Rowan Wolff exits Posvar Hall through the accessible entrance. (Pamela Smith | Visual Editor)
Rowan Wolff exits Posvar Hall through the accessible entrance.

Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

‘Tired and frustrated’: Students with disabilities express concerns with Pitt’s accessibility, Disability Resources and Services

April 21, 2023

Rowan Wolff, a junior psychology major and wheelchair user, reported to Pitt’s Disability Resources and Services in August that three of her classes in the fall 2022 semester did not have wheelchair-accessible desks. 

According to emails between her and DRS spanning two months obtained by The Pitt News, the desks that Pitt’s Office of Facilities Management placed for her in Benedum, Posvar and the Frick Fine Arts building were still inaccessible. The one in Posvar was too short and narrow for her to fit in, while the others were too tall. The one in Frick was placed in the back of the classroom, which she could not easily access. 

Wolff also described how difficult it is for her to access campus fully. For example, she could not attend a club meeting held in the lecture hall on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning, leading her to break down in frustration. 

“I already had a shitty day, and when I got there I couldn’t get into the classroom because of the stairs,” Wolff said. “I started crying, I was just so tired and frustrated. It was like, why do I have to fight so hard? Just to access classes, student life, the ability to do anything on campus?” 

Students receiving accommodations from Pitt’s DRS discussed their concerns with the office in hopes it will bring about changes to DRS. Like Wolff, students referenced miscommunication between DRS and other University departments, and inaccessibility in the campus’ structure. In response to student concerns, Student Government Board created the Disability Resources ad-hoc committee in February.

Experts from the Association on Higher Education and Disability estimate that one in eight U.S. college students have at least one disability. Leigh Ann Culley, director of DRS, said students registering in the DRS office has doubled in the last two years. According to Culley, this “significant” increase is being seen in schools “everywhere.” 

DRS currently accommodates more than 2,400 students, faculty and staff. According to Cully, there’s 5.5 full-time employees working on student requests. DRS added one full-time employee last summer.

“Obviously that leads to some challenges in terms of how do we deal with a double number?” Culley said. “We have increased our staffing in response to that. So it’s looking at how we can manage, how we can still maintain a process and procedure, because that’s important to do — to keep consistency while still providing the most effective and appropriate services.” 

Requesting accommodations

According to the DRS website, students wishing to receive accommodations must register with the office through an online application, provide official documentation of their disabilities and meet with a DRS specialist. Students must describe their disabilities and how they impact their day-to-day living, as well as what accommodations would help them. Students must request an accommodation through DRS themselves, and contact DRS if there are changes to accommodations.

Students then are responsible for requesting a disability notification letter each term they need accommodations. The disability notification letter is a document sent from DRS to a student’s instructors outlining the student’s granted accommodations. The student must request a letter for each instructor, and specify necessary accommodations within each of those letters.

Culley said in the email exchange with Wolff that she contacted Pitt’s Office of Facilities Management for the changes Wolff requested to the desks. Wolff believes that the delay in receiving a desk was due to DRS outsourcing her accommodation request, creating layers of inefficient “bureaucracy.” Culley said the office works with other University departments on accommodation requests, calling DRS a “point office” for student needs, but describes inter-department communication as “an area of improvement.”

“Generally speaking, we try to collaborate — it’s an institutional responsibility,” Culley told The Pitt News in response to Wolff’s situation. “It doesn’t all fall on DRS to make sure that everything is accessible for students. We’re sort of the point office, but we collaborate with various constituents around the University… it might mean connecting with facilities management because they have a lot of reach as far as the building’s exterior, the building’s interior classrooms, snow removal.”

Wolff questioned why a department outside of DRS is responsible for completing these requests.

“This school is massive. It gets so much money. Why are they not able to place desks for wheelchair users?” Wolff said. “How low on the priority are we that we are forced to fight for the ability to work on a surface like every other student? This is the bare minimum.”

