When I entered Georgetown University as a first-year, I was ready to walk away from the many inequities and challenges I faced as a visually impaired high schooler. I wholeheartedly embraced Georgetown’s tenets of caring for the whole person and being people for others. But sadly, as a senior, I now find myself reflecting on the numerous challenges I have faced in terms of physical accessibility, legally mandated accommodations and harmful language. The university’s response to physical accessibility issues is to attribute the problem to the lack of funding allocated to physical access issues. But I personally could do with a smaller flower budget for a while if it meant my institution would feel like home to students with disabilities.
Though professors are legally mandated to follow the directives they receive from the Academic Resource Center, they rarely do so consistently. When professors are not compliant, the ARC sends a message condemning their behavior, but no real action is taken to ensure they will accommodate myself and other students in the future. In my junior year “Conflict Transformation” course, my professor consistently failed to provide me with in class materials in a font that was accessible to me so that I could interact with them in class like other students had the opportunity to do. Though I reported this professor multiple times to the ARC and my case manager emailed her multiple times, nothing changed in that class. It is Georgetown’s responsibility to start training faculty on the accommodations process and ensure professors understand why creating an accessible classroom is important.
When it comes to my accommodations, I have had many types of professors at Georgetown. I want to stress that these professors cross disciplines and have a range of identities. I have had the professor who did not believe me – either that I even have a disability or that my accommodations are “real.” I have had the professor who says, “Sophie, I am so sorry I forgot to enlarge your quiz,” in front of the entire class. I have had the professor who asks for weekly reminders for my accommodations because of their busy schedule. I have had the professor that messes up, apologizes and wants me to fix their mistake. Unfortunately, the kind of professor that I have had least at Georgetown is the one who genuinely wants to make their classroom accessible and who goes beyond the mandated accommodations to do so.
Academically, I have received lower grades when my accommodations are not met either because learning materials are not fully accessible or because assessments are not presented in an accessible format. If professors do not enlarge my test, I am the one who suffers tangible consequences. The stress of advocating for accommodations takes time and energy away from my academic work. In addition, I often encounter professors who casually use harmful language surrounding disability in their lectures without realizing how it impacts students. I had a professor last semester who used deafness and blindness as metaphors for not doing the homework before coming to class. I, then, have to deal with being triggered or missing class on a regular basis. Learning is far more difficult when it is constantly stopping and starting.
I am also impacted socially. Club activities, study groups and social situations that should be accessible to me are often not. Georgetown must begin to teach and exemplify inclusivity, because I cannot and should not have to constantly educate my peers. I end up spending the majority of my time trying to be treated like a full human and student instead of participating in activities. Fortunately, I can afford to take the time to do this. However, I know this is not an option for other students with disabilities who may be working multiple jobs to afford attending Georgetown.
Georgetown needs to start training faculty in legally mandated accommodations and on the effects of their language and content on students. Professors must take responsibility for their actions. That means making disabled students feel welcome at Georgetown. That means putting accommodations into their weekly routines. That means not talking about student accommodations with or in front of other students without permission. That means using language in syllabi that shows openness to accessible practices in all parts of the classroom environment, instead of language that shows disabled students they would not be welcome if not for a law. Georgetown needs to create a system that teaches faculty and students how to make accessibility a habitual practice on this campus.
Sophie Septoff is a senior in the College. Unpacking Disability appears online every other Thursday.