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Students express frustration over Disability Services office shortcomings

The Carleton Disability Services Office (DS) has received mixed reviews from students, who say that although the office has helped them to some extent at obtaining accommodations, the process can be hampered by DS disorganization and lack of support.

“My experiences with Disability Services have been pretty mixed throughout my time at Carleton,” said Student A, who receives accommodations and wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. “They’ve been supportive and I don’t want to deny that they haven’t been there, but I don’t think there’s been a single term at Carleton where I haven’t felt like their help was inadequate and questioned their competence.”

Many students said that DS does not have enough funding or trained staff to function well, and even then is hampered by a lack of organization and ability to meet deadlines. An example indicative of DS confusion was when DS sent out two emails to all students that receive accommodations which CC’d instead of BCC’d the recipients, meaning that anyone on the email list could see the names of everyone else receiving accommodations.

“The office is just generally kind of disorganized in a stressful way,” said Student B, who receives accommodations and wished to remain anonymous. “One of the last times I went in they had me take an exam in [Student Accessibility Specialist] Jan Foley’s office because she wasn’t there, and there were just papers laying around everywhere, and that made me super uncomfy because, not that I would have ever looked through other people’s papers, but if it had been someone else they could have.” Others who have worked closely with the office voiced similar concerns.

“I would say that [the Disability Services office] is not functioning super well,” said a former Disability Services Peer Leader who wished to remain anonymous. “It functions, but Chris [Dallager, Director of Disability Services] will have a lot of big ideas that he doesn’t always have time for, and so I think timing and time management can be a bit of an issue … from a more day to day perspective, too, he isn’t great about keeping on top of his email, so that can also affect things.”

Some students couched their critiques of the office in qualifications that they had been helped to some extent.

Amelia Blair-Smith ’21 said that she received her accommodation, but encountered difficulties throughout the process. First, she emailed Dallager, but did not get a response for over a week. When she visited the office in person, she had trouble finding someone to help her.

“I had everything in order; I just needed Disability Services to sign off on it. And then I had to wait in the office for like an hour, because apparently Chris was on lunch break and nobody knew where he was,” she said. “I was like, ‘this is crazy.’ You know, my emails aren’t getting responded to, I’m here waiting, no one knows where the head of Disability Services is.” BlairSmith added that according to Dallager’s calendar, “he was supposed to be in the office.”

“I just felt like—dealing with the Disability Services office— like I was an inconvenience to them, or like they didn’t really care about me, or they sort of just wished I didn’t come to them with questions, was kind of like the vibe I was getting,” she said.

Similarly, Sarah Rost ’19, said that after Dallager arrived at Carleton in 2016, “I feel like I had to prove my disability to him.”

Rost’s experiences with DS requiring a large amount of documentation led her to stop working with the office for a while, although she noted that this “probably isn’t advisable.” Then she ran into difficulty in one of her classes.

“I wasn’t technically getting accommodations, so I didn’t have the formal letter saying that the professor has to do this, but I had a professor downgrade me in participation because I wasn’t like raising my hand in class, [which] was a direct effect of my hearing loss; it is just harder for me to stay up with the pace of a lecture class, and so I don’t raise my hand as often,” she said. She then had to tell this to her professor.

“It was kind of scary and stressful,” she said. “It would’ve been helpful to have people who actually wanted to support—because sometimes I feel like [DS is] there to police what’s going on, like, who’s getting accommodations, what they’re getting—and doing that rather than supporting.”

Rost also said she encountered communication difficulties when her microphone, a tool she uses as part of her accommodation, broke. While she said that Dallager got her a lender microphone right away, he was unresponsive to her emails regarding a permanent replacement for two weeks.

When asked in an email about his role in contributing to the disorganization of Disability Services, Dallager did not directly address those concerns, but highlighted the work Disability Services does across campus, including helping students facilitate accommodations, presenting research at conferences, and seeing a significant increase in the amount of tests administered.

“We have responded to the complaints we have received and we have proactively looked for feedback in places like open listening sessions. If anyone has concerns, something we take very seriously, then we invite communication,” Dallager said.

Foley declined to comment, saying, “While I acknowledge that, as in any office, there are areas that can be improved within Disability Services, I also believe that is only one side of the story. There are many students who would tell you that our office has had a positive influence on their Carleton experience, and for whom our support, expertise, and caring have been instrumental in their ability to engage more fully in college life. I take pride in knowing that. For those who are dissatisfied, I would welcome the learning that could take place on both sides in conversation about your concerns.”

Beyond organizational concerns, students also expressed dissatisfaction with how little Disability Services integrates itself into student life.

