Jack Dowell ‘21
In the leadup to the recent SGA presidential election, Elif Kaya ‘19 made a post to the unofficial Davidson Facebook group saying that “as a voter, I am looking for a specific initiative on working to accept more students with physical disabilities to Davidson.” Though accessibility has been an ongoing discussion on campus, after the election of Emmitt Sklar ‘21 as SGA president, whose platform included making Davidson “accessible, affordable, and accepting,” the conversation about Davidson’s accessibility has moved further into the spotlight.
Kaya’s post to the Facebook group was inspired by a recent visit to MIT’s campus, where she found that “it’s obvious that there’s a greater ratio of people with disability participating in daily life … It was obvious that there’s something we’re not doing well enough based on the daily participation you can observe just walking around on campus.” She emphasizes that while she wants to bring focus to the issue, she does not have all the answers: “that’s why I put it on the group: to find out what’s going on, is anyone paying attention to this?”
Representatives from both SGA presidential tickets reached out to her, and both of the winners acknowledge the presence of a problem. Sklar, after his election, told The Davidsonian that “how we make sure this campus is accessible to everyone is something we don’t focus on enough.” He emphasized the importance of going beyond the bare minimum and also making social spaces more accessible, saying “it doesn’t mean anything unless we’re one community that’s both working and having fun together.”
Gina Martinez ‘20, SGA’s vice president, cited Kaya’s Facebook post, saying “I think it’s important to look at what our peer institutions are doing … when the school, the actual layout of the school is not accessible for students, you’re putting up an obstacle. Students will not come here even if they want to because they cannot live here.”
One concrete proposal was expanding the Safe Rides program, which currently provides free rides around campus and the surrounding area to students on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Sklar wants to expand those hours “to focus on times when professors have office hours at the Hub … and make sure those are accessible,” as well as establishing a shuttle between Davidson and the Hub.
Kenzie Bell ‘20, a hard of hearing student, thinks that Davidson has a long way to go. “I think Davidson is generally set up to regress to the mean in terms of serving students.” Bell believes the issues are deep set and is skeptical of SGA’s ability to correct them. “I don’t really think that SGA is a solution to a lot of problems at Davidson; I think it’s more an institutional level [change], a change in culture and in students. Because Davidson is also a place where, when students come to visit, it’s very clear the ways in which you might not fit in.”
Emmie Lo ‘22 reports a more positive experience with the administration, saying: “I’ve overall had a really positive experience, especially with academic access and disability resources. They don’t do the bare minimum; they make sure I really have what I need.”
However, the campus itself poses issues for her as a blind student. “It’s a little bit confusing because there are so many pathways and many of them are curvy, and they’re all brick … I can get lost pretty close to my destination … but I can always find someone who can help me get to my destination. I think that’s probably part of the Davidson culture.”
Dr. Ann Fox, a professor in the English department with an extensive background in disability studies, also spoke about the physical accessibility of campus, saying, “I think with physical accomodation we say things are up to code. But are they truly accessible?” She sees this as a result of a history of discrimination where “academic buildings sort of [mirror] the assumptions about the sort of bodies that belong in them.”
Despite the imperfections of the campus itself, Fox made a point of emphasizing that Davidson historically had prioritized disability studies, to the extent that “Davidson was one of the first liberal arts colleges in the country to offer disability studies courses.” She adds that “curricularly, I think Davidson has tried; I’ve gotten nothing but full support [academically].”
Student-led and Union Board activities are a common source of accessibility complaints. Bell says that she does not attend them, especially citing movies where, as a hard of hearing student, the experience becomes “frustrating and exhausting to try and follow along” due to the lack of closed captions.
Deciding how to best accommodate disabled students can often be challenging. Lo points out that “even if [people] want to help, they don’t really know what they need to do.” She explained that she believed that SGA was going to “reach out to the communities who actually know what needs to be done.”
Olivia Liccione ‘19, who heads LEAD, campus’s only disability advocacy group, explains how SGA reaches out to affinity groups on campus, and how that process has evolved. “It’s impressive how much the administration really does listen to the SGA members … I think they actually do a fair amount.”
One effort LEAD, which stands for Leadership, Empowerment and Advocacy for Diverse abilities, is making is to increase the understanding of diversity as an identity. Liccione said, “Often disability is seen as a medical impairment, not a cultural identity, and so we’re really pushing to change that.”
Fox also said that one of the primary ways she’d like to see the college change is in ”thinking of [disability] more purposefully as an identity. So often when we think about inclusion we think about race, gender, sexuality, all super important. But we don’t talk about disability.”