March 8, 2023

AMPLIFY! | Who is Responsible for Making Cornell Accessible?

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At Cornell University, accessibility is a central issue of the student experience; in 2021, over 5,000 students were registered with Student Disability Services. Cornell students are forced to regularly face inaccessibility at Cornell. From having approved accommodations ignored by professors to allegations that Cornell systematically denies applications that mention mental illness and a lack of accessible infrastructure, Cornell students regularly report access barriers in their daily lives. Too often, the responsibility for fixing these issues is placed on the students themselves; the Student Disability Services Frequently Asked Questions page describes that while accommodations in high school are the result of “[proactive] meetings with teachers, family members or caregivers, and school staff,” in college “[disabled students] are responsible for being [their] own self-advocates.” This model, in which accommodations are granted to those who pass through an optional review process in which they must name desired accommodations, makes Cornell a place where students are often forced to create their own accessibility, rather than it being a universal principle on campus.

Universal Design is a principle stating that everything from resources to infrastructure should be accessible to everyone by default, minimizing the need for individual special requests. This allows all people to perceive and engage in a way that accommodates their needs and reduces barriers. Universal Design benefits everyone, not just those who would otherwise lack access. Guidelines from the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation state that Universal Design for Learning means providing students “multiple means of perceiving, comprehending, and expressing their learning.” In infrastructure, Universal Design ensures that individuals with limited mobility or aides have access to buildings, classrooms and other spaces. The Student Disability Services website outlines Universal Design implementations in facets from classroom layout to communication and course materials, yet many students continue to face unnecessary barriers. 

One common barrier at Cornell comes in the aftermath of tragedy, as a rigid academic schedule clashes with traumatic events. Looking back to the fall semester of 2021, there was both a hoax bomb threat and an active shooter situation in one week. The fatigue and anxiety they caused took a toll on students’ mental health. And yet, it didn’t matter because it was prelim week. “I remember having two exams that week, and emailing my professors to ask for some leeway. One professor responded with an option that allowed me to skip this exam, but it would increase the weight the final would hold.” Emmah Bashir ‘23 said. When other students asked for alternate accommodations, some professors resisted, claiming not to wish to complicate matters around accommodations any further.  Students had to decide between either risking their final grade or their own mental health. In times of mental strain, students had to make difficult choices because of uncooperative professors.

Beyond responses to traumatic events, inaccessibility is often built into the academic systems we work under. There are no standard procedures to deal with accommodations for graduate exams. Graduate exams, like the Q-exam, A-exam, and B-exam, are high-stakes oral exams required to progress in the degree. Formats differ widely between and within departments, and published information is vague, making it difficult to know what accommodations to ask for. The exams are not associated with a class, the guidelines don’t mention accommodations and students are not told which professors will administer the exam until a week before. This means the usual avenue to request a Student Disability Services accommodation letter does not work, and it is unclear where to start. “For me, receiving Q-exam accommodations was a two month process that involved proactively meeting with Student Disability Services, my department’s Director of Graduate Studies and the previous year’s exam committee chair multiple times,” Rebecca McCabe ‘26 said. “Had I not gone out of my way to self-advocate in the absence of a clear process, and had these individuals not been particularly accommodating, the system would have left me without accommodations.” 

Even if academic resources were made entirely accessible, a core issue arises when students cannot physically access those resources or travel to utilize them. Across the country, people with qualifying disabilities don’t have to be drivers or registered owners of vehicles to get accessibility permits, except at Cornell University. Cornell does not acknowledge state-issued accessibility placards and instead points people in the direction of the Campus-Bus and CULift. “The buses dropped me off too far away, so I was always late to class and consumed with the pain it took to get there I would immediately need to lay down,” Killian Black ‘24 said. Black mentioned that CULift service requires your schedule 24 hours in advance which leaves students extremely limited. “I couldn’t talk to my professors after class, meet up with friends for lunch, attend my clubs or go home when my condition became too much. In addition, Student Disability Services didn’t inform me of my exam locations or times in time so I couldn’t even take my exams and I was told people with disabilities don’t get special treatment and that many people are denied accessibility permits.” After consulting Cornell’s Americans with Disabilities Act Representative, Black was issued a one-time exception for this year, and is unsure what will happen to them next year and other people who have been denied.

On top of all this, a self-identifying system of accommodations means students will have to identify their needs to the school in order to be considered for accommodations, and many students may not be aware of access needs or possible accommodations due to a lack of a diagnosis or specialist guidance. The question remains as to who is able to access the specialist care, diagnostic services and referrals to know what accommodations they may qualify for or need in the first place. Accessing specialist healthcare can also be a daunting process for those on Cornell’s Student Health Plan. It is left to students to discover the conditions and access barriers which are often used to qualify for accommodations, and while a formal diagnosis is not formally required by Student Disability Services, a self-selection process can exclude students unaware of programs or unsure of their own status. While in the process of diagnosis for a disability, some are referred to a specialist for an appointment, which can take months to schedule. By the time some make it to the appointment, they can face specialists who no longer offer examinations in the area they are referred for or face significant insurance problems. In a system with limited knowledge of available programs, self-selecting accommodations and long wait periods for specialist resources, access barriers can quickly proliferate.

As students at Cornell, we are entitled to accessible and inclusive public spaces and policies. Cornell’s model of accessibility places much of the responsibility on students to find methods of inclusion, enforce accessibility standards and educate the community. While Student Disability Services and the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation are correct to promote universal design, the university has a long way to go before the intent of the principle is realized in practice. Moving forward, it is vital to ensure that the burden of improving accessibility does not fall on the very students it is meant to uplift.

Rebecca McCabe ‘26 is a PhD student in the graduate school, Emmah Bashir ‘23 is a student in the college of Industrial and Labor Relations, Killian Black ‘24 is a student in the college of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Disability Advocates Union can be reached at [email protected]. Amplify! runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.