Accessibility and Disability at Whitman

Audrey Hecker, Staff Reporter

The word “disability” conjures up a multitude of subsequent phrases and ideas, most of which are limited to the framework within which disability has been talked about. Our own campus is home to a variety of students who identify as having some kind of disability — even if we seldom hear of it.


Maraena Allen Lewis, a junior Sociology major, is working with Assistant Professor of Sociology Alvaro Santana-Acuña on an independent study project focused around disability studies in the context of higher education.


Lewis’ experience on the Whitman campus has been partially framed by her awareness of people with disabilities — her first-hand experience with exposure to such topics, however, have been limited. 

“I remember my first year at Whitman… There was a [Power & Privilege Symposium] session of a panel of a few different students who identified as having either autism spectrum disorder or Asperger’s,” said Lewis. “That was really the only time that I’ve ever seen a discussion led, initiated or supported entirely by and for students with disabilities at Whitman.”


Lewis’ project with Santana-Acuña also highlights “the integration, inclusion and accessibility of students with disabilities onto college campuses, and how that relates to actually studying disability in college… and what that looks like at Whitman specifically,” said Lewis.


What it does look like at Whitman specifically depends on the type of accessibility that is relevant.


“There’s different realms of accessibility,” said Antonia Keithahn, Assistant Director of Academic Resources. “There’s the physical accessibility of our campus spaces, then there’s accessibility of programming and digital accessibility — accessibility of any of the digital footprint of the college or course materials.”


But is Whitman accessible in any of these categories? Keithahn has varying opinions.


“For accessibility of our spaces, programs, [and such]… that’s an area where I think we’re pretty far behind a lot of institutions,” said Keithahn. “A lot of other institutional websites will have a whole page that is [dedicated to accessibility]… We’re only just barely getting an accommodations or accessibility statement on posters.”


The reason for this may not actually be the fact that Whitman is inconsiderate of disabled people — Keithahn provides a different conclusion.


“Things are really decentralized here… So because there isn’t one source for all of the various printed materials on campus, you get wildly different approaches or thoughts when it comes to creating events and being mindful of what you’re doing when you create an event,” said Keithahn.


Despite this, with regards to Whitman’s reputation and admissions, the reality isn’t so negative.


“I think that Whitman actually has a pretty good reputation for at least academic accommodations,” Keithahn said. “The Academic Resource Center and our work with Disability Support predated the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. Not a lot of schools can say that… So I think the experience in the classroom is largely positive for students.”

Illustration by Abby Takahashi


Physical accessibility is perhaps where Whitman falls short. Lewis addresses a little considered perspective on types of physical accessibility on campus.


“Let’s say [a student is] in a wheelchair… [They] have to take a ramp that’s separate from the stairs in order to get up,” said Lewis. “Which seems like a really mundane thing, but if you’re thinking about it and it’s two individuals that are walking up to a building together, and everyone would normally go up the stairs, but a particular person has to veer off and go around… When that happens over and over again everyday, that’s a pretty consequential thing, and has a social impact.”


On a larger scale, though still pertaining to Whitman specifically, Lewis also finds fault in the college application system itself.


“By being an elite private liberal arts institution we do fall into a system of inherent exclusion and inaccessibility,” Lewis said. “The expectations that are upheld in order to even get into Whitman or be a part of this community are inaccessible in ways that we don’t necessarily think about.”


Lewis cites her own sister, who has a learning disability, as someone who would not be able to even apply to Whitman or its peer institutions.


“She can’t sit down and write a bunch of essays like we’re expected to … [she] could not sit and take the ACT or the SAT,” Lewis said of her sister. “There are no supports that the college admission process generally tends to offer in terms of ways of potential students demonstrating their capacity and value to contribute to the college other than the standardized essay writing and GPA.”


There have been cases of prospective students with disabilities visiting Whitman who had difficulties during tours, perhaps a deciding factor of whether or not Whitman is a good fit for those particular visitors.


“A particular student last year was taken on a tour by himself because the regular route for tours around Whitman is not necessarily designed to be exclusively wheelchair accessible,” Lewis said. “I can’t speak for him, but I cannot imagine how I would feel if I showed up to a school and had to be, frankly, segregated on a tour.”


For current students with disabilities on campus, accessibility is an extremely relevant issue. About 13 percent of Whitman’s student population identifies as having some kind of disability, and this number only includes students that utilize the Academic Resource Center.


Brenna Donohue, a first-year, has POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), a physical disability that can cause episodes of fainting, dizziness, exhaustion, extreme joint pain, bodily temperature variation and foggy thinking.


“Accessibility is really important to me — it’s hard enough getting out of bed and into class when you’re feeling bad, and pitfalls to accessibility are just one more thing that discourages you from striving to lead as normal a life as possible while you’re already feeling down,” Donohue said. “The accommodations that I receive are awesome. Whitman’s system isn’t perfect, but I’m thankful for the help that it gives me.”


However, Donohue does wish that certain things could change about accessibility, simply because it can be hard to move on bad days.


“It can be incredibly taxing to walk from Jewett to Cleveland when I’m feeling symptomatic. Most times, I don’t at all — because I can’t,” Donohue said. “I wish I could get food delivered to my dorm. Same with Reid — I get a fair amount of packages and sometimes I simply can’t walk to Reid, let alone carry a massive box back.”


Donohue also has friends that have been affected by certain accommodations, or lack thereof, on campus.


“I have multiple friends who need food prepared differently than the regular fare served by Bon App, and I don’t think their needs are met very well,” Donohue said. “I feel like there should be a more formal process around preparing meals in advance or having alternate options for people who need it.”


So what can be done to make Whitman a more accessible campus? This is exactly the question that Lewis and Santana-Acuña have tackled.


Santana-Acuña cites a specific program at the University of Iowa called UI REACH (University of Iowa Realizing Educational and Career Hopes) which is designed to integrate students with disabilities.


“[One of the highlights of the program is] reverse integration, so you invite people without a disability to be part of a classroom in which you have UI REACH students and traditional students enrolled in a classroom together,” Santana-Acuña said. “By doing this you have the students without a disability learn what it is like to be in a classroom space with students with disabilities, and that leads to a more accepting community.”


Lewis thinks the issue should be addressed on a broader scale.


“If we’re talking about accessibility, we can start by asking: Why is our campus so inaccessible?” Lewis said. “I think that that has roots in our lack of conversation and acknowledgement of disability. Once you get people to start talking about it, then people start [understanding].”


Keithahn takes a more logistical approach to increasing accessibility on campus.


“I think [it’s important that we move] toward a culture of always thinking about who might be at your events and building in accessibility to an event from the beginning, rather than having to retrofit,” Keithahn said.


Santana-Acuña, Lewis and Keithahn alike believe that a restructuring of diversity, equity and inclusion is necessary to include disabled people and create a more accepting and welcoming environment for disabled students.  


“The fundamental point here is that a college education should be for everyone, not just for those who meet certain criteria on the disability scale,” Santana-Acuña said. “We need to have a conversation about how can we make sure that the college experience is also accessible to students with a disability who nonetheless want to overcome that disability and be part of an environment where they can really pursue their education.”