Accessible entrances on campus

In David Lawrence Hall, three sets of doors lead to the walkway above Forbes Avenue connecting to Litchfield Towers. None of the doors have a button that allows disabled students to open the doors automatically. Wolff said it’s frustrating that she has to pull the doors open herself. 

According to Wolff, there is often only one accessible door in campus buildings, which makes it harder to navigate to classes. According to a campus accessibility map published by the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, most non-residential buildings — Posvar, David Lawrence, the Sennott Square and more — only have one accessible entrance. The Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union have two accessible entrances.  

“It takes me twice as long to get between classes as everyone else because I have to take a random route,” Wolff said.

Changes to attendance and assignment accommodations 

Students with chronic illnesses also described difficulties with getting resources for academic assignments. Isabella, a senior at Pitt with chronic pain who wished to be identified only by her first name for fear of retaliation from DRS, said DRS’ fall semester changes to attendance and assignment accommodation policies is “definitely frustrating,” for disabled students. 

An email DRS sent in August said students may “request consideration” for a one-day extension on a limit of two assignments per class starting in the fall semester. The email, obtained by The Pitt News, also said “‘consideration’ may not apply with group work, posted solutions, hard deadlines, or other such concerns.” A student requesting more flexibility could complete an Instructor Agreement Form with each of their instructors or contact DRS with questions.

Isabella experiences flares of chronic pain that can last her up to a week and make it difficult to attend classes in person. In these cases, there are scenarios when she needs an extension beyond the 24-hour time frame allotted by DRS. 

“The other big change was missing class. That one’s been a big deal for me and a bunch of other students, especially if they aren’t allowing the virtual option,” Isabella said. “A lot of us, for our health concerns, are out a week at a time. And we come as much as we can, and we would happily do virtual options, but I’ve had to drop plenty of classes because I wasn’t able to attend in person.”

Culley said DRS changed the language around extension and attendance accommodations to set clearer parameters for student requests.

“What went from a sort of vague and broad statement of an accommodation, kind of moved to an accommodation that had a little bit more parameters around it, with the understanding that anything that was requested beyond that could be discussed with the professor,” Culley said. 

According to Culley, this change helps students engage in “self-advocacy,” something she stresses as an “important” skill.

“As a student with a disability accommodation, that’s very clearly stated in the beginning. You have a responsibility to communicate with your professor — we help them with communication guidelines and how to have that conversation,” Culley said. “Sometimes we will help students craft an email. These are important skills to learn and we hope to be a safe environment to learn how to communicate about things. This is a good time to develop those skills and that self-advocacy.”

According to Maxwell Wasserman, president of the Autistic Students Union, who is disabled but not registered with DRS, self advocacy is important but not always effective. 

“Yes, self advocacy as a principle should be a standard but at a certain point it’s exhausting,” Wasserman said. “We have to keep going to everyone over and over, trying to get them to listen and people just don’t listen. I’ve heard many stories about how my friends and my peers have advocated for themselves to DRS and were rejected.” 

Virtual accommodations

A student registered with DRS, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the office, expressed frustration over virtual accommodations for students with chronic pain. The student was having surgery early last year and asked if they could attend class remotely for up to four weeks. They also provided a doctor’s note saying they should be able to work virtually for up to four weeks to “recover from this procedure.” 

In an email sent back to the student, which The Pitt News obtained, Culley said DRS was only considering remote accommodations if the COVID-19 pandemic posed a health risk to students with qualifying disabilities. She said the student’s situation did not fall within this scope. She encouraged the student to talk with their professors. 

“So my first meeting with my coordinator, I said, ‘I know that Zoom classes are something that can be done because of COVID. So, on the days where I’m in so much pain that I can’t really get out of bed, could we do that so I’m not missing any classes?’ and she said no. It is an accommodation in very very extenuating circumstances apparently,” the student said. “Then I did have surgery and I asked them for the same accommodation again because I would have to miss, and was again told no.” 

Vidya Surti, a junior English and anthropology major, also has chronic pain, and described a less difficult experience for herself, but not necessarily for those needing more involved accommodations.

