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Oglethorpe is Working to Develop a Culture of Disability, but it is enough?

Bhavana Kunnath, Staff Writer

When Elerich Newbern first came to Oglethorpe she never imagined she would become the

founder and president of Disabled, Neurodivergent Students of Oglethorpe, the university’s first

club dedicated to disability advocacy. She certainly did not anticipate the pushback from her

professors that would later become the impetus for founding the club.

One of Newbern’s classes required her to participate in a verbal debate, but that was no easy

task. “Public speaking is very hard for me and with my processing issues and the way my brain

works, it’s hard to do a back-and-forth debate,” she said. Fortunately, Newbern had an

accommodation that allowed her to complete an alternative assignment. Unfortunately, her

professor did not recognize the necessity of her accommodation. “They basically said ‘No,

you’ve got it, you can do it’ and persuaded me out of it,” she said. “I was new to the

accommodations process and I didn’t know how much I could advocate for myself, so I thought

‘okay, I guess I have to do the debate’ but I knew I was going to fail it if I did.” Newbern was

able to work with the Director of Accessibility Services who explained her rights to her and

helped her get the support she needed to complete her alternative assignment and succeed in the course, but the experience stuck with her. “It was just a very uncomfortable situation to be in and that’s not the only time that’s happened with a professor or even with that professor

specifically,” she said.

She is not alone. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19.4% of enrolled

undergraduates reported having a disability, and Newbern herself is one of the 185 students at

Oglethorpe (about 13% of the student body) who registers for accommodations with the Office

of Accessibility Services. She says that many of the students in DNSO have reported similar

negative experiences with getting professors or administrators to act on their accessibility


While she is not one of the professors students cite in their complaints, Dr. Sarah Terry, the chair

of the English department, was able to shed some light on the issue from the faculty’s

perspective. Terry said that implementing accommodations has been relatively easy in her

experience with issues mainly arising when new accommodations were offered to students

before professors were made aware of them. Accommodations that allow students to use

technology have also been a cause for concern among faculty members who want to have

technology-free classrooms with the option to record lectures being a particularly contentious

issue due to concerns about privacy and academic freedom. “At one point we did ask the Office

of Accessibility Services to work with us as faculty to draw up rules or a policy about recording

in class,” Terry said. “That’s now a formal policy. I think for the most part we work together to

figure out what works best for the students and the professors.”

Gabriel Mendez, the university’s first full-time Accessibility Services staff member, agrees that

faculty have been cooperative. “Across the board, faculty have been and continue to be in

overwhelming support of accommodations in the classroom,” he said. “I think the real areas of

continued growth and learning are around specific accommodations they may not be familiar

with or that they feel are a bit farther reaching than what they are used to, but when I explain to

them not only the learning dimension but also the legal implications of not providing

accommodations in a timely manner, they very quickly understand that this is a required process

approved through my office and it is guided by strong institutional policy and federal law.”

Both Terry and Mendez identified self-advocacy as being one of the biggest issues for disabled

and neurodivergent students. Accommodations exist to provide students with the external

support they need to succeed academically and professors are legally required to implement

them, but it is up to students to determine when they need accommodations and request them.

Terry said that she encourages students with accommodations to get in touch with her at the

beginning of every semester and tries to reach out to follow up with students who do not contact

her within the first week. “It is on the students to make the arrangements and they often don’t,”

she said. “I just want to make sure they can be proactive and ask for what they need.”

Both Mendez and Newbern attribute much of this reluctance to the differences in the

accommodations process between K-12 schools and universities. In K-12 schools, trained

professionals usually identify, evaluate, and recommend accommodations for students who

might need them, but most universities (Oglethorpe included) do not have such procedures. “We

don’t have people on campus who can assess, diagnose, and provide accommodation

recommendations on campus so you have to self-identify and look outside of the institution to be

assessed and have recommendations written up for you,” Mendez said. He also said that it is

common for first-year students to reach out to talk about possible accommodations but avoid

following up because they want to try working without accommodations—or at least they do

until they see the impact this has on their grades and they realize that they need more support.

Mendez said, “I think the biggest hurdle for first-year students is overcoming the stigma or

shame associated with disability in our culture.” This issue is not specific to Oglethorpe. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 1/3 of students with disabilities actually report their disabilities to their school and in many cases that is a result of the shame or stigma associated with disability and requesting accessibility services.

