The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Disabled at Vanderbilt: Where we’re failing

Bruce Brookshire
Claire Barnett | Multimedia Director | [email protected]

The time has arrived for Vanderbilt to change its approach to disability. And I’m seeing more momentum now than at any other point in the past three years, with the InclusAbility campaign, the new Director of Student Access Services, and the arrival of Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion James Page. We’ve reached a pivotal moment in the arena of disability, where we can make the choice to celebrate disability as a component of diversity.

There are some things we need to address before we move forward, though – the places where we as a university are currently failing disabled people. Only after confronting and remedying these issues can Vanderbilt make genuine progress.

This may come across as a laundry list of complaints (though it’s certainly not comprehensive). Humor me and read through each point. These are barriers that have never even occurred to most students, yet have created impactful negative experiences for disabled people at Vanderbilt. By becoming aware of these problems, you can better understand how to advocate for yourself or your disabled friends and peers.

Let’s begin with a simple one – campus lighting. It may seem to those of us with normal vision like Vanderbilt has plenty of outdoor lamp posts. But for students with visual impairments, traversing campus at night can frightening and dangerous. The spaces between lights are too great, and some areas of campus rely upon the dull glow of surrounding buildings. This does not create a safe or welcoming environment for students, faculty, staff or visitors with vision deficits. Sight is the sense humans rely upon most, and being able to see to get around your campus is a fundamental necessity.

Next, I’d like to address the elimination of straws in all campus dining halls. Less plastic is good, isn’t it? Maybe so, but by ceasing to present straws as an option, Campus Dining has made mealtime more challenging for many individuals with physical disabilities. For those who cannot physically pick up and hold their drink, a straw makes a significant difference. I know what you’re thinking – Vanderbilt has those paper straws, right? But as we have all come to realize, paper straws function optimally for about five minutes before beginning to deteriorate in the liquid. And though reusable straws exist, they are notoriously difficult to keep sanitary. So while using less plastic is awesome, Vanderbilt should make traditional straws available in at least one location in each dining hall on campus.

Our next topic is printing. Most of us print almost daily (and some of us multiple times a day). But for blind students and faculty, this isn’t an option. The braille printer on campus is located at Student Access Services (SAS) in the Baker Building. Because of the printer’s proximity to the testing room and the loud noise the printer makes, it cannot be operated while testing is taking place. Blind individuals, thus, must submit their content to SAS and wait for SAS staff to find a time when printing won’t disturb testing. Receiving a printed product can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Additionally, SAS is only open from 8am to 5pm on weekdays, further narrowing the window when our blind community members can print. This is ridiculously inconvenient, and certainly doesn’t constitute equal access. I can’t imagine my own access to a printer being so constrained.

Time to get a little more philosophical – these next few issues are less about physical accessibility and more about the culture at Vandy. The first thing I want to talk about is Vanderbilt allowing an “Autism Speaks U” chapter on campus. Autism Speaks is a national organization that raises autism awareness and money for autism research. This seems great a first glance, but the devil is in the details – the vast majority of autistic people (myself included) despise Autism Speaks. The research they fund is almost entirely based on finding an autism “cure,” which most autistic people do not want. We resent the implication that we would have been better, or more valuable, if we had not been autistic.

Furthermore, the “awareness” Autism Speaks raises is often more about telling the stories of parents who are inconvenienced by their child’s differences. In one infamous commercial, Autism Speaks portrays autism as “the enemy,” saying a whole litany of awful things about the autistic experience. Then, in an appalling twist, groups of family members insist to upbeat music that they will fight autism until it’s defeated. There are so many things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start – but suffice it to say that many, many autistic people see their differences as something to be celebrated rather than eradicated. I have spoken with almost a dozen autistic members of the Vanderbilt community who passionately feel that Vanderbilt having an Autism Speaks U chapter is inappropriate and hateful. (To clarify – there is no ill will towards the members of Vandy’s Autism Speaks U. They are almost certainly well-intentioned, if misguided.)

Another fundamental failing of Vanderbilt’s perspective is the SAS-centric model for serving students with disabilities. There are no culture or community oriented resources surrounding disability – just an office that handles ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance with regards to academics, dining and housing. This set-up neglects to recognize the identity element of disability, and the desire of many disabled people to connect with others like them, as well as relevant resources (other than ADA-compliant accommodations). Without a dedicated space advocating for the acceptance and celebration of disability identity, Vanderbilt will always be one step behind.

Finally, I want to discuss the university’s commitment to recruiting a diverse student body. These admirable efforts attempt to draw in students of various races, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic statuses and geographic regions. The goal is to assemble a student body with a wide variety of experiences and perspectives. Thus, Vanderbilt also ought to be intentionally recruiting students with disabilities. By leaving out this dimension of diversity, our university misses out on the valuable perspectives the demographic brings to the table. Moreover, failing to intentionally seek disabled students sends a clear message: that we [Vanderbilt] don’t actually want you here. This idea is so often communicated to people with disabilities, and Vanderbilt has the opportunity to send the opposite message by purposefully encouraging disabled students to apply.

At this point, I must seem like I have quite a chip on my shoulder. Maybe I do. All I know is that I’m tired of seeing my peers not have some of their basic needs met at our quite remarkable university. I understand that Vanderbilt is a large, bureaucratic organization and change can happen slowly. But Vanderbilt is also home to many of the nation’s most innovative thinkers, strategic leaders, brilliant researchers and passionate students. So I’d like to think that if we put our hearts (and backs) into it, Vanderbilt could solve all of these problems in the not-too-distant future.

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About the Contributors
Claire Barnett, Former Multimedia Director
Bruce Brookshire, Former Author

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