“There needs to be more effort to integrate with other offices and other groups doing inclusivity work,” said Student C. “The couple events I’ve went to run by the office have been really low in attendance, and I think there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding the office and general disability issues on campus.”

Student C also said they have not seen DS be supportive of student activism.

“There’s been an increasing amount of student activism surrounding disability issues this year,” Student C said. “That’s been really great, but I’ve not seen the office of Disability Services be behind that.”

Student A expressed similar frustration with the office not advocating for students beyond the most rudimentary level.

“I strongly believe that they are trying to help me and want to help me … [but] they haven’t been assertive enough in communicating to faculty what it is that I need, and am allowed, in my accommodations,” Student A said. “It’s always been framed to me as a negotiation.”

For example, Student A said DS informs him when a Professor attempts to deny his accommodations, making his relationship with that Professor awkward. Student A also said that there are confusing shifts during finals period, when endof-term extensions on papers and exams go through the Dean of Students’ Office instead of DS, complicating his accommodations processes when he needs them most.

The DS website outlines a process for obtaining disability accommodations at Carleton. Students must submit a request form and documentation of their disability from a professional. Second, DS consults with the student, and with others if needed. Third, DS determines if a reasonable accommodation would either “fundamentally alter essential elements, requirements, or the nature of the course, program, service, or facility in question” or “create an undue burden for the College,” as written on the website. If it does not, DS writes a letter of accommodation for the student. Students receiving accommodations meet with DS at the start of every term.

Grievance procedures also exist, ranging from meeting with DS staff, submitting a grievance form to be reviewed by Carleton’s disability grievance review board, or appealing a grievance review board decision to the ADA Coordinator and Dean of Students, Carolyn Livingston. According to Associate Dean of Students and member of the disability grievance review board Joe Baggot, the review board meets at an average of three times per year.

For finals period accommodations, the DS website writes that “Disability Services is available to proctor exams for students that have been approved to receive academic accommodations,” and provides information about final exams proctored by DS. The DS web page about exam modifications does not refer to end-ofterm extensions from the Dean of Students’ Office.

Baggot said that students do receive accommodations on final exams via disability services, and that this process is separate from the Dean of Students’ Office’s end-of-term extension process.

“There’s no window on when somebody can submit a request for accommodations,” Baggot said. “There may be a timeliness matter in when the staff is available… There are things that certainly happen within a Dean of Students’ office that are during a finals period that are certainly different from the DS office.”

Dean of Students and ADA Coordinator Carolyn Livingston said, of finals period: “Students who receive end-of-term extensions are granted disability accommodations if they have received accommodations during the term. End-of-term ex tensions are only granted in the Dean of Students office.” She said that according to academic policy, end-of-term extensions are only granted in cases of extenuating circumstances, which can include illness.

When asked what the rationale was for the end-of-term extension policy, Livingston gave two reasons. First, she said, the Dean of Students’ Office was established before DS and thus had been carrying out the policy for longer.

“You have to think about the extenuating circumstance,” she said. “Because if you automatically gave 300+ students [receiving academic accommodations] an end-of-term extension, then it’s not really exceptional; it’s not really an extenuating circumstance… Then all that does is extend the term from ten weeks to 13 weeks, or extends ten weeks to 11 weeks. Then why have a term? Why have a ten week term?”

In response to questions about Disability Services not doing enough for students, Dallager highlighted how the office has expanded its administrative reach in recent years, with the addition of a second staff member, the peer leader program, social events, volunteer opportunities, and programs focused on assignment completion and friendship skills. “The Disability Services Office has been transformed in the past three years,” Dallager said.

Livingston said that she hears “some” student feedback about DS. “I think a part of this is because of the changing landscape,” she said. “Disability Services has changed a lot in the last three or four years, and a lot of it was precipitated by changes in federal guidance regarding Disability Services as well. And so, and particularly as mental health is considered more in disability accommodations, that’s where we’ve heard a good bit of concern about Disability Services. So I think Chris tries to be as fair as possible, but I think fair is subjective with the Disability Services process.”

This is not to say students unilaterally were dissatisfied with DS. Maya Rogers ’22 said that DS has been helpful getting her accommodations and the process worked well. “The attitude of the people who work in DS have been very positive and accepting. I haven’t felt like I was being treated weird—I felt like I could be myself and it wasn’t a judgemental space,” Rogers said. “For me Disability Services has definitely been a community that I can feel comfortable in.”

Gabe Lobet ’21, co-leader of the WALDO club, expressed a similar sentiment, saying that though there are real issues with Disability Services not meeting students’ needs, such as a lack of communication and struggle to engage the campus, the office is genuinely working to improve and has changed for the better.

