Accessibility at Whitman

Isabella Hunter, Columnist

For this week’s issue, the spotlight is on disability access—particularly if Whitman overstates its commitment to accessibility. In the process of this type of bureaucratic performativity, has Whitman been entirely honest about what current and prospective students can expect? What is a good standard by which to measure such a claim? What does disability access currently look like at Whitman, and what could we be doing better? 

Whitman’s Academic Resource Center (ARC) and Disability Support Services Page claims that Whitman has “A Culture of Care & Excellence in Access,” and that it is “in accordance with the American[s] with Disabilities Act (ADA) and subsequent updates to that legislation… ensure[ing] that all pro­grams and services provided by the college are genuinely accessible and offered to all our students.”

Junior Ilse Spiropoulos and I reflect on our own experiences to help explore the question: to what extent is this true? 

To start, we assess what standards are reasonable to expect from Whitman now and in the future.

“I think the bare minimum would be ADA compliance for buildings and clearer access or knowledge to students about how accommodations should be requested for classes, how professors should respond to accommodations …and the institutional avenue or practice to go about getting accommodations…” Spiropoulos said.

It is not abundantly clear which buildings on campus are in accordance with the ADA and which are not. 

It’s important to note that there are some buildings that are essentially “exempt” from current ADA requirements—which only means they are not legally required to meet access needs, not that they shouldn’t prioritize those needs anyways—through what is known as a safe harbor clause, with some key exemptions. 

Crucially, there are two main standards for ADA compliance: the first is the 1991 standard and the second is the 2010 standard. There is no longer a “grandfather clause” in the ADA, especially for institutions that have the means to make “readily achievable” changes to meet the current standards. 

Regardless of how old a building is, legally, the institution is required to comply with absolutely everything that is “readily achievable” for that institution, lest they invite a discrimination lawsuit. On the other hand, the safe harbor clause allows for buildings to comply with the 1991 standard, unless an alteration or renovation of that area takes place, in which case they will be required to update to the 2010 standard. 

Interestingly, what is not covered by the safe harbor clause includes facilities like “exercise machines and equipment, golf and miniature golf facilities, saunas and steam rooms, swimming pools, residential facilities and dwelling units.” This is briefly addressed on the webpage, which states: “students should also consult with the department head involved or with the Academic Resource Center if they have questions about access to campus facilities such as the fitness center, swimming pools or to nonacademic programs.”

Not meeting the updated ADA requirements means that not everyone can access interest or fraternity houses, Prentiss Hall, or certain stages. In other words, disabled students might not be able to be a part of certain communities or attend events. 

Whitman has an Academic Resource Center that helps tailor requested accommodations to students’ needs, especially for learning disabilities. This office is incredibly helpful, heavily relying on Antonia Keithahn as the primary point of contact (she is referenced 5 times in the ARC/DSS Page).

In my experience, the ARC has always seemed like the go-to resource, but for some that isn’t necessarily the case.

According to Spiropoulos, most professors put in their rubric “if you need accommodations, contact me” despite the stated rule that “a disclosure of disability or a request for accommodation made to faculty or staff other than the Assistant Director of Academic Resources (Antonia) will not be treated as a request for accommodation.” 

“From my knowledge there are a lot of students being left to navigate their accommodations by themselves with professors, so when I need to make accommodation requests I just talk directly to my professors and that works a lot of the time…but that’s really not how it should be done nor is it an entirely legal way for it to be done,” Spiropoulos said.

“Antonia is one person who is…according to the ADA, not entirely qualified to make all of those calls on her own…OCR [Office for Civil Rights] law is clear that in an instance where a professor denies an accommodation there is a very strict way they must go about denying that accommodation that requires a group of knowledgeable and trained individuals to make a ruling on the accommodation, and the college literally lacks those people to make that decision.” 

Ultimately, the problem seems to come down to (unsurprisingly) the priorities of the college as an institution.

“My experience has been very overwhelmingly that every individual within the administration does want to help provide accommodations to me, but there is no institutional method for them to do that and I think the institution itself is unwilling to change in a radical enough way to be able to provide that,” Spiropoulos said.

She then explained how while she is usually helped by faculty and administrators when she reaches out, she is still put in the awkward position of self advocacy ad nauseam. 

A potential reason for this is because Spiropoulos is one of two wheelchair users on campus—so her needs are dealt with as they come up, to the extent that the college is prepared to deal with them. Her accessibility issues are addressed on a circumstantial basis, rather than an anticipatory one.

Candidly, Whitman can hardly claim to have “A Culture of Care & Excellence in Access” if it is not transparent and honest about its specific capabilities, and if it does not anticipate the needs of disabled students, or at least proactively reach out to those students about access to upcoming events and housing.

Whitman needs a more robust and inclusive discourse around accessibility so that clubs and classes can coordinate accordingly and so that disabled students now and in the future feel like those around them are prepared and excited to proactively include them in whatever way they need.