In Depth: Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights

This is the first in a series of interviews with student groups at Wesleyan. While it’s not possible to reach out to all 300-some student groups active at Wes, our focus is to get a snapshot of what different types of student groups are working on.

WSDRIn this interview, I sat down with Olivia Chavez ’15 from Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights (WSDR) to talk about what WSDR has been working on.

What does WSDR stand for and what is your mission?

WSDR stands for Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights, and we promote accessibility on this campus. We also are involved in some local issues, like a while back when there were some issues on using scream rooms in schools for kids with behavioral issues. They had this practice a while ago where kids that were misbehaving or difficult to manage would be put in a room by themselves, so we were involved a bit in the activism against that through petition. Electroshock therapy is another issue we tried to address. It is a dangerous procedure whose efficacy has not been proven to actually “treat” anything and has been proven to severely damage the brain leading to amnesia, permanent memory loss, loss of short term memory, inability to retain new information, emotional and psychological trauma, and physical trauma that can include death. We were also sort of involved in the activism against that also—that was a trend that was going on in Middletown, and just in the US in general.

What are some things WSDR is currently working on?

So right now we are trying to get medical leave reformed. The process is not really transparent for the students going through the process, it’s a bit difficult for somebody who needs to go on medical leave to be able to understand the repercussions of what’s going to happen later, and the fact that when you’re on medical leave you can’t actually be on campus during your time of absence, so you can’t even actually visit, and it’s often hard to prove you’re physically and mentally in a stable state to come back. So that poses a lot of issues with students, we’re just trying to get the process to be more friendly towards helping students achieve their goals at Wesleyan and not sort of preventing them from coming back and having a great academic experience here.

What would you say are some of the reasons behind these challenging medical leave policies?

I think that administrators are sympathetic but for them there needs to be some sort of standard way of doing things and that standard way of doing things does not always meet every single situation. So I think more flexibility depending on the situation would be better. I definitely don’t think that it’s an administrator not understanding—that could be some of it, but in general deans are looking out for the student’s best interest.

You guys are working on professor education—could you talk a bit about that?

We’re working a lot in response to students’ concerns about the way professors handle accommodations, and just certain comments that are made in class sometimes. We’re working on having a standardized way of educating professors on ways they can make their classrooms more accessible to everyone and more inclusive. We’re trying to gather like a one page quick document a professor could skim over and get some tips from in terms of how to handle an accommodation without making a student feel uncomfortable, or what language is appropriate—for example, sometimes psychology will use terms that are outdated to describe a mental illness of some kind or physical disability of some kind, so just educating them on what’s appropriate.

What does WSDR think of the state of disability and accessibility then, here on Wesleyan’s campus?

I think in general, like the first floor Butts were renovated which is a good start because it makes it more accessible, but many of the senior houses, for example, are not accessible in terms of physical accessibility. So I think that maybe implementing more options for students with physical disabilities—like there aren’t that many on this campus, but that’s because we’re a bit inaccessible in terms of physical layout. And just I think it’s kind of ironic that Sign House exists but there are no deaf students on campus. More efforts should be made to reach out to a more diverse set of students. I think deafness, for example, is something that can be easily accommodated for, like with an interpreter, and since we have Sign House—it would be great to see a greater number of students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities on this campus.

How has the administration at large been receptive on working with WSDR?

We have had positive experiences working with Dean Patey. We are working on creating resolutions through the WSA. We met with President Roth a few times. Administrators have generally been receptive, but it takes a significant amount time to make changes.

How does and how can the work you guys do in WSDR affect the student body at large?

We work to promote accessibility on campus. A more accessible campus would encourage students with disabilities to apply. Current students with disabilities will benefit from policy changes as well as professor education.

What are some things that WSDR has worked on in the past?

We do currently have workshops for freshmen during Orientation, where we have this workshop called “Disabling Language” and we engage first year students on how to talk about disability and just what disability at Wesleyan means, and how accommodations work. So we’ve done that, and we’ve done a pretty good job in being a resource for students that are new to the process or need some sort of guidance. We’ve also been successful in presenting to departments, like we did Econ, where we presented to professors during their departmental staff meeting.

What did you guys talk about in those?

I get a sense that it was about how to handle accodations, language, and helping students succeed—like just general tidbits, maybe a student has an accommodation where they get migraines from looking at power points, maybe you can try to integrate some other way of teaching the material, like you can just use the blackboard. Just little things like that. We’ve been working with Dean Patey on medical leave stuff—we’ve been consulting with her. We had a Sins Invalid movie screening in the fall, which is performance group centered a around different representations of disability. We worked with Professor Weiss on that, and it was good! We had a good discussion after about sexuality and disability and how those two sort of intersect.

How is WSDR different from other groups, such as Active Minds?

I think Active Minds is very specific, they’re addressing mental illness specifically, whereas WSDR is more general in terms of addressing all issues with disability. We do work together sometimes on issues that affect both groups, like medical leave we’re trying to coordinate with them to try and get a cohesive plan to get to the administration about reforms.

How do you think the nature of the work WSDR does has changed over time?

It depends on what is currently going on on campus, like what’s affecting students the most—it’s very student centered. For example, we noticed that Judd was being renovated, and they accidentally—they didn’t think about it—they blocked off the only accessible entrance, so we got in touch with Dean Patey and had them fix the ramp. So things like that, we respond to student interest and any issues that they may have.

Any final thoughts on WSDR?

One general thing that may be a deterrent factor for people to come to meetings and join is the fact that people feel that they have to identify as disabled to be an active participant, and in any social justice group, this somewhat comes up, because if you aren’t apart of that group you feel like maybe I don’t have a say. But that’s not true because you can be an ally because there’s definitely room for that and value in being an ally. Because how are you going to make progress without allies? So I think that’s an important point. And also the fact that even if you do have a disability you don’t necessarily have to share that to be a part of the group so one shouldn’t feel pressured to share that sort of information if they come to a meeting, for example, nobody is going to judge you for it. And we meet on Thursdays at 6pm in Allbritton 113! Anyone is welcome to come.