Wheaton Accessibility is technically back in business, but students with accommodations still feel the aftereffects of a rocky start to the semester.
By law, all established colleges and universities in the U.S. are required to meet all students’ accessibility needs. The Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), and President Obama’s reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) establish an enforcement mechanism, where all post-secondary administrators must at least attempt to meet the needs of students with disabilities, or otherwise face harsh penalties in the form of civil rights lawsuits.
Any post-secondary institution that receives federal funding has to have some kind of disability service apparatus available to students.
In the middle of the spring 2022 academic semester, former Accessibility Coordinator, Autumn Grant, left her position at Wheaton College. Until a qualified replacement could be found, Student Success Advisor, Susan Freidman, served as an intermediate up until September 2022. An unnamed full-time replacement was hired in August and expected to start on Sept. 15, but reportedly quit after their first few days on the job.
After the unnamed employee’s sudden departure, accessibility was upheld by a cohort of various faculty members. On Sep. 12, a previous Learning Disability Specialist from Lesley University, Jeremiah Bergstrom, stepped into the shoes of the Accessibility Services Director and has since stayed. During an interview, Bergstrom recognized the circumstances of the role he took on.
“I know that the work that I inherited, the role of accessibility services, was being heroically upheld by like six different people whose inherent job was not to work with accessibility services in its own right so that the duties were being done as well as could be. But, they were being done by like advisors and the registrar and stuff like that in order to kind of keep the ship afloat until they had the director on board to be able kind of held it in its own right” said Bergstrom.
Accessibility is up and running again, notably, with the addition of an accessibility specialist who will be starting after Thanksgiving break.
Bergstrom shared, “Wheaton hasn’t really had the bandwidth to be able to provide full wraparound support and I am excited that we’ll be able to do that because of the extra weight that we have now that there is a proper department up and running.”
Despite these positive advances, Wheaton students who require classroom or housing accommodations have been facing challenges that appear to be a result of the chunk of time between Autumn Grant’s departure in the spring, and Jerimiah Bergstrom’s September arrival.
Olivia Garofalo ‘25 struggled to acquire her accommodations at the beginning of the fall semester. At the beginning of the academic semester, Garofalo had to start her classes working as an advocate for her accommodations in addition to being a student.
“I had accommodations already in place from last year but needed some additional ones for this year. I provided medical documentation, but with the transition to the new staff in the accessibility office, it took way too long to get those into place and get the letter I needed to submit to my professors.” Garofalo continued, “Because I didn’t have the accommodation letter, I had to reach out to my professors individually and had to rely on them to help put into place accommodations like a note taker without the formal system that protected my confidentiality. I had to disclose my medical conditions that I would not have had to do had the system worked properly at the start of the semester.”
In addition to this, Garofalo went to check her classrooms before the semester started to ensure they met her accessibility needs. She immediately noticed that her wheelchair did not fit under the classroom tables. Garofalo contacted accessibility about her concerns during the first week of the semester.
“We are now in week 12 of the semester and I still don’t have a desk and am unable to get any work done during classes because I had to try to balance my IPad between my legs.” she wrote on Instagram on Nov. 25.
On Nov. 29, Garofalo’s proper desk was in her classroom. She managed to find the desk’s location through social media and with the help of Wheaton students and faculty.
“Thank you so much for all the support and for helping me get my story out- I definitely could not have done this alone.” She wrote on her Instagram story.
A Wheaton student, who prefers to remain anonymous, requested housing and classroom accommodations in May of 2022. In June, she reached out to Susan Freidman, the intermediate accessibility coordinator at the time, to make sure her forms had been processed.
At the end of June, the student heard back from Freidman and found out there were a few more forms she needed to complete. The anonymous student resubmitted the appropriate forms the same day.
When room selections for the 2022 fall semester rolled around, the student had yet to hear anything back regarding her housing accommodations.
“They [accessibility services] basically said that they received what I sent over but everything I submitted was wrong. They said I needed certain papers that Susan had told me not to worry about. I also provided them with documentation of my issues as well as requests and explanations from my healthcare provider, but they said they never got them. When I emailed the accessibility services back, re-attaching the documents provided by my doctor as well as having my doctor email, fax, and mail them to Wheaton herself, I never heard back again.” She wrote.
As a last resort, the student had to reach out to faculty outside of accessibility services to find a solution. Associate Director of Residential Life, Lyndsay Agular, found a solution for the student three weeks into the semester.
“The whole time I still hadn’t heard back from anyone else but Lyndsay. I needed a single with a private bathroom and eventually got into a triple with a private bathroom. I couldn’t even complain at that point because at least it is a semi-private bathroom. But because of my condition, I am not supposed to wait if I need to go, which is why the single was requested.” she wrote
Another anonymous student is one among many who reported troubles with receiving housing accommodations this year. A junior, the student had no problems going forth with housing accommodations her first two years at Wheaton, but there was a point in mid-August of 2022 when she was unsure if she would have a place to live on campus. None of her emails to accessibility were getting responses and the clock was ticking.
Usually, room selection for students with housing accommodations is done before or during the lottery in a process that both accessibility services and housing are involved with.
After several emails and phone calls, the student was able to receive her accommodation for a single, but due to accessibility’s disarray, she had to settle for a co-ed floor, even though her accommodations explicitly request a female/non-binary floor.
“We want to be talked to, not talked at, and we want to be want to feel like we’re being respected. And this is a violation of other policies in terms of like accessibility. Accessibility is a necessity.” she said.
On Dec. 1, the student-run Wheaton College Accessibility Board held an “open hours” event to address the current state of accessibility. The event was described online as “a chance for anyone to participate in a moderated, respectful, and solution-focused discussion regarding current accessibility concerns.”
The room was packed, with over 45 people occupying the room in person and 35 attending over zoom. Dean of Students, Darnell T. Parker, Associate Provost of Faculty Affairs and Academic Administration, Karen McCormack, and Assistant Professor of English, Wesley Jacques, were also present.
Student Accessibility Chair, Jolie Gagnon ‘24, encouraged students to be mindful of the wheelchair-accessible tables, explaining how moving one outside of the classroom or sitting on one could affect wheelchair-users independence.
Student accessibility concerns of all kinds were brought up during the meeting in a town hall-style setting and were addressed by Jeremiah Bergstrom and Dean Parker.