Disabled students face challenges seeking work study jobs


Time and time again, Mount Holyoke College has proven that its work-study program is neither the most accessible nor beneficial to low-income students, especially to those who are also disabled. This article, however, will focus on those who cannot take on such work opportunities because of their disabilities.

Shortly after I arrived on campus, I had my intake appointment with the then AccessAbility Services director Deborah Cohen about my life-threatening peanut allergy. Our discussion largely addressed dining concerns and safety, but I also mentioned the feasibility of my working in the dining halls, considering the severity of my allergy.

After having a conversation with Deborah Cohen and Richard Rigalli, the Dining Services manager, we mutually decided that it was safest for me to find a work study opportunity elsewhere. However, there were no jobs immediately available or guaranteed for me; I was left to find my own job to cover my means.

While this was an issue for me, I still was very lucky. Outside of food-related jobs, I can perform most duties and tasks, and in most contexts, I am considered able-bodied. Most of our disabled students face more problems than I do in working and making ends meet.

“Dining Services and working in the dining halls is one of the least accessible jobs on campus,” said Julianne Holby ’20. Holby is another a student on federal work study. Because she has Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, standing for long periods of time is very uncomfortable for her and can potentially be dangerous.

Due to her disability, Holby only had the capacity and energy to work one shift a week stocking supplies at Blanchard, which was hard on her feet and expended a lot of energy. Mount Holyoke Dining Services did very little to accommodate her disability. Her assigned dining hall was Blanchard, where they do not let first-year students work as cashiers. Despite the fact that she could have easily been a checker at any other dining hall, Dining Services would not let her switch from Blanchard to another more accessible. This forced her into working in Blanchard, where the only position available to her is stocking, has to stand through the duration of her shifts. Furthermore, she had to find an additional job to compensate for her limited hours working at Blanchard.

Like me, Holby also has a job outside of dining services: she is a Spanish tutor, which is much more accessible to her because she can sit down. By having this job, Holby has been able to make at least part of her estimated work study quota, instead of only earning a fraction of the quota, like most first-year students with work study jobs.

While both Holby and I were able to find other jobs, these jobs were not guaranteed to us, as our packages had suggested. We had to apply for them just like everyone else and hope we would get the job.

Disabled people often also need to meet additional costs in order to live their daily lives. For example, Holby cannot take the PVTA because it makes her nauseous. Because she does not have a car on campus, she has to pay for Uber rides and other transportation services to leave campus. This in addition to her medications and doctors appointments, which are themselves costly and necessary in order for her to maintain her health.

There is another factor that complicates the situation for disabled students on work study: the amount of energy available to them. In spoon theory, which is often used to discuss this factor, “spoons” are used as metaphors for units of energy. On most days, running errands, studying, going to class, working and hanging out with friends are tasks that do not require extra energy for able-bodied individuals.

For disabled people, however, energy is finite, especially when it comes to daily tasks. Due to both the nature of the disability that leaves someone with reduced energy reserves and the fact that the tasks themselves can take more time and energy when someone is disabled, there are only a limited number of tasks that disabled people can feasibly accomplish in a day. Because simple activities like eating lunch in Blanch or studying for an exam can take an entire spoon, disabled people have to be stingy with their spoons.

This means that people with disabilities may not have the energy or the means to complete basic, day-to-day tasks. Hence, disabled students often do not have the spoons to work on top of their additional commitments.

For Holby, this means that besides tutoring and schoolwork, there is little else she can do. “After going to classes and doing a few hours of work, I need to sleep to replenish my energy,” she says. She does not have much time for extracurricular clubs, due to her need to work.

Some disabled students, however, opt not to work and instead choose to spend their spoons on other activities that they enjoy. Neither their disability nor their need for additional financial help goes away. Being unable to work does not mean that our families suddenly can pay for the difference in cost. So for students, this can be a tough decision to make.

If Mount Holyoke is unable to provide compensation for students who cannot work in the dining halls, they need to offer them better aid packages. Despite what the administration may think, our financial concerns do not magically disappear if we have a disability and cannot work a job.