Haynes Bunn: Rehabilitate GW’s Disability Support Services

GW’s Disability Support Services is in a sad state of affairs. I have had the pleasure of dealing with the office not once, but twice during my career here at the University. Both times highlighted the inadequate services offered for temporary disabilities.

On the DSS Web site, there is a page dedicated to “temporary conditions,” but little help was given to me during the two occasions I had a temporary disability. Most recently, I injured my ankle, which required a week of walking with crutches. My first thought Monday morning was, “How do I get to my class at 1957 E St.?”

I immediately called DSS to find out how they could help me find solutions to this problem. I was told, however, that “the University doesn’t have a shuttle service.” That’s it. It wasn’t even accompanied by an apology. I decided to call higher up in the food chain here at GW: the Office of the Dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. I talked to a woman in the dean’s office who was very helpful and sympathetic, but of course had no ability to help me. After she researched other departments for about 10 minutes, I was transferred to the Office of the Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services. I explained my situation (for the third time) and was told, “Well, you’ll just have to take a cab.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the lack of helpful information from the University because this is the second time I’ve run into this problem. During my freshman year I had my ankle reconstructed, a major surgery requiring six weeks of casts and crutches. While attending the first week of classes second semester (two days after the surgery), I discovered I had two classes in buildings without elevators, and my classes were not on the ground floor. After contacting DSS to ask for the classes to be moved to buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was told there was nothing that could be done. I would have to walk up and down the stairs on crutches for six weeks.

The weather also contributed to this already complicated situation – it snowed for the first several weeks of the spring 2008 semester, making my trips to class even more difficult, and even slightly dangerous. The ramp outside my freshman dorm became very slippery due to ice accumulation several times throughout that winter, yet it seemed to go unnoticed by University employees. That is, until I slipped on the ice. It seemed nobody in the University system would even listen to me. Finally, my parents reluctantly called the dean of freshmen. He was the first University official to listen and understand and work to fix the situation.

All of these actions taken by the University in dealing with a student with disabilities were in conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act with which the University is obliged to comply as a recipient of federal funding. According to the law, a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities.” I clearly qualified as a person with a disability – not being able to walk substantially limited my ability to get to class. The law furthermore states that the University has an obligation to work with students with disabilities to find alternative accommodations in a nondiscriminatory way. Implying that students should pay for these accommodations or be put in such dangerous situations is blatantly discriminatory.

Disability Support Services should be focused on support and creative problem-solving rather than just telling students what they’re not able to do. No one in the University should suggest or expect students to pay for a cab in order to get to class. DSS should be willing and able to work with students with all types of disabilities, and students should be commended for advocating for themselves. The University provides evening transportation to all students up to four blocks away from campus. I recommend this same service be available on a smaller scale during the day for students with disabilities trying to go to class as a simple solution for bringing the University into ADA compliance on this issue.

The writer is a junior majoring in political science.

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