A response to Professor Hornstein’s article: Mount Holyoke should be accessible for all students

BY MEGHADEEPA MAITY ’18

Mount Holyoke’s “Outstanding Classroom Experience” is only for a select few.

A controversial article recently published by psychology professor Gail Hornstein has left members of Mount Holyoke’s disabled community indignant.

Iriana Kondylis ’17 shared a story of a geology class she tried to take last spring. When she approached the professor to discuss her academic accommodations, he refused to comply on the grounds that she was “faking it.” Iriana felt offended and uncomfortable, and eventually stopped going to class. With the late intervention of the academic deans, she had to withdraw from the course.

According to AccessAbility Services, the campus office that coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities, “professors do not have the authority to deny an accommodation.” 

In her piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hornstein writes, “Compared with physical disabilities, psychiatric conditions are far more variable.” As a student who struggles with both physical and psychiatric conditions, I can verify that this is inaccurate. My chronic migraines are far less predictable than my severe mental illness.

Disability is a spectrum of experiences, and professors cannot judge medical professionals’ evaluations of student learning needs.

Professor Hornstein claimed that only students with physical disabilities have the right to insist that their accommodations be met, but the Americans with Disabilities Act clearly defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment.” In fact, litigation regarding enforcement of psychiatric disability accommodations was carried out as recently as December 2016 (against Princeton University).

Charlotte Knopp ’19 only recently completed the lengthy process of providing documentation for academic accommodations. Knopp said, “I haven’t used them or even approached professors about HAVING accommodations because I’ve been anxious about the response  —  and reading professor Hornstein’s article only confirmed that fear.”

It is understandable that not all educators are familiar with the technicalities of the ADA. However, the AAS website offers to “provide the college faculty with clear, practical information about teaching students with disabilities.”

As Lydia Orr ’17, who is registered with AAS, suggests, “Professors really need to have to attend a meeting about accommodations … Not only do they need to know how to properly help students with disabilities, they also need to know their rights.”

These are not the only instances where students with disabilities have felt excluded from the academic foundations on which Mount Holyoke prides itself.

My friend  —  let’s call her Kate  —  who is a STEM major in the class of 2017, told me how her research adviser laughed after hearing her plans of going to grad school. “She said my health is a mess and I’ll never get in.” Despite the discouragement from the people she most needed inspiration from, Kate is headed to a fully-funded Master’s program this fall.

Liza Manchester, an AccessAbility Services staff member with the designated role of “learning specialist,” resigned from her position at the beginning of the current academic year. In the past, students registered with AAS sought Liza’s help for navigating academic limitations, including writing papers, organizing assignments and schedules, enhancing study skills, improving reading-strategies and rehearsing communications.

In the eight months since Liza’s departure, a search for a replacement has not yet commenced. In the meantime, students who regularly benefited from Liza’s support continue to flounder.

Kimberly Parent, the academic dean to whom I was directed for support, acknowledged that she is not qualified to fill in for Liza. I’m still flailing about, dealing with my anxiety with an abnormal amount of sedatives, and may have to withdraw from all of my classes.

Orr said, “I was alright after my meetings with Liza were discontinued, but my friend was not. [She] … is having trouble passing her classes due to not having help keeping track of things. She’s already had to drop a class and is now looking at having to graduate two years later than the typical four, rather than her previously predicted five year plan.”

Raven Geiger ’17’s mental health conditions often impair her ability to function as a student. She recently checked into the hospital after despairing progressively for months, and feels that the absence of a learning specialist was a significant contributing factor. Originally on track to graduate this spring, she is now unsure when she’ll finish college.

The president’s commission on Diversity and Inclusion states that “Mount Holyoke College strives to build and maintain a campus environment that is inclusive, pluralistic and free of discrimination.” However, ability (or the lack thereof) is often left out of conversations about equity.

More than 400 of the leaders and changemakers you know on this campus struggle with a chronic health condition. We are here on our own merits, and we are contributing members of the Mount Holyoke community.

As recent experiences demonstrate, it is time to break from the exclusionist nature of the Mount Holyoke academic system and make that widely-acclaimed “outstanding classroom experience” accessible to everyone.