When senior Julia Steen arrived on campus in the fall of 2015, she was immediately met with difficulties due to her disability. Steen, whose disability is exacerbated by heat, was told she could not install her air conditioning unit in her dorm on move-in day, which she remembers being over 100 degrees outside.
“I was like, ‘I have a doctor’s note right here.’ And they were like, ‘no, it has to go through [Director of Disability Services] Stephanie Grimes,’” she said. “And so they wouldn’t let me put this air conditioner in and I was so upset. That was my first experience coming to Knox.”
Steen had tried to contact Grimes prior to her arrival at Knox, but was unable to get ahold of her. Consequently, she was not able to put in a request for accommodations before starting Fall Term.
Grimes, who is the only professional staff member of Disability Services, estimated that, upon her arrival to Knox in 2011, just under 50 students utilized Disability Services for academic accommodations. After Grimes expanded the services to include support in other areas such as residential accommodations, the numbers increased to an estimated 250 students.
“Coming from a Disability Services background in looking at what the needs were for the students on campus I always felt that there was much more that we could do as an office in support of students,” Grimes said. “And so we started doing different things, we started looking at residential accommodations.”
Grimes now deals with accommodations in all aspects of student, lives, ranging from accommodations on the job, in residence halls to temporary injuries and academic accommodations. She is aware that the influx of students who use Disability Services means she is less available to assist students personally.
“To give you kind of an idea — so some days, I may have 10 students scheduled for one day,” Grimes said. “And those students are scheduled for 45 minutes, an hour, sometimes 30 minutes … usually it’s back-to-back.”
Due to the overpopulating of Disability Services, Grimes is aware that some students have been unable to contact her for appointments. She acknowledges that this could lead to difficulties for students who need accommodations.
“If they don’t have access to me and are having some significant challenges that are going on and they come in and it’s difficult to see me because I’m booked solid … then what other resources do they have?” she said.
Sophomore Ray Prekop has yet to get in contact with Disability Services to request academic accommodations. After sending three emails personally, getting professors to send emails on their behalf and going to Grimes’ office, Prekop has given up on trying to contact her.
“It just never happened, so I just sort of made it work,” they said. “I was just like ‘it’s not worth it, I’ll figure something out.’”
Prekop is appreciative to have had professors who were willing to accommodate their ADHD, but wishes they could have access to some of the other resources available for students. Since these resources exist, Prekop feels that they should be more readily available.
“I have a really hard time getting through texts so some of those additional resources like text-to-audio sort of technology would have been really useful for me,” they said. “But I don’t have access to that and so it’s been really hard trying to make accommodations just with professors sometimes.”
Like Prekop, Steen has also stopped trying to get in contact with Grimes to request accommodations.
“I’ve learned to manage just fine without any accommodations,” she said. “I’m at the point where I’m just so fed up that I don’t even bother meeting up with [Grimes] or emailing her anymore even though I should have accommodations.”
Steen feels lucky that her disability, while making certain activities more strenuous, does not completely limit her from entering buildings that are not accessible. She often climbs to the third floor of Old Main despite having a disability that makes stairs difficult.
“But in a lot of cases people can’t do that and so I feel bad for them,” she said. “And I don’t even know what they should do in that situation because I feel like I did everything that I could.”
When Steen did receive accommodations, she found the process long and frustrating. Oftentimes, a request as simple as moving a class from the third floor to the first took long email exchanges and several reminders. Even then, she did not always feel welcomed in the classroom. During her freshman year, Steen’s professor was unhappy having to move a class to a more accessible location.
“I had to have it moved from the third floor of Old Main to Borzello,” she said. “And she was so angry, the first day she walked into class and was like ‘somebody made me move this class because of an issue’… And so she was like ‘everyday I’m going to be late to this class because of this person’… it was awful.”
Steen feels that issues involving students with disabilities stem from both a lack of awareness and a lack of available resources. She feels that, with all of the work Grimes has, she has little time to work on outreach as well as working to help decrease the stigma against disability.
Grimes said that conversations around the under staffing of Disability Services have been going on and that Dean and Provost Kai Campbell has been especially helpful in understanding the need for these services. She said they’ve been discussing how the need for more support aligns with the college’s financial needs.
“I think there is a conversation about eventually some staff being added here, but it just hasn’t happened yet,” Grimes said. “I think that will be a big help for students here to have access to two professional people.”
Prekop is hopeful to get in touch with Disability Services at some point during their time at Knox. They understand that Grimes may not have time for every student who needs accommodation, and feels that the administration should address this and offer support for Grimes and, consequently, the students who use Disability Services.
“There needs to be more people in Disability Services so that, when [Grimes] is inevitably totally swamped with requests from students, that there is another person that can help her pick that up,” they said. “Because that’s just not a job that a single person can do even at a small school.”
Steen is adamant that creating a more accessible and accommodation-friendly campus will attract more students with disabilities and ultimately create a more diverse student body. She feels that the current process of receiving accommodations has likely discouraged students from seeking aid.
“I think that a lot of people with disabilities are deterred from Knox because our campus isn’t accessible,” Steen said. “And then you try to email and you aren’t getting anything back and then you show up and they’re like ‘oh, you don’t have accommodations’ and then they tell you all these things.”
Grimes is hoping to be able to extend her work from only being able to handle accommodations to having time to work on outreach and advocacy. She feels that accessibility needs to be discussed more on campus.
“Knox is a great place but we still have a lot of good things and work that we can do that we can make it even better,” she said.