BY DANA KURZNER '19
For some, being disabled means having to be at a disadvantage for most of one’s life. Whether it be socially, emotionally or physically, people with disabilities can easily find daily tasks turned into seemingly insurmountable challenges. This is where the law and our school’s AccessAbility department, founded and headed by Deborah Cohen, who is leaving her role as the department’s director Oct. 28, steps in.
The main job of the department here on campus is fulfilling each disabled student’s accommodations. For those not in the know, these accommodations, such as extra time, access to a ride or even a pet, are there to help make a student able where they would otherwise not be. It’s these accommodations that take the disadvantage out of disability.
Not only do Cohen and her incredibly talented and kind staff help students find and fill our accommodation needs, and give us the software and tools to help us learn best, they make us feel at home.
Things have not always been hunky-dory when it comes to Mount Holyoke’s relationship with disabled students.
However, there have been many positive impacts of her department, many of which I have been able to benefit from. Nowhere can you so easily find these visible changes Deborah has created as by looking at the disabled students on campus. From awards to leadership roles or academic success due much in part to the support they have received from AccessAbility, disabled students have left and will continue to leave a positive mark on this campus and community.
A disability, whether invisible or visible, can have a huge emotional and physical toll, especially when combined with the stress of a major life change. For disabled students, to find success in adjusting to the college lifestyle and in learning to handle disabilities on their own can be quite a long, stressful and daunting transition.
This is where you will see the great depth of heart and ingenuity that Cohen possesses in her role as AccessAbility Director. Because she understood the difficulties that often go along with moving to college, Cohen decided to implement a Pre-Orientation program for disabled students and their parents. These two or three days before the rest of the class comes to campus are incredibly empowering and reassuring, for students and parents alike. New students learn the skills they will need to become advocates for their own disabilities, and moreover, they get a chance to connect with their fellow students and adjust to the campus. For parents, Cohen is the face and voice who tells them that if anything goes wrong, she is there to fight in our corner. I can’t even begin to recount how many times I’ve heard the folks of my fellow disabled peers sigh in relief and seen them smile. This kind of attention and care is special. Not every college has such support for their disabled students.
That support continues throughout the year. Many of my disabled peers and I are mentors to the incoming disabled first–years. This peer mentor program is central to the success of disabled students academically and socially. Throughout the year, we hold weekly meals or meetings, and are available to meet with our mentees for weekly one-on-ones. By being able to provide as much or as little support as they need, this program allows students to always have someone they can come to with problems, someone who knows the position they are in as a fellow disabled person. It is through the peer mentor pro- gram that many of the disabled students on campus have found community and the voice and leadership skills needed to become disability advocates themselves.
However, these programs are already crumbling under the weight of the administration’s pressure. For example, AccessAbility’s anti-stress group has been canceled by the school indefinitely. This was a weekly meeting of pizza, games, crafts and peers, where students could share their stresses, and by hearing their fellow students’ problems or perhaps solutions, could find comfort and the tools needed to get through issues and problems that arise. I’d like to end on one last point: these disabled students are just like you. We deal with the same issues. Be it stress, adjusting to campus, or finding a way to balance school work and a social life. We are your peers, and we are equal in intelligence, passion and heart, if not in ability.
However, we are not being heard. Deborah Cohen wasn’t heard. In turn, this leads to disabled students’ voices not being heard either.
We may need an extra leg, eye or time to get to the same starting line. But we will be smiling and looking forward with the same strength as our non-disabled peers, to cross that finish line and show the world just how powerful a Mount Holyoke graduate can be.
So please join me in wishing Deborah Cohen a heartfelt goodbye and thanks. Yes, not everyone has had the best relationship with her or the department itself, but at the end of the run, it’d be silly to not turn around and admire the view. Cohen has done so much for this school, for the staff, for the students and for me.
We can truly thank her by being aware of the plights of disabled students, and making sure this new transition for Mount Holyoke and the disability community is as successful, symbiotic and accessible as it can and should be.