemos tells me. “I usually wait until I know that it won't affect our relationship.”
It also forms a cycle, she says, where those who are able-bodied on campus can ignore the issue, leading to a feeling of alienation from peers. “It’s visibly ‘not a big issue’ on campus, so it’s not at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Lemos tells me.
In the words of one student at the town hall, “there is such a huge mismatch between what we know as people who have this lived experience, and what everyone else on campus knows.”
The reluctance to share, along with federal laws that require DS to keep information about students confidential, makes it difficult for students to find other students with disabilities who may have a sense of what they’re going through. “You have to be actively seeking out those people; otherwise, you’re not gonna find them,” Lemos tells me. In these informal networks, information accumulated from other students’ experiences can be shared, but finding them is “a major barrier.”
What can be done to relieve students of the burden created by bureaucratic and social challenges?
That was a question being explored at the disabilities town hall at which Deirdre spoke. The town hall was positioned as an opportunity for students with disabilities to meet their student government representatives and share experiences with disability on campus. According to Lerner-Brecher, who was one of the organizers of the event, despite issues with scheduling and advertisement, there were about 40 to 50 participants.
According to Mehta, the representatives would assemble feedback, present it to DS, and use it to craft policy initiatives. But the town hall was also a powerful opportunity to “meet other people who are in the same boat as you,” says Lerner-Brecher. She herself met another student with her disability at a town hall two years earlier. In the words of one participant at the town hall, “being here and saying these things lets people know that it’s not just one person.” It was also an opportunity for students to consolidate their advocacy. As junior Jonathan Criswell, the University senator for General Studies and one of the panelists at the event said, there were hopes that “we can centralize some of the work that’s being done. … We have to find a way to bring students with disabilities and student-with-disabilities advocates together more effectively to make some noise.”
The town hall also reveals one of the challenges inherent to college advocacy: Things take time to change, and they sometimes take longer than their advocates have at the school. And with every graduating class, a movement loses a little bit of its institutional memory. Lerner-Brecher points out that at the town hall she went to two years ago, many of the concerns were largely the same as present concerns. And, like the organizers of that town hall, she has also graduated with more work yet to be done. “I hope there are more undergraduates there to continue the fight, I know there are, but I hope to see it keep going,” she says. As of now, there is not another town hall scheduled, but Criswell, Mehta, and Vogel are all working on initiatives based on the results of the last town hall.
Some have tried to create groups with more regularity, like Radigan, who is now a grad student and has started an organization called Columbia University Students with Illnesses and Disabilities. Lerner-Brecher is optimistic about this model as a place to share acquired knowledge on courses and resources. “Some professors are extremely accommodating and wonderful, and certain professors make your life very difficult, and that’s not something that's necessarily written down in CULPA.” However, because registering as a club at Columbia takes over a year, they have been unable to advertise through popular channels like the club fair, and CUSWID has been under-attended, according to Lerner-Brecher.
This support network model has been successful at Yale University, which faces many of the same issues that Columbia does. Disability Empowerment For Yale has produced a 26-page-long student guide for students with disabilities that not only identifies official resources, but also walks students through the registration process and offers more informal tips for navigating campus. It has also implemented a peer mentor program, in which older members of the network are paired with incoming students to aid their transitions to college.
“Community is so essential for advocacy to be effective,” the president, Paige Lawrence, tells me. The vice-president, Mafalda von Alvensleben, notes what a positive force DEFY has been for its participants. “Illness, especially in young people, is so scary. … That sort of invincible youth is actually not something that everyone has access to, and yet this community is so bright and so happy and so supportive.”
Students stress that it is important to recognize that this kind of support can be difficult to provide, given the wide-ranging manifestations of disability. Vogel notes that his experience is very different from that of someone with a brain injury, which may make it difficult to provide them with relatability at a granular level. But Lawrence says that despite the differences in their conditions, they ultimately have a lot to learn from each other’s interactions with administration, professors, and the broader student body.
A smaller support group model is also being tested at Columbia in the form of Synapse, an organization for students with acquired brain injuries. The founder Shariq Jumani, a Columbia College junior studying neuroscience, was hit by a car in the summer of his first year of college, sending him into a coma for three weeks and leaving him with increased cognitive fatigue and decreased visual cognition. Upon returning to Columbia, he started a chapter of the national organization to help students with acquired brain injuries find each other.
“I've been to many support groups in the past,” he tells me, “I have not gone more than once to a single one, just because I have not felt I could relate to people, [because] it has been an older population.” Like Lawrence and von Alvensleben, he emphasizes the positivity of the group: “We acknowledge that we have difficulties … but we also focus on achievements.” Jumani hopes that the group will be able to extend its advocacy arm as well, to help normalize illness and disability in the broader community.
What the students I’ve spoken to all acknowledge is that, despite the good intentions of the Columbia community, there is a lack of awareness of the challenges faced by students with disabilities on this campus, and of how their peers themselves might contribute to it.
Picture two students.
The first applies early decision to Barnard. She first gets involved in Barnard’s Reacting to the Past seminars, eventually working in the office with professor Mark Carnes. She’s participated in the Barnard-Columbia Choir for two years. She’s on the student council and wins a leadership award at graduation for her service. She graduates summa cum laude.
The second student is a good student, but in the spring of her sophomore year, she gets very sick, so sick that she is bedridden for months, forcing her to take incompletes in many of her classes. The spring turns to summer and then to fall, and the school tells her she can’t come back and that she must take medical leave. She is eventually able to escape her bedrest, but not her new diagnosis—dysautonomia, a disorder of the nervous system that causes bouts of dizziness, fatigue, and nausea. She takes one course at the City College of New York the following spring, but she can no longer read without feeling sick. She is forced to transfer into General Studies to accommodate a nine-credit course load, and for the rest of college, it is difficult for her to walk across campus and read textbooks. One could say that her eventual graduation is a small miracle.
These are both the story of Lerner-Brecher, who did, in fact, spend convocation at Barnard and commencement at GS and who did, in fact, graduate summa cum laude. It is also the story of a woman who, as she puts it, “doesn’t read”—and who added immense value to the Columbia community while facing a serious disability.
How can we, as a community, create a space where the second story can be recognized, but does not overshadow the first? How can we create a space where a student can have just one story, with all the lived experiences that encompasses? As one student at the town hall said, “We cannot just troubleshoot, it’s a systemic problem”—and it’s one that students are fighting each day to address.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Paige Lawrence and Mafalda von Alvensleben were cofounders of DEFY, rather than president and vice-president.
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