Student Disability Union debuts Advocacy Project intended to increase college-wide accessibility

The+Access+Advocacy+Project+Instagram+graphic.

Photo: Courtesy @access_stu Instagram

The Access Advocacy Project Instagram graphic.

By Dana Gerber and Charlie McKenna

Access: Student Disability Union unveiled The Access Advocacy Project on Tuesday, an initiative that includes a list of action steps they are calling on Emerson to take to improve accessibility and equity for disabled community members. 

Action steps in the Action Plan for Disability Equity are divided into nine sections—ranging from the implementation of educational and training programs on disability for community members, to incorporating accessibility-informed policies into the classroom—and include a request for a college response by May 9. 

“Our community has been systematically left in the dark, marginalized, and undersupported,” the introduction to the action plan said. “We know that inequality is not unique to Emerson; systemic ableism has long run rampant in our global society. However, the responsibility of rooting out ableism falls upon every person and institution. That is one of the reasons why we are calling upon Emerson College to do more and to do better for its disabled students and community members.” 

Access is a student organization dedicated to building community among disabled Emerson students and advocating for accessibility and disability justice, visibility, and acceptance. The group, the first disability advocacy organization on campus, was created in November 2019 and became affiliated with the Student Government Association in November 2020. The Advocacy Project is the culmination of their “entire year and a half history,” according to a Tuesday email from Access’s president, senior Harper McKenzie.  

McKenzie declined to comment to The Beacon for this story.

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Since the Advocacy Project was released, several other advocacy-based student organizations—including Protesting Oppression with Education Reform and Flawless Brown—have stood in solidarity with the plan by reposting or sharing related graphics on social media with the hashtag #AccessAtEmerson.

On Wednesday, Access launched an email campaign on their Instagram, urging community members to send a pre-written email to Emerson administrators and Board of Trustees members expressing their support for the project and the action plan.    

“The plan is a starting point,” the letter states. “While long, the list of actions is not complete or comprehensive because the needs of our community will change over time, but moreover because there will never be a checklist to solving ableism. Anti-ableism work requires a communal, continuous effort that can be invigorated by listening to disabled voices and by taking action to fulfill their needs. We hope that Emerson will put forth a commitment to that effort now and throughout the future.” 

New Position

Access calls for the institution of a new upper-level administrator position to “oversee the work of making Emerson more accessible and equitable for disabled students and community members.” 

This administrator—who they say should work closely with Student Accessibility Services, the Social Justice Center, and Intercultural Student Affairs—should be disabled and have an “extensive background in disability and social justice.” 

This individual would not handle fulfilling students’ accessibility requests, which the action plan states should remain under the purview of SAS. 

Training

The list of action steps also asks for the implementation of mandatory and comprehensive educational and training programs on disability justice, anti-ableism, and accessibility for all Emerson students, staff, and faculty. The action plan says these programs should be tailored by department—for example, training for staff at the Center for Health and Wellness should focus on treating disabled patients—and they recommend customizing training to specific groups of students, like transfer or international students.  

They add that these trainings should not be “the sole burden of Student Accessibility Services or disabled students” and should be “inclusive, accessible, and intersectional.”

Access also highlighted the heightened need of specific groups—including faculty, resident assistants, and dining workers—to undergo training. 

Administration’s Approach to Disability

The action steps also touched on the inclusion of disabled students on boards and committees, laying out specific guidelines for when and how this “student labor” is appropriate. They ask for the minimal use of student advisory boards, and when they are used, they should be diverse, include disabled students, and financially compensate student members. When selecting student representatives for groups like search committees, Access similarly calls for the inclusion of disabled students.

“One student representative is not sufficient representation of the multiple marginalized identities at Emerson,” the step reads. 

When administrators tackle issues of ensuring equity at the college, the action plan states, disability should be incorporated. Furthermore, the initiative also calls on intersectionality to be at the forefront of equity efforts, calling the college to execute anti-ableist work in league with other “anti-oppressive” work. This includes addressing the anti-racist demands levied in the ESOC Week of Action spearheaded by the organization POWER in November. 

Academic Affairs 

Access called for administration to take several steps to make the academic experience more accessible, including strides in curriculum, hiring and retention, and the absence policy. 

The creation of new courses dealing directly with disability “informed by disability justice frameworks” taught by professors who are disabled “and/or professors with an extensive disability studies background” is among the chief requests. They also call for the incorporation of disability into existing courses in all departments. This academic revamp, the action plan said, should take place following “a full anti-ableism/disability inclusion audit of course syllabi.” 

The action plan also calls for the creation of a college-wide absence policy that allows professors to have agency in deciding class-by-class protocols, with an emphasis on clearly defining “unexcused” and “excused” absences and on leniency offered during challenging socio-political circumstances. 

It also states that disabled students should receive more leniency when their disability is the cause for an absence, and that excused absences should be “demedicalized” by not requiring medical documentation.

Access-Centered Pedagogy

The project calls on the college to hold professors responsible for implementing pedagogical practices that center on accessibility. Requests include the abolition of timed exams and assignments, elimination of due dates and deadlines wherever possible, and ensuring all academic materials are accessible to all students. 

To make materials more accessible, the project calls for the proliferation of audiobooks, digital screen-reader-accessible PDFs, accurate closed captions on videos and Zoom lectures, and allowing the use of technology in class for all students. Other action items include making all course materials available at the beginning of the semester and the implementation of “access-centered approaches to grading.”  

The project also calls on professors to be more understanding of students’ other commitments. 

“Making it clear to students that professors know their class isn’t, can’t be, and shouldn’t be the only thing that matters in their lives and that it’s not an insult if they need to prioritize other things, including but not limited to other classes, jobs, extracurriculars, family matters, and personal well-being over a particular class.”

