Hidden in Plain Sight

By Susan K. Olson ’93 M.Div.

It takes some effort to find the Student Accessibility Services office at Yale. The street address takes you to J Crew, but to access the space you go around the block, through the path between Toad’s and Mory’s, then into an unmarked building with a blue awning. Once inside the bright, accessible building, you’ll see familiar landmarks and realize the location is not so obscure. The place is really just hidden in plain sight. 

In many ways, the office location is indicative of the experience of students with disabilities at Yale. They’re there, even if many are hidden in plain sight. 

We hope for a day when principles of universal design in both physical structures and the classroom become normative, when students with disabilities can get what they need without having to ask.

As of early September 2021, just shy of 1,700 students, almost 15 percent of the entire student body, were registered with the Student Accessibility Services office. This number includes undergraduate, graduate and professional students. It grows daily. Over the past decade, the numbers have ballooned. Based on statistical trends, we should top 2,000 by January.

Imagining students with disabilities, most people might conjure up images of wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and canes—the mobility-impaired. They might also think of the busy hands of ASL interpreters, or the steadfast guide dog leading a student to class. All those things exist at Yale, of course. Yet these apparent disabilities are the numerical minority. At Yale the three largest groups are those with learning disabilities or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, those with mental health disabilities, and those with chronic illnesses—all unapparent disabilities that are easy to overlook but affect the daily lives and learning of many Yalies during their time on campus and beyond. 

Accommodations and Work-Arounds

The task of the Student Accessibility Services is to work with students to determine where barriers to their education exist, and then determine accommodations that help to eliminate or at least ameliorate the impact of those barriers. Some of that barrier reduction is literal. We spend time walking through buildings with architects and others, looking for the places that present brick-and-mortar obstacles to students in wheelchairs or to those who use service animals to navigate campus. Electronic door openers, ramps, and even elevators that can be operated by service dogs are installed. Braille signage is created, and bedrooms for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students get visual fire alarms added. We partner with various campus entities to figure out work-arounds to our beloved but often inaccessible buildings. 

Other barriers are not so apparent but just as challenging to eliminate. A student with an eating disorder needs to find a way to gain access to nutrition without facing the overwhelming dining hall scene.[1] An undergraduate with diabetes needs permission to bring sharps and snacks into a final exam. A hard-of-hearing student tries to navigate a pandemic campus where masks block access to speech-reading. A junior with dyslexia attempts to meet his world language requirement for the third time, stymied by the phonemes in a second language. A divinity student with ADHD asks for help navigating academics. A forestry student is reluctant to reveal a recent cancer diagnosis lest professors deem them unable to keep up with the demands of the work. A nursing student’s dyslexia makes her reading rate so slow that she is behind by the end of the first week. A drama student with Crohn’s disease struggles with overwhelming fatigue and tries to manage flare-ups that happen as deadlines loom. The parents of a first-year student write in, worried about whether or not their child with a mobility issue will be able to access a shower. 

Rehabilitating Attitudes

All of these circumstances take place out of the public eye. Few will ever know. But these are barriers, as real and as hard as the brick stairs that stymie a wheelchair user. The largest barriers of all are attitudinal, the mindsets of those who don’t take time to give consideration to the lives of people with disabilities. You can build a ramp, or problem solve note-taking. But changing attitudes takes time, patience, and a willingness to engage in the work. Most people mean well but forget that students with disabilities exist when planning events and programs that leave such students unable to attend or fully participate.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990. As a student at the Divinity School in the early 90s, I remember ad-hoc accommodations being improvised on campus. I watched classmates carry a wheelchair, and then the person who used it, down flights of stairs. We informally passed copies of lecture notes to students whose disabilities prevented them from creating their own. Faculty agreed to extended time on tests for students who explained their situation to them. Technically, the ADA should have mandated that all these accommodations be handled by the institution, but change takes time, and the Divinity School forged ahead, not waiting for official university services to make their way up Prospect Street. Now the services reach the hill easily. Divinity students readily register with Student Accessibility Services. In recent years these have included students with mobility, sensory and learning disabilities, chronic illness, mental health disorders, and ADHD. 

When I interviewed for this job, I remember saying that I felt that this position would be one aligned with my vision of social justice. I saw myself boldly demanding access for students previously denied. The interviewer was kind enough not to laugh. I don’t do social justice work. I watch it happen, as students with disabilities themselves become emboldened, rise up, ask for what they deserve. Student organizations focused on disability are popping up all over campus, including YDS. More and more students are creating ways to advocate for themselves, to ensure their voices get heard. It’s not always easy.

Young Social Justice Voices

Ideally, disability is considered a form of human diversity, welcome to sit at the table with the other forms of diversity recognized in our university and in our culture. Often, students with disabilities have to fight for that recognition, for access to those conversations. Still, there are victories large and small happening across campus. ASL interpreters are showing up at events. New programs are proposed and funded. Accessibility is considered in new buildings. Faculty in departments across the university request training in how to work best with students with disabilities. The undergraduates recently received funding for a Peer Liaison program to help acclimate first-years with disabilities to campus life by matching them with upper-level students. Slowly, the culture is shifting. Too slowly, really, but we recognize and celebrate growth where it exists. 

Our office staff grew this fall, in recognition of the increasing number of students seeking services and the institution’s growing commitment to meeting their needs. On the one hand, there is hope for continued growth in staffing for years to come. On the other, we look toward to a day when none of us are needed. We hope for a day when principles of universal design in both physical structures and the classroom become normative, when students with disabilities can get what they need without having to ask. Maybe then, it won’t matter that it can be hard to find our office. The resources will be right where we need them to be—in plain sight. 

The Rev. Susan K. Olson ’93 M.Div. is associate director of accommodations at Yale’s Student Accessibility Services. She is also the pastor at First Congregational Church of Lyme, CT.

[1] Though these situations are true, the descriptions are intentionally mismatched with school affiliation and gender demographics in order to preserve privacy.