Knox College offers senior Julia Steen certain accommodations for her Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a disorder of the autonomic nervous system that sometimes impedes her ability to do things like climb stairs. Having those accommodations addressed in practice has been an uphill battle. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees Steen classes on the first floor of academic buildings, but she says she has had professors openly express their agitation at having to move classrooms.
“That was alarming to me,” Steen said. “I feel like that’s part of the problem with the whole Knox faculty’s mentality. It’s something they have to do but they’re not really willing to do it well.”
Student Senate’s Campus Life Committee is launching an accessibility initiative this term that junior Cayne Randall hopes will lift some of this stigma around physical disability. The Campus Life Committee members — Randall, junior Zane Huffman, freshman Carly Rieger and freshman Bethlehem Mulualem — aim to improve accessibility on campus, beginning with more ramps in convenient locations and ensuring that all of the automatic door openers are functional.
Last spring, sophomore Emily Wallace submitted a map of automatic door openers that were out of order to Student Senate. She mentioned her friend, sophomore Olly Kay struggles with a chronic illness that leaves them in high amounts of physical and emotional pain.
In high school Kay had digestive issues, but by spring term of their freshman year their symptoms worsened. Kay listed their arms, hips, jaws and palm joints as all potential locations that can dislocate now. They describe their joints as being akin to a piece of bubble gum. If they stretch too much, they won’t snap back like a rubber band; instead they keep stretching.
Wallace and Kay discussed Kay’s disability at length. This inspired Wallace to go to Student Senate to discuss the challenges she has seen Kay face.
“I talked about Olly particularly and how ableism made it so I didn’t even notice these issues before,” Wallace said. “I was upset that Knox says it’s open to everyone and we weren’t providing [better support]. Some of the door operations don’t work and I’ve been told that’s an easy fix.”
This, coupled with growing awareness that Knox lacks elevators and other resources for students with mobility impairments, led to the creation of the accessibility project. Randall cited the paradox that until Knox creates resources for students with disabilities, the school will not attract students for whom these resources are necessary.
“I know there’s been the debate that there’s not a huge group of people who need [accommodations] on campus, but at the same time that’s a reason people aren’t coming to our campus, because we don’t really allow for it,” Randall said.
Director of Disability Support Services Stephanie Grimes believes the current level of accessibility on campus is a factor students must consider when applying to Knox. Steen visited every college she was considering to check for some level of accessibility.
Junior Natasha Caudill, who is legally blind, also toured Knox as a prospective student with this in mind. While Caudill received helpful accommodations from Disability Support Services, like preferential seating in classrooms and digital copies of texts and presentations, it was something she had to actively search for. She believes that simply making the disability services Knox does offer more visible could go a long way toward making students with disabilities feel welcome on campus.
“It’s not something that needs to be hidden,” Caudill said. “Knox is an incredibly accepting and diverse place and disabled students deserve to feel that.”
The Campus Life Committee is concerned that as it stands the Office of Disability Support Services may not provide students with sufficient support. Because the office has just one employee, scheduling an appointment can be difficult. Most of the accommodations the office does offer are academic, because the number of Knox students with physical disabilities is fairly low.
According to Grimes, 50 percent of returning students registered with Disability Support Services have psychological or behavioral challenges, 47 percent have ADHD, 16 percent have a learning disability, and just 6.5 percent have mobility impairments. This number includes the one to two students who suffer temporary injuries each year. Because there are so few students with mobility impairments, they are treated on an individual basis.
“I was in this weird limbo space where [Grimes] was like, ‘what do you need from me?’ and I was like ‘what can you offer me?’ and she was like ‘I don’t know,’” Steen said.
Though Kay believes the disability service office works hard, there are some things that have let them down. Kay was told that the heavy plates in the cafeteria would be discussed with the head manager, but so far Kay hasn’t heard anything about accomodations being made. They’ve also had trouble performing necessary tasks, such as doing laundry, without difficulty.
“I wasn’t told I would need to walk down the stairs to do laundry [at Drew Hall], which isn’t a big dealÉ but I also haven’t done laundry in two weeks because I’m just exhausted and I really need to,” Kay said.
Kay was not made aware by the Knox administration that Hamblin Hall has a working elevator and a laundry room on most of the floors. They didn’t know such a hall even existed.
Randall also wants to shine light on a lack of accessible housing options. Hamblin Hall, the Sigma Chi house, and many apartments and townhouses are currently accessible, meaning that they have housing options without stairs. After renovations, the Beta house will be equipped with a chair lift and first-floor living accomodations.
However, there are not currently housing options in Post or the quads, whose first floors each have at least a few steps. Students do not currently have access to housing that is both accessible and centrally located, an important consideration for people with mobility impairments.
While installing more elevators on campus is not in the committee’s budget, Randall hopes the recent renovations are a step in the right direction. Each time a building is renovated Director of Facilities Services Scott Maust ensures it is up to current ADA standards. He would love to see the outdated elevators in SMC and Seymour Union replaced, and a second elevator added in SMC, but said it is not in the budget for this phase of the renovations. Maust said fundraising to begin work on these elevators could take at least five years. Eventually, he would like to see them added to Old Main and GDH.
Elevators may be in the school’s future but for now the Campus Life Committee is interested in working with the student body to spark a conversation about physical disability. Caudill has received insensitive comments from professors in the past and while she is excited to see Knox add physical accommodations, she is more concerned with attitudes toward disability in the classroom.
“Accessibility isn’t just about having elevators or ramps to get people through the door, it’s about what happens once you’ve gotten them through the door,” Caudill said. “There needs to be a support system built in for disabled students and I don’t know that Knox has much of one right now.”
Although ADA guarantees Steen first-floor classes, she did not always feel comfortable asking for accommodations. During her freshman and sophomore year, she often bit the bullet, climbing the stairs to her professors’ third-floor offices even when it made her lightheaded. Like most Knox students with physical disabilities, Steen’s is invisible and people often assume she is able-bodied. As a result, she feels professors do not always take her requests to move appointments to a more accessible location seriously.
“I learned that you really have to ask and even if you ask [professors] once can we meet in the Gizmo instead of me coming up to your office you have to ask again and again and again, because it’s not really something that people think about,” Steen said.
Over her four years at Knox, Steen has learned to self-advocate. In addition to resolving some of the social stigma that hinders discussions of disability, Steen hopes Student Senate will consider holding workshops that empower students with disabilities to advocate for themselves and build a more nuanced understanding of disability on campus.
“I think that’s something Student Senate could be helpful with,” Steen said. “Holding workshops about accessibility, what it means to be disabled, what it means to have a non-visible disability, physically, mentally, all kinds of disabilities.”
Kay also believes that holding dialogues and classes centered around understanding disabilities could be beneficial to removing some of the preconceptions around disability.
“I wish I were able to have more in-depth conversations with people because I’m pretty open about being disabled,” Kay said. “I like to have as many conversations with as many people as I can.”