Requests also include discontinuing “overly complex and challenging” ice breakers, providing space for wellbeing check-ins, distributing an accessibility needs questionnaire at the start of every semester, and updating syllabus language. The action plan calls for syllabi to go “above and beyond” the diversity statement and Student Accessibility Services statement by using language that “encapsulate[s] the approach to access-centered pedagogy utilized in a given course.” The new part of the syllabus should be “addressed in depth” and “continuously reiterated” throughout the semester, the action plan said. 

Student Accessibility Services

The project’s action steps for SAS fall under two categories: “accommodations process[es]” and “communication improvements.” To implement these, Access calls for Emerson to allocate more funding to SAS and approve the department’s request to hire an additional staff member. 

To improve accommodation processes, the project calls for a shift to a digital system for accommodation letters, decreasing the need for medical documentation in order to secure accommodations, prioritizing the needs of disabled students, and ensuring students are supported as best as possible via an interactive accommodation process with SAS staff members. 

The project also calls for the prioritization of disabled students’ needs by not withholding any information about the accommodation process and by allowing students full agency over whether or not to disclose their disability.

“Information …  should not be withheld for fear of non-disabled students taking advantage of accommodations, the fear of SAS not being able to keep up with accommodations requests, the fear of a student facing stigma or the fear of a disabled student experiencing deviation from the normative college experience due to their accommodations,” the action plan read.

“Students should not be told to keep their accommodations a secret or swayed to non-disclosure of their disability; a culture that empowers students to make their own decision about disclosure and equally values disclosure and non-disclosure should be cultivated,” they continue. 

To improve communication, Access calls for all professors and students to be “made aware of” the accommodations available as well as how the accommodations system works. The project also calls for increased use of social media to promote SAS and the services it provides, and the inclusion of SAS in college-wide emails. 

Other Departments and Offices

The project also includes action items for numerous areas of the college, including the Iwasaki Library, the Emerson College Police Department, and Dining Services, among others. 

Each department and office listed should “take care to assess how they can support disabled students, improve accessibility, commit to anti-ableism and make their work equitable to disabled members of the Emerson community,” as well as strive to hire and retain disabled staff, the action plan said. 

For the Iwasaki Library, the project calls for greater access to audiobooks, prioritizing study room booking for disabled students, and creating a study space specifically for disabled students. 

Access calls for Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services and the Center for Health and Wellness—soon to be merged into one office—to implement a number of improvements which would allow the offices to work more effectively  with disabled students. Improvements include sensory-friendly treatment and therapy, staff members fluent in American Sign Language, staffing and service expansions with an emphasis on providing diagnostic testing, improving health care at Kasteel Well, and the ability to provide excused absences—especially for disabled students. 

The project calls for the implementation of a read-aloud program for the Writing and Academic Resource Center, where students can be hired to record themselves reading papers, essays, articles, and other materials when an audio version is not available. 

Access called on Informational Technology to ensure all the computers in on-campus labs have accessible features enabled or readily available and to increase the number of accessibility devices, like hearing aids and noise-canceling headphones, available for reservation at the Media Services Center. 

The action plan calls for the Instructional Technology Group to expand its accessibility education and assistance for professors by giving ITG “whatever resources are necessary.” It is also requested that the standards of digital accessibility used for online classes are applied to all classes.

The organization calls for the abolition of the Emerson College Police Department and for the college to explore alternatives to policing, which would lead to the “eventual abolishment” of the department. The action plan also requests an apology from the college for the department’s “ableist past” and for ECPD’s recent social media posts in support of Autism Speaks, which disability advocates say is a group that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and stigmatizes people with autism. 

Access also appeals for dining services to update its signage, add new seating areas to better accommodate disabled students, and improve food options for students with food allergies and dietary restrictions. 

Orientation and Week of Welcome

The project calls for “increased accessibility of orientation programming” by making large events more accessible and sensory-friendly, providing an alternative form of information circulation for those who are unable to attend larger events, and for orientation leader meetings to rely less on walking or other inaccessible activities. 

The organization also called for SAS and disability advocates to be more involved with programming, presenting, and disseminating information throughout orientation and the week of welcome. 

Physical Accessibility

Periodic accessibility audits of the downtown Boston campus—as well as a similar evaluation of the Kasteel Well and Emerson Los Angeles campuses—by a third party to evaluate physically inaccessible features of campus are also among the action items. Access asks that when physically inaccessible locations are brought to the college’s attention, the college makes “swift plans to remedy” the situation. They also ask that when building or renovating, the college ensure accessibility, and that construction sites include ramps and don’t block or obstruct accessible pathways or entrances. Access also calls for enlarged, color-contrasted, and braille signage throughout campus, 

Access also requests that the college go beyond the requirements mandated through the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“ADA requirements are used as a baseline, not a stopping point,” the action plan reads. “Strive to make campus accessible by the standards of disabled people, not only the standards of the law.” 

Statement on Post-COVID Accessibility

In an addendum to the action plan, Access notes that they expect the college to preserve its pandemic-era accessibility policies even after the pandemic subsides. 

“By learning from the way we have widely and quickly implemented accessibility features and programs such as remote learning and a variety of care-based pedagogies, we can continue to ensure accessibility to all members of the Emerson community,” the statement said. 

The statement added that the college should develop “proper emergency planning” that considers the needs of disabled people if a crisis-response from the college is ever necessary again.

Clarification: This story was updated to remove the word “demands” in reference to The Access Advocacy Project, as members of Access informed Beacon reporters this term does not accurately reflect the action plan. A line about Access declining to comment for this story was also edited to reflect that Access’s President, Harper McKenzie, was the one to declined to comment. 

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