But Oglethorpe is working to change that. The university has been making an effort to address issues of physical accessibility for some time now. This is why the university added a paved walkway to the residential quad in 2018 and constructed the woodland walkway in 2020. Oglethorpe’s Museum of Art has even joined in on the effort to create a more accessible campus by providing wheelchairs and offering accommodations such as adjustable lighting for those who need it and for the second year in a row the museum has provided testing spaces for students with accommodations. Elizabeth Peterson, the Director of OUMA, also reports that she has been working with DNSO and the Office of Accessibility Services to create sensory rooms in the Shelly and Donald Rubin Gallery for neurodivergent students. Many of OUMA’s recent changes were prompted by a visit by Nancy Kelley-Jones, a trustee emerita of Gallaudet University. “After she visited along with artist/activist Amy Cohen Efron, they essentially gave us a Deaf/Disabled museum audit,” Peterson said. “Coming from that we decided to repaint the entire museum, purchase lighting, and so forth around April of this year.” But both students and faculty agree that the biggest changes by far have been in the culture of the campus itself, and DNSO has played a significant role in inciting that change by cultivating a culture of disability. Though it has hardly been a full semester since the club was created, it has already gotten involved in hosting campus events, created a sense of community among disabled and neurodivergent students, and provided a network of support and resources for its members. The club even received the Outstanding Student Organization Award and the Community Award from the Inter-Club Council for its advocacy efforts. Mendez, the accessibility services director and the club sponsor, also spoke highly of DNSO and praised the club for helping so many students get the support they need.

“I really want to make sure that DNSO doesn’t go anywhere because students with disabilities aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “This is a group of students that has always existed and now they’re being more fully represented in the eyes of the campus.” Club President Newbern said that she and the rest of the executive team are proud to have helped so many students with self-advocacy, but she emphasized the fact that this was only part of the solution and said that more work still needs to be done. “I think [self-advocacy and institutional support] go hand in hand,” she said. “If you don’t provide the space for people to feel seen and feel like they can go to someone with their issues and who they are, it’s hard for someone to self- advocate.”

Miriam Smith, the senior director of Title IX and equity and the administrator who formerly

handled much of the accommodations work Mendez now handles, acknowledges that

institutional difficulties can be a serious burden for students. “In the world of ADA we try the

best we can to remove unnecessary barriers,” she says. “However, we are governed by laws; and therefore sometimes things students see as significant obstacles we have no choice but to enforce because the federal law tells us so.”

Newbern said that the university has been slow to respond to complaints and requests by club

members regarding a variety of physical accessibility issues such as the problem of sorority

members parking in accessible parking spaces and blocking sisters with disabilities from using

them. One of these issues has been the woodland walkway the university built to increase access

in 2020. Newbern says that club members have complained about the slipperiness of the

walkway being a serious hazard but says staff have pushed back. “They say ‘we added the lights

because you complained and now you find something else to complain about,’ but they could

easily fix this by including friction strips to prevent slipping,” she says.

She also identifies Oglethorpe’s historic buildings as being one of the biggest challenges for

students with disabilities. “Half of our buildings aren’t accessible—there are students that just

cannot get into Hearst,” she said. She spoke of one student who must take exams in a different

building because they cannot access the Hearst building to talk to their professors. “That’s just

not acceptable,” Newbern said. “I think having our buildings become accessible is a priority.

They’re not going to prioritize that because it costs a lot of money, but I wish that they would.”

But physical accessibility and self-advocacy are still only pieces of the puzzle. “This is a

relatively old campus and if we’re thinking about layers of complexity, the first one is physical

accessibility,” Mendez said. “We start with that baseline and work our way up into changing the

ingrained perceptions of disability among faculty and staff, especially those who have been here

longer and may be more ingrained in their practices and ways of thinking. I think we have to take

a ground-level up approach.”

Newbern takes a slightly different view. “We need to start from the foundation because there’s a

lot to be done, but I think the root problem is a lack of understanding,” she said. “I understand

that there’s obviously going to be a learning curve with implementing newer accommodations

but I do think there’s an issue of a general lack of education of common etiquette around

disability.” To that end, DNSO has plans to address these issues by holding presentations for faculty and work shops for people outside the disabled and neurodivergent student community to show people what it is like to be a disabled student and explain how they can be better allies. Senior Director of Title IX and Equity, Miriam Smith, also hopes to hold programs to teach advocacy, and both DNSO and the Office of Accessibility Services are looking for more student allies. “What each person could do to improve this environment is to get involved when we do,”

Newbern said. “If we’re having some kind of event where we have a speaker or we’re talking

about disability, just showing up and being there is enough because it shows that you want to be

a part of the change and be there for students like us.”

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