“I have chronic pain, so it wasn’t necessarily difficult to give me certain accommodations,” Surti said, referring to extended exam times and assignment deadlines. “I think the more complex or complicated accommodations are definitely something that is harder to accomplish in terms of the DRS office.”

Student-led communication

According to Culley, in order for DRS to provide the most “effective” service for disabled students, there is an emphasis on student-led communication with professors and DRS. 

Students are encouraged to report incidents of inaccessibility around campus to DRS and to communicate within the peer mentoring program DRS runs between first-year and upper-class students. 

“Our office is also available to help navigate that conversation. We never want students to feel like they’re out there on their own trying to figure these things out independently,” Culley said. “The students we saw five, 10 years ago are different than the students we see now, and we want to continuously make sure that we’re aware of the needs of the students we’re working with.” 

However, this type of communication isn’t always easy for students. Isabella emphasized that disability is not a choice and students request accommodations to help make their experience closer to that of abled-students on campus — not to make things “easier,” as some professors have told her. 

“Professors don’t seem to understand that disability is not a choice. They seem to think that we just want these accommodations to make our lives easier. I’ve had some great ones, but I’ve had plenty who have said things like ‘It’s not fair to the other students for me to accommodate you.’ Well then how is that fair to me?” Isabella said. 

Sam Pittman, a professor in the English department and director of the Disability Studies Certificate, described the accommodation process as having “pros and cons” from the professor’s perspective. Pittman said professors receive an email explaining what a student’s accommodations are, and then discuss how their accommodations will be met. 

Pittman added that the accommodation letters are typically the same and say accommodations shouldn’t cause “undue hardship,” which he called “fuzzy language at best.” He also mentioned that professors can’t change accommodations, meaning if students have a certain number of allowable absences, a professor couldn’t reduce that number.

“On one hand, receiving the accommodation letter and then being left to discuss implementation and details with the student can allow students agency in their own educational experience,” Pittman said. ”On the other hand, the letters are very much form-letters — I have seen many of them come through my email over the years, and the paragraphs explaining a specific accommodation are usually the same.”

Individuals are not the only ones that misunderstand students with disabilities, according to Wasserman. Rather, he believes the entire University “systemically” fails students.

“They [DRS] are still a scapegoat for a University that, as a whole, is systemically failing across all aspects — [Student] Affairs, housing, dining, transportation, facilities,” Wasserman said. “There just doesn’t seem to be an area that is up to the standard.”

Rowan Wolff poses for a portrait in the Frick Fine Arts building.

Disability advocacy groups on campus

In late January, Wolff, Wasserman and other students with disabilities went to Student Government Board with their concerns. SGB formally voted to start the Disability Resources ad-hoc committee on February 14. According to Wasserman, the committee acts as an “umbrella representative body of the disabled student population.”

“In less than three weeks, this committee went from a proposal to the board, to full-fledged existence. According to some board members, that’s the fastest that a committee has ever come to fruition,” Wasserman said. “I like to think we have really stepped up our efforts and our urgency, because this is a long-term goal that is going to take a while to fix. But at the same time this is our everyday lives we’re talking about.”

Wolff and Wasserman also co-founded the Student Disability Coalition at Pitt to provide students a place to find community.

“Our goals are to be a voice for all disabled students at Pitt, not just disabled students who are involved in specific clubs,” Wolff said. “We want to give people a chance to connect with other disabled students because that’s one of the things that’s very challenging.”

Culley said DRS works to recognize changing student needs as something that “continuously evolves” with the student population over time.

“We’re continuing to evolve and we’re continuing to look to see — how can we do this better, do this differently?” Culley said. “And so, we want to continuously make sure that we’re aware of the needs of the students who we’re working with.”

Wolff is a junior and intends on graduating next year. Because her work for the coalition comes at a later stage in her academic career, she said she is “definitely planting the seeds of a tree that I will never see grow.”

“I’m not doing this for myself,” Wolff said. “I’m doing this for a freshman in four or five years who rolls up to school with a wheelchair and significant impairments and doesn’t have to deal with this shit.” 

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