Deborah Cohen leaves AccessAbility Services

Photo by Hannah Roach '17 AccessAbility Services is located in Wilder basement, where it holds its public office hours Monday through Friday.

Photo by Hannah Roach '17
AccessAbility Services is located in Wilder basement, where it holds its public office hours Monday through Friday.

BY NICOLE VILLACRES '18

In the aftermath of Director of AccessAbility Services Deborah Cohen’s resignation, Mount Holyoke plans to change the organizational structure of the department from having a singular director to two accommodation coordinators. Cohen, who spent four years at the College as AccessAbility director, will work her last day on Oct. 28.

“I love Mount Holyoke College ... I have spent my life being dedicated to advocating for disabled people and to teaching people about disability access and inclusion,” Cohen said in an interview during her final week. “Sadly, the campus is no longer a good fit for me.”

Cohen’s departure will leave AccessAbility with just two employees instead of the usual four. Liza Manchester, the learning specialist who coordinated notetakers, also left the department.

When Cohen first began working at Mount Holyoke, AccessAbility Services did not exist in the capacity it does today. There was not a centralized disabilities service office, and the school only had a part-time learning specialist and a part-time technology coordinator, according to Cohen.

“I was brought in to basically create a real program,” she said. “I hired the staff, I trained the staff [and] I created all the policies and protocols on campus around accommodations and accessibility.”

Cohen also collaborated with departments across campus to “teach people what it means to be accessible and inclusive.”

“There was a real gap in terms of understanding what it means to be accessible,” she said. “So I feel that [understanding] was something that I really brought to the College.”

Cohen's role as director was multifaceted, ranging from intake and accommodation appointments to acting as an advocate for students on campus. Cohen was the primary person to determine housing accommodations as well as P.E. modifications. She was also the primary person involved with compliance issues.

Now that Cohen is leaving the school, some students who rely on AccessAbility services are concerned that while the legally mandated services may not drop, some of the “extra work” Cohen was doing will no longer will be available.

Rachel Schmieder-Gropen ’18, who is registered with AccessAbility, defined this extra work as the “lovely gestures" Cohen provided for students, such as the stress-free zone during finals, time management workshops and general check-in meetings. The office recently helped Schmieder-Gropen with her transition to studying abroad.

“I had an appointment with Deborah to talk about my accommodations there and how I’m going to deal with the shifting accommodations,” Gropen said. “[Senior Administrative Assistant] Melissa Ebbeling wrote a letter that I gave to the McCulloch Center so they could coordinate with the university abroad. Those are a lot of little things I'm worried will fall by the wayside."

Director of Student Success and Advising Amber Douglas said that the College remains committed first and foremost to serving students with disabilities.

“I think that there's some concern that with Deborah leaving that's not going to be possible, but one of the things about the College is that we can't have things just reside in one person because if they just reside in that person then everyone is at risk in terms of continuity, if the person chooses to leave the institution," Douglas said.

According to Douglas, reorganization within the school began when Sonya Stephens moved into the acting presidential role. Stephens dissolved the Office of Student Affairs and created the Division of Student Life, headed by Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Marcella Hall.

Academic components such as AccessAbility Services, the Office of the Academic Dean and the National Fellowship program were pulled from the Office of the Dean of the College and into the new Office of Student Success and Advising.

When it comes to AccessAbility, the primary supervisor will be Douglas for academic concerns and Dean Hall for housing and dining service accommodations. Although nothing has been completely finalized, there will ultimately be four positions in AccessAbility: one senior accommodation coordinator with administrative capacity, another accommodation coordinator, a note-taking coordinator and an administrative assistant, according to Douglas. The position for Senior Accommodations Coordinator has been posted on the College’s Human Resources website and the administration has been reviewing current staff for promotion, according to an email sent to parents by Dean of Faculty Jon Western.

Regarding when the positions will be posted and filled, Douglas said, "My intent is, and I think we are committed to, having the office fully staffed as quickly as possible. When you are doing a search like this, it is hard to predict how long things are going to take. I think some people are going to be in place sooner rather than later. We have an interim plan, which involves having Rene Davis, who is our 504 coordinator, providing some direct support to the office and some other structures that we are looking at to put into place immediately.”

Students are concerned that four staff members are not enough for the department. The number of students registered with AccessAbility has increased by 43 percent in the last six years, ac- cording to Cohen.

Claire Houston ’19, an AccessAbility peer mentor and potential disability studies major, is one of those students.

“The department really should be larger, even with four people; it was always busy there," Houston said. "The important thing is to make sure the people are not only fit for the job, but that there are still people doing work in AccessAbility and that there's not just someone stamping accommodation letters." Houston went on to highlight the creativity and challenges involved when making accommodations because “it's not always a simple checklist of options.”

Houston also echoed common sentiments to students about wanting the members of AccessAbility services to be people that have personal experiences with disability.

"I hope the school does a good job of finding a new person that will continue to advocate for the needs of students on campus with disabilities, that will be a member of the disability community themselves. Not someone that will be speaking for the disability community but with the disability community," said Houston.

Another question that remains is the future of the peer mentor program within the department. Peer mentors are a group of volunteers who are all registered with AccessAbility and provide support for first-year and transfer students. Cohen started the program in order to ease transition and educate the community about access and inclusion. Peer mentors’ responsibilities include a pre-orientation with early move in for disabled students as well as an anti-stress group. Peer mentors have been asked to discontinue their anti-stress group for reasons that were not disclosed publicly. Cohen encouraged the mentors to become a registered organization with the Student Government Association in order to have access to funding and increased autonomy.

"At this point, becoming a student org is not our priority; it's definitely something that is on our radar but it's not something we're completely going for yet because there's a lot of issues that will come from being a student org," Houston said. "We believe a lot of the work we're already doing fits under AccessAbility, so a lot of our work right now is just making sure they will continue to support the work that we're already doing instead of going off to start our own program to do that same work. One of our big pushes is that accessibility is for everyone; it's not just those who are disabled. Access matters for everyone, even when you don't think about it."

Students registered with AccessAbility will have the opportunity to voice their concerns in the survey that is sent out at the end of every semester.

"There's been a lot of data that has been collected within AccessAbility services and I think that one of the things that I'm really excited about is collecting more data at the end of this semester," said Douglas. "I think that students voices are going to be essential in trying to figure out next steps in terms of what improvements we can make, I think it would be crazy not to listen to what students feel is really important.”

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