Disability Services Office renamed to reflect changes

by Isha Marathe / Beacon Correspondent • September 7, 2017

Emerson’s “Disability Services Office” will now be called “Student Accessibility Services” to reflect an overall shift toward a more social model. Vice President and Dean of Campus Life James Hoppe announced the change to the Emerson community via email on Wednesday. 

SAS, the Student Affairs Cabinet, the Student Health Advisory Board, Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services, the Center for Health & Wellness, and a spring survey of students already receiving accommodations from the office confirmed the new label. 

SAS works to resolve accessibility issues by organizing accommodations so students have independence and control over their own lives, Director of Student Accessibility Services Diane Paxton said.

“We have been discussing it [the name change] for a few years now, but the actual consideration began in earnest this January,” Paxton said. 

She said the name change is representative of an overarching shift in the policy and approach of the SAS office. 

“We had already been moving toward more of a social model as opposed to an only medical model, using accessibility over disability,” she said. “People think of disability as a deficiency in our ableist society, but in the social model we think of disability as any other kind of difference. It is neutral.” 

The process for interviewing students for possible accommodations has become much more comprehensive due to this new model, Paxton said. 

“It goes beyond just a letter from your doctor,” she said. 

The vetting process has become a conversation with each student as opposed to an information session. The accommodations are subsequently now crafted around the student’s schedule, likes, dislikes, and available resources.

Changes in the processes of the office were based on ADA amendments signed into law in the late 2000s which redefine the term “disabled,” leading to more people seeking accommodations, said Paxton. 

Over time, Paxton said visibility became less of a concern due to a rise in the SAS’ involvement with activities and organizations on campus, such as the Cirque de De-Stress each semester, the Self-Care Fair during orientation, and Fresh Check Day for two years. The SAS department now conducts close to 10 such events per year to raise awareness, Paxton said.

“We all realized that this new name more accurately represented the work they already do. I would say the name has only just caught up with the changes that were happening over a period of time,” said James Hoppe in reference to the Accessibility Committee’s contribution to the name change. 

Similar name changes at institutions including Tufts University, Suffolk University, Merrimack College, and City University of New York have shown a cultural trend in eliminating the term “disabled.” 

“‘Disability’ is a powerful word, but there can also be a stigma to it. It can sometimes discourage people from getting the assistance that could lead to a more comfortable campus life. Whereas ‘accessibility’ can be easier to explain to parents and friends,” Paxton said.

Sophomore business of creative enterprises major Julia Perry said she has obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. Perry said she personally was not offended by the “disability” label, but thought “accessibility” to be more progressive and inclusive.

“Before I was diagnosed in high school, I would have definitely gone to an office that said ‘accessibility’ instead of ‘disability.’ I knew I had some sort of a problem but I didn’t feel like I had a disability,” Julia said. 

Freshman visual and media arts major Jason Wyatt Regner lives on campus with an emotional support animal. Wyatt went through the SAS interview process to receive this accommodation for his anxiety. 

“Most of the times someone is getting an [emotional support animal], it’s an animal they already have. It can be anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t say the interview process was difficult at all. It was a half-hour long and mostly about the dog and how it helps.”

Wyatt said the end justifies the means for him, so it doesn’t matter what the name of the office is so long as they get the accommodations in order. 

“I will say that while it wasn’t an issue for me, ‘SAS’ is a name that doesn’t rub most people in the wrong way. People with mental or emotional issues don’t want to think of it as a disability. It’s offensive to some people,” he said. “So I think ‘accessibility’ is a step in the right direction.”

The name change was discussed with the director of diversity and inclusive excellence Robert Amelio as well. After weighing the pros and cons of the decision, he said more institutions are heading in the direction of accessibility.

“I think there is a stronger argument to change the name to Student Accessibility Services as opposed to not changing it,” said Amelio. “It is less exclusive, less stigmatized, less alienating. It represents a shift to not just focusing on the disability of an individual, but on the accessibility of everyone.”