In January of 2000, Cornell University made its statement on diversity through the “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” initiative. Although this statement has been touted for its commitment to racial diversity, it also makes a commitment to individuals on campus with disabilities. Members of the disabled community at Cornell face different challenges than other marginalized communities on campus.
There are several challenges and misconceptions for people with disabilities on Cornell’s campus. One initial challenge is that people may not realize that there even is a community of people with disabilities at Cornell and a misconception that a disability is always obvious, like in instances when a person is in a wheelchair or when a person is blind. According to Lynette Chappell-Williams, Director of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality, however, an individual can have a disability such as a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, depression or chronic medical condition that may not be obvious.
Cornell’s highly competitive environment may be especially challenging to students with learning disabilities and like any other minority community on campus, the Cornell community needs to examine courses, buildings, programs and policies to ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded in their structure, content and delivery. Although a building may be physically accessible on the outside for a person in a wheelchair or a person who is visually impaired, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the classrooms and spaces are accessible on the inside, according to Erin Sember, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Technical Assistance Specialist within the Employment and Disability Institute at the ILR School and a sponsor of the Cornell Union for Disabilities Awareness (CUDA).
“I personally think the major challenge comes from the relationship with others,” said Eunsun Kim ’11, a member of CUDA. “Some might see disability as a misfortune, or something abnormal. Those perceptions might be the real challenges students and staff with disabilities are facing.”
There are several resources available for students, staff and faculty with disabilities on Cornell’s campus, including four offices on campus that address disability issues: Facilities Services, Student Disability Services, Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality and the Medical Leaves Administration. Facilities Services assists with accessibility to buildings and reviews construction plans to ensure ease of access. Student Disability Services offers services so that students with disabilities may independently access the same opportunities as their peers on campus. The office of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality assists applicants with disabilities to access the university’s employment process with reasonable accommodations, according to Andrea Haenlin-Mott, ADA Coordinator for Facilities Services. The Medical Leaves Administration works with faculty and staff regarding workers' compensation, short- and long-term disability, Family & Medical Leave Act requests, ergonomic assessments and requests for accommodation under the ADA, said Patti Riddle, Manager, Medical Leaves Administration.
Within these offices, there is currently an initiative to create an organization-wide disability strategic plan that would focus on physical access, educational program access, employment, technology, communications and emergency preparedness/evacuation for people with disabilities at Cornell, in addition to accommodating the needs of individuals on a regular basis. For example, Student Disability Services would work to identify the need for bathroom modifications and building access for a student in a wheelchair or provide captioning or sign language interpreting to provide communication access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Despite these resources, “there is always room for improvements in understanding what its like to navigate life with a disability,” said Kappy Fahey, Director of Student Disability Services agree with Chappell-Williams.
This spring, Prof. Michael Gold, ILR and Dean Susanne Bruyere will teach a one-credit course called “Introduction to Disabilities Awareness.” The idea and some of the groundwork for the course came from CUDA, said Prof. Gold, one of the advisor’s of CUDA. CUDA was created by students who saw that Cornell did not have a student organization that was committed to disabilities awareness and advocacy, said Sung Min Kim ’10, a member of CUDA.
Aside from pushing for the class, CUDA has also created a forum for students to speak out and discuss disabilities in addition to creating opportunities by which the rest of campus can raise awareness. “To my knowledge there were no outlets for this population of students other than Student Disability Services. CUDA has allowed students who are interested in this topic, whether they have a disability or not, to come together,” said Sember.
In addition to providing a forum, CUDA develops advocacy and awareness projects, a frequent focus being universal design. Universal design is when buildings or other facilities are planned so that everyone, disabled or not, can use them with ease.
“[It] is based on the principle that the institutions and structures of everyday life — buildings and walkways and websites for example — are designed so as to be accessible to as many people as possible, with a wide range of individual abilities and preferences,” said Lisa Adler ’09, a member of CUDA.
CUDA's awareness initiatives seek to point out that initiatives such as universal design of buildings, websites and classroom instruction make these things more accessible to students with disabilities and also can make many aspects of daily life accessible to people who would not traditionally consider themselves to be "disabled,” Adler said.
Assistive technology is available across campus for students with disabilities, such as different forms of hardware and software in the libraries through Assistive Technology Centers in RPCC, Stimson, Uris Library and Olin Library. These centers offer a Braille printer, software that converts E-text into MP3s and other audio files and screen readers, according to the Student Disabilities Services website.
The real question, however, is if students, staff and faculty with disabilities feel that their needs are being met and how easily accessible the services are.
“I think Cornell has a very diverse group of people and a lot of people are open to the issues they were not aware of before,” said Sung Min Kim ’10. “However, I believe there are still some parts of campus that have to be reached to raise the awareness and inform people about the importance of these issues."
“I don't know that it is as obvious what the services and resources are for a staff or faculty member with a disability,” said Sember. “I found out several years after I worked here that there is the Employee Assistance Program which serves employees with a variety of needs or issues, not just disabilities”
She later added, “I think it would be good if supervisors, departments, etc. were more cognizant about letting their employees know what the services are for those with disabilities, as well as what policies are in place to help and support them.”