Antonia Keithahn leaves Whitman after eight years of advocacy

Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Feature Editor

When first-year Anna Gutrich began seeing Antonia Keithahn, the thoroughness and ease of her support seemed impossible. Gutrich, who is neurodivergent and visually disabled, had found previous attempts at academic accommodations largely unsuccessful — the services tended to be generally lacking, and the personnel ill-equipped. 

“[Keithahn] was such a vast contrast [to what I had experienced before] that I waited for the catch for a little while,” Gutrich told The Wire via email. “There wasn’t one.”

Earlier this semester, Keithahn announced that April 7 would be her last day at Whitman. This news sparked manifold reactions from students who benefit from her services. Some seniors noted with relief that her departure fell just in advance of our impending graduation, a milestone that many of us will reach in large part due to Keithahn’s allyship and support. Scores of underclassmen fretted about the remainder of their Whitman careers without Keithahn, brooding over the uncertainty of her replacement.

“Switching out staff may seem like an everyday thing to some, but students with accommodations just have to cross our fingers so hard that the next person will care,” Gutrich said. 

As Associate Director of Academic Resources, Keithahn wears “multiple hats” — a diplomatic understatement. There’s a reason she’s a beloved figure on campus, and that she’s become, in certain respects, the face of the Academic Resource Center. 

Keithahn’s position centers primarily around disability support. She meets with students to determine and renew reasonable accommodations, the most common of which are distraction-free and extended testing services. Accommodations for chronic conditions are also quickly forming a larger part of the role. 

Once Keithahn has determined and documented students’ accommodations, she ensures their equitable implementation. She helps coordinate testing and liaises with faculty, often acting as a staunch advocate. In addition to her student-facing roles, Keithahn serves on an accessibility task force and provides professional development for faculty and staff around issues of disability. Rather than just helping individual students navigate Whitman, Keithahn conceives of her position through the lens of social justice, seeking to dismantle systems that further marginalize and disempower disabled students.

“I would say that, in many ways, the process of accommodation can kind of let folks off the hook for actually doing best practices because you’re kind of remediating a situation that was not built necessarily with all learners, students, bodies [and] minds in mind,” Keithahn said. “[I am] trying to shift beyond just accommodation and thinking more broadly about how we can rethink parts of the program. How [can] we create inclusive curriculum policies and physical space from the beginning rather than continuing to allow certain things that then we have to go back and make accommodations for?” 

It’s unsurprising that Keithahn’s work days routinely span over ten hours, though shutting off email notifications on her phone and building in dinner breaks have helped her find more balance. Tackling a student body’s support needs has always been a formidable task, but the pandemic has greatly amplified demand for disability services.

Since the onset of COVID-19, adult ADHD diagnoses have seen massive leaps, and swaths of college students worldwide emerged from lockdowns with newly diagnosed anxiety and depression. Students with existing diagnoses found their symptoms exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic, prompting them to reach out for bolstered support. 

“It’s been interesting,” Keithahn said. “Certainly the volume of students has increased. The number of diagnoses, especially around mental health and ADHD … there’s been huge increases in those numbers.”

Provided by Antonia Keithahn.

Keithahn has held unyielding space for students working through these difficulties. An empathetic listener and proven ally, she’s earned the trust of many students, which often means that she offers a certain level of support in times of crisis. I’ve done my share of crying in her office, and sent my share of frantic emails, all of which have been met with boundless, calm compassion.

“I think I am a pretty good compartmentalizer and can do my best to be present in a moment,” Keithahn said of her ability to help students through tumultuous times.

Her capacity for not only structural but also emotional support is one of the chief things that makes her work so valuable. Gutrich explained how meaningful this has been to her: as a person with an invisible disability, support services often put her in the position of explaining ad nauseam to less-than-receptive audiences. 

