Amid Georgetown University’s ongoing hiring freeze, employees at the Academic Resource Center are stretched thin, and the Georgetown Disability Alliance fears the ARC’s current lack of resources will not be addressed before the fall semester begins.
The ARC provides general academic support as well as special assistance for student-athletes and disabled students. Accommodations for disabled students include extra time on tests, visually enlarged materials and, since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, transcripts of online lectures.
After Georgetown transitioned to online learning, however, many students reported difficulties accessing their accommodations. Now, with another semester of online learning around the corner, the GDA says disabled students continued to lack necessary support from the ARC throughout the summer.
According to GDA Co-Chair of Community Dominic DeRamo (COL ’23), the ARC suffers from chronic understaffing exacerbated by an ongoing hiring freeze put in place by university administrators.
Despite dwindling resources and mounting pressure on staff, the ARC has been taking steps to ensure access to accommodations and resources online, according to ARC Executive Director Joseph Fisher.
“The staff of the Academic Resource Center has been working as a group to ensure that we remain available to students and that the services we offer continue as seamlessly as possible in the changed university environment,” Fisher wrote in an email obtained by The Hoya. “Since the hiring freeze has been put in place, we have been working collectively with an ethic of supportive care to share office responsibilities and to provide each other necessary moments of respite.”
Ensuring access to accommodations is a necessary component of equitable education, according to DeRamo.
“This is something that is not extra. Academic accommodations and accessibility in general is not something that’s extra. These are things that disabled students need to have equal access to — not extra access to university spaces,” DeRamo said in an interview with The Hoya. “That’s one of the things that’s been most frustrating because that’s the sentiment that all admin feel about disabled students — that we are fighting for some kind of extra access when, at the end of the day, this is what we need to have an equal playing field.”
The hiring freeze has been in effect since early April, when University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) announced it in a message to the Georgetown community along with a freeze on salary increases and discretionary spending. The freezes were intended to mitigate financial losses incurred by the university during the pandemic, according to a statement from a university spokesperson.
Although the temporary hiring freeze remains in place, Fisher said the ARC is still looking to fill open and essential positions.
“Essential positions are being considered on a case-by-case basis. We are working through the hiring process for any open positions,” Fisher wrote. “As we move into online fall courses, we will continue to work to ensure our students are given all appropriate accommodations.”
When the university moved online in March, students with academic accommodations reported they were struggling to have their needs met. Many professors were unwilling to find ways to incorporate accommodations into their curriculum and effectively forced students to forego their accommodations, according to Gwyneth Murphy (SFS ’23).
“In a lot of ways it was like coercion essentially,” Murphy said in an interview with The Hoya. “If you think about the power relationship between students and a professor, if a professor asks you, ‘Hey, now that we’re in this online format there’s no way for me to address your accommodation. Can you drop it?’ they have more power than you. You don’t want them to dislike you, and so you give up your accommodations because that’s easiest.”
The Georgetown University Student Association and the GDA have taken steps to support students with academic accommodations in the fall. Although support from administrators has wavered, GDA successfully launched an accessibility page on Canvas, according to GDA Advocacy Co-Chair Andrew Bialek (COL ’22).
The GUSA Mental Health Policy Team also launched an ARC proposal it has been working on all summer with Fisher, according to Murphy. The proposal advocates reforms to the current accommodations system, including creating a new written guide to online learning accommodations, reminding professors more consistently about how to incorporate accommodations and partnering with New Student Orientation to inform new students about how to seek accommodations while at Georgetown.
Both students and university employees suffer when the university fails to provide the support it should, according to DeRamo.
“We are quite literally doing work for free,” DeRamo said. “Us marginalized people are doing their jobs for them, and even the people who are being paid to do this stuff are grossly understaffed and underresourced and have a huge amount of pressure on them to do all of these responsibilities.”
DeRamo also said the response of university administration and the ARC ultimately indicates that Georgetown must change as an institution.
“I think that while we are trying to improve the understaffing and underresourcing of the ARC, it also needs to be an institutional thing. Admin needs to change their ways — how they view disability and accessibility — moving forward because there are a lot of widespread issues.”