“These things, and some other things that they’re not perfect on, are small, compared to what they do in total,” Lobet said. “I don’t want to overshadow other people’s grievances and struggles with Disability Services with my positive experience — obviously they’re both valid, but I think that it’s important to always be improving, and I think the Disability Services office knows that … it feels like they’re on our side.”

A survey of student experiences with accommodations run by two members of CSA Senate, Brittany Dominguez ’21 and Hannah Zhukovsky ’21, yielded 79 responses (not all of whom were from people receiving accommodations).

“We came at this because we have heard that there’s a lot of financial barriers to receiving these accommodations, because certain evaluations are really expensive,” said Zhukovsky. “And you need evaluations by a doctor, or by a certified professional, in order to receive an accommodation.”

According to Dominguez and Zhukovsky, survey responses were mixed between good and bad reactions to DS. While according to Dominguez, many survey respondents discussed negative experiences with a prior DS policy requiring retesting for disability after three years, Zhukovsky noted that DS recently ended this policy in favor of a case-by-case approach. Another theme was the waiting time to receive accommodations.

While some respondents received their accommodation within a few days, Dominguez said that these were likely people who already had documentation, and that other respondents reported waiting multiple weeks or multiple terms.

A third theme that emerged was “getting the accommodation versus actually having the accommodation work out for you in class,” said Dominguez.

She said that while some responses praised professors’ interactions with accommodations, others said that they were made to feel ashamed by their professors. “Because [those respondents] feel
like an inconvenience, basically, in their classroom experience,” she said. “And so it’s unfortunate when people feel almost locked out of their own education and feel bad about having a disability that they have no control over.”

Dominguez presented their findings to the Education and Curriculum Committee on May 15, where discussion focused on faculty-student interactions related to accommodations and poor communication of resources to students.

“It’s not necessarily about ‘oh, you’re not doing your job,’ or anything. I think our school is trying to a certain extent,” said Dominguez. “But it’s about really trying to find the areas that it can definitely improve, and then taking those areas and making sure that we make it as clear as possible for individuals, so this doesn’t feel like such an ostracizing process.”

While the survey focused on academic accommodations, Dominguez and Zhukovsky said that the process has resulted in a CSA Senate disability services working group, which includes issues of physical accessibility. Zhukovsky said that the group had discussed the creation of disability sensitivity training for faculty.

Separately, Rost, a sociology and anthropology major, surveyed 665 Carls about their perceptions of disability for her COMPS project. She said that while most respondents reported having positive perceptions of disability and believing Carleton to be inclusive, respondents
with disabilities reported feeling judged or being told that they are lucky to have an accommodation.

“My theory is that it’s sort of like, racism without racists, but ableism without ableists,” Rost said. “There’s still a lot of ableism on this campus, and I think it extends into Disability Services at times, but people will never admit that, and so it’s sort of become this unconscious bias that we have and that we carry. And I don’t think anyone intends to be intentionally harmful, but sometimes it comes out that way.”

“Society in general still has a lot of work to do to catch up to supporting people with disabilities,” the former Peer Leader said. “People with disabilities who get accommodations need those accommodations, and so there needs to be acceptance of the fact that even though you may not understand it, it does need to happen, and I think that’s not just a campus-wide thing but it certainly is a problem on our campus.”

One Comment

  1. Nathanael Nathanael June 21, 2019

    I remember Carleton building a large number of new, non-wheelchair-accessible “townhouses” after the passage of the ADA in a clear and malicious attempt to evade the ADA requirements. I remember going to my 10th reunion and seeing my girlfriend, also a Carleton grad, placed in an non-wheelchair-accessible dorm with complete disregard — the administration was just as casually ableist then as they had been ten years earlier. I remember, even later than that, trying to arrange an event on campus and being offered the inaccessible townhouses — I relocated the event to Minneapolis.

    We chose not to go to my 20th reunion.

    There have always been a few people in the administration who have been trying to do something to make reasonable disability accomodations, such as the excellent Hudlin Wagner who retired in 2014. But the majority of the college has been casually, thoughtlessly hostile. I would expect, based on previous decades, that Disability Services is understaffed, underfunded, and unsupported by most of the rest of the college.

    Ideally, everyone in the college would be on the same page and disability accomodations would be provided universally in an integrated fashion. Professors would naturally make reasonable accomodations without the need for paperwork (as any reasonable person should do). Facilities would automatically be designed and maintained for physical accessibility. Sadly Carleton is not at that level of awareness.

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