“That conversation over and over to people who often can’t relate, or don’t have capacity to accommodate, gets tiring really fast,” Gutrich said. “[Keithahn] made it so I never had to experience that. Even when explaining my needs to her, there wasn’t any minimization of experience or the blank stare that makes you stop talking. She asked details [about] what would best help me and wrote them right down — automatic validation. To people without experience with accommodations offices, that may seem like nothing, but that’s special.”

The facility with which Keithahn supports and validates disabled students may stem partly from personal experience: Keithahn herself is neurodivergent and wasn’t able to access the support she needed as a student. After a childhood diagnosis of ADHD, which was largely unsupported by her parents, she never utilized any services.

“When I then went to college and flamed out almost instantly, I was like, ‘Let me think a little bit more about [that diagnostic process] and do some pattern recognition,’” Keithahn said. 

Even after her college connected her with services as part of her academic probation, the support was tenuous at best. After undergrad, a handful of jobs and a certification in secondary education for social studies, Keithahn began working as a paraprofessional at Walla Walla High School. There she provided intensive support to disabled students. 

In 2015, a position at Whitman’s Academic Resource Center (ARC) opened up. The job description mentioned disability support and accommodations, and she applied, hoping to leverage her experience with a different demographic. 

“I got into the ARC through that, and then various reorganizations and position changes allowed me to just continue to hone in on that work,” she said.

Senior Timo Jimenez spoke to the importance of Keithahn’s services throughout his time at Whitman: she has successfully advocated for him to access extra time on his exams, and has ensured his ability to use a computer in classes that might otherwise not allow it—luckily, his professors have all been supportive of his accommodations as well.

“Because of my disability, my cerebral palsy, my handwriting is — for lack of elegance — terrible,” Jimenez said. “So, I’ve advocated for the use of a computer in class, and she has provided that.”

Keithahn has also helped Jimenez navigate physical inaccessibility on campus and in student housing.

“I lived in the Asian Studies House during my junior year, and the basement did not have a railing for me to hold onto,” Jimenez said. “After raising the issue with my fellow students with disabilities, I emailed [Keithahn], and she emailed the Resident Director to install a railing. After a few weeks, that railing was installed … Antonia works tirelessly to rectify inaccessibility as much as she can without incurring the wrath of the administration and the so-called ‘cost-benefit.’”

As Keithahn’s departure approaches, Keithahn and the students she serves reflect on their hopes for the future of accessibility at Whitman. Jimenez hopes for increased emphasis on accessibility as it relates to physical disabilities: While Keithahn was able to help him access his physical support needs, parts of the Whitman campus remain hostile to wheelchair users and people with limited mobility. Despite student action around potential installment of ramps, spaces such as Cordiner Hall, Prentiss Hall and Maxey Auditorium remain inaccessible. 

Gutrich hopes for the continued ability to access the caliber of support that Keithahn has been able to provide her this year.

“Subpar accommodations services are the norm, [which] makes me aware of what students with accommodations will be losing with Antonia,” she said. “Regardless of who they hire after her, there’s a trust that she has among students that’s not easily replicable, especially if the same drive isn’t there. My brain is split between missing her support already and thinking ‘Whitman, please, please hire someone who cares about non-normative people.’”

In looking towards Whitman’s future, Keithahn herself has been gratified by the expansion of accessible testing services. Whitman has approved a new Testing and Tutoring Coordinator position for the upcoming academic year, and Keithahn and her colleagues have also been able to push for improved testing spaces.

“We’ve expanded the number of spaces over in our main space in Olin from eight seats to, eventually, 26,” she said. “The volume of space that we have is going to be incredibly expanded. The actual physical desks are [better] meeting expectations and higher standards around accommodations. We have ones with variable heights, so people can be more comfortable using those spaces.”

After Whitman, Keithahn will continue her work in higher education as the Accommodations and Student Affairs Manager at the University of Oregon School of Law, which Jimenez hopes might galvanize some law students to pursue disability law. 

For the remainder of the semester, students will be able to access general accommodations support from Assistant Director of the Academic Resource Center Laura Cummings. Testing support will be available from Administrative Assistant for the Academic Resource Center Colette Marie.