Students and staff out of sync on AccessAbility Services, misconceptions lead to campus tension

BY MADELINE FITZGERALD ’21

There is a predictable rhythm to starting college. Scan department store lists of dorm room essentials. Check Rate My Professor. Check the Facebook group. Check everything, then load the car and leave home.  For Caroline Castonguay ’20, however, there was one more necessary task to complete. Castonguay, who has cystic fibrosis, a chronic and debilitating illness, needed to meet with AccessAbility services, the office that provides students with disability accommodations. 

“I went [to AccessAbility Services] and the woman was really nice. It seemed like everything was going really well,” said Castonguay. “As I was talking, I noticed that she had a paper in front of her and she was checking off what she deemed my proper accommodations. I felt like that was super problematic because it automatically established a level of distrust. [I felt like] she didn’t think I was competent enough to sign off on my own or that I was going to take advantage of [the system].” 

Castonguay is not alone in this experience. Several students described similar meetings in interviews with the Mount Holyoke News: they would describe their disabilities while a member of the AccessAbility staff noted accommodations based on a preexisting criteria, not specific to individuals. The prevailing perception among those interviewed was that there were specific accommodations available on a list that students could not see. Many were concerned about not being made aware of accommodations which could be helpful for their conditions. “I didn’t even know what was on that list,” said Castonguay. “I feel like if I did I might think,  ‘Oh, I need this accommodation!’”

While many students showed this concern, representatives from the office said there is no exhaustive list of all possible accommodations. “We’re making new accommodations all the time based on student needs,” said Kaitlin Molloy, the senior accommodations coordinator. “We do have a paper list of some of the more common accommodations because we’re digital, so we have the input codes handy for some of the more common accommodations. We’re implementing accommodations on a case-by-case basis all the time.” 

Many students expressed frustration with the extensive documentation required by the College, and felt that it indicated a lack of trust. “I had a lot of anxiety about whether my information was going to be enough as well as having to explain my experience and fight for what is necessary,” said April Kepler ’21.  While Kepler did say that AccessAbility Services “were immediately understanding” of her needs, other students felt there was an unfair burden placed on them, which made them feel as though they had to earn their accommodations. 

“There is a legal component,” said Amber Douglas, the director of the Office of Student Success and Advising, “and I think our standard is consistent with other institutions. It breaks my heart to hear that students think they have to earn their accommodations.”

The AccessAbility staff highlighted the need to prepare students for life after college, when they would need to resolve accommodation issues within the workplace. By having Mount Holyoke students carefully record the medications they need, for example, the students will have long-standing documentation when they need to explain their situations to future employers. 

Another concern raised by students was the way in which rooms are assigned to students with housing accommodations. Depending on a student’s disability they may not receive housing through the standard lottery. Students who need specific housing accommodations are assigned rooms earlier than their classmates to ensure that their needs are met. Despite these measures, students expressed two frustrations regarding the housing accommodations process: limited freedom in room choice and failure to meet requested accommodations.

“We do one round of placements where we sit down with Residential Life and tell them, ‘these are the students who want to use their accommodations and these are their accommodations,’” said Molloy. Residential Life places those students and then opens housing up to the rest of campus. A second round happens in the late spring and summer. Residential Life adjusts placements for students who missed the first deadline or requested new accommodations. The issue that students have with this process is that accommodations are not met in the first round and they are forced to wait until the summer when there are fewer options available and room accommodations still need to be made for incoming first-years. 

When asked about specific students who claimed they did not receive the accommodations recommended by their doctors, Molloy replied, “Housing is very fraught and there’s a tension between a student’s accommodations and a student’s preferences for where they live on campus.” She emphasized that all Mount Holyoke students have the option to change rooms and that no one is forcing students to use their accommodations. 

One point which both students and the AccessAbility staff brought up is that it is important for students to decide whether or not they want to use an accommodation they receive. “I do think it is important for students to have the right to make a decision about whether or not they’re going to use an accommodation,” said Douglas. 

Kepler echoed this sentiment. “I think it’s difficult on all sides because students are coming in on so many different places on their journeys,” said Kepler. “So in that sense it’s difficult for the students and the office especially because they do stress that they will never force students to use accommodations that they are given.” 

Kepler believes there is one problem, however trivial, which AccessAbility could more easily address. Outside the office, where many students go to receive accommodations for physical disabilities, there is a sign encouraging people to take the stairs and not the elevator. “It’s like, come on MoHo, you’re better than that,” said Kepler. “It’s a very Shakespearean amount of terrible irony.”

Mount Holyoke News

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