Although I am carting many identities with me to grad school—Afro-Latinx, low-income, LGBTQ—my disability is often the first hurdle I face when in a new environment. I posted back in March that applying to schools as a disabled applicant had been extremely stressful. I had a hell of a time finding information on a lot of college websites, let alone the specific program websites. When I contacted some schools, I felt as if they’d never had a disabled student before. Their confused noises when I asked questions about accessibility didn’t give me much confidence. Many current students had no clue about accessibility either. “I’m not disabled so I wouldn’t know anything about all of that,” was the common response. I felt like I was going at it alone, and yet during my application period, I met other disabled applicants. How was it that there were several of us and yet schools still treated us like we had never existed before this application cycle?
When people ask me about my experiences as a student with limited mobility, one question always comes up: “Do you need to find an accessible school? Aren’t all schools supposed to accommodate disabilities?” Well, yes. If my class is in an inaccessible building, for example, most schools would try to switch the classroom or put in a temporary ramp or give me access to a special underground entrance. The adjustments the school has to make are geared specifically towards my needs and, most likely, they are not permanent. Accommodations aren’t perfect: there are numerous hiccups that come from changing accommodations every semester as my classes change. Entering through another entrance can also be awkward. One semester, in undergrad, my route to class included going through the special service and delivery entrance underground. And even that entrance wasn’t truly accessible as its pitch was too steep for regular wheelchair users.
Even more frustrating is that accommodations can severely limit spontaneity. For example, during my undergraduate career amazing writers often visited campus to give talks or readings. These were usually open to everyone and sometimes my classmates would go to these talks as a group. The problem was that sometimes these talks weren’t in accessible halls. Even if I could get accommodations somehow, requests usually had to be two weeks in advance. It really sucks to find out about a cool event you have the time and energy for, but you can’t physically access. While I could (usually) attend classes, I feel that I missed out on some social aspects of college and that planning things was more frustrating than I thought they would be.
That is why accessibility is so important. When something is accessible that means it can always be entered or used by someone with a disability. Accessibility means inclusion. It is the idea that we should, as a society, make things as universally accessible as possible because we, as a society, are disabled. Nearly 20% of Americans have a disability according to the 2010 census. That doesn’t include the elderly and it doesn’t include people who are temporarily disabled: the people with broken legs or injured elbows or a ruptured appendix that makes climbing stairs a bitch. Yes, some students will still need very specific accommodations, but that shouldn’t impede our ability to do better. Shouldn’t we make our world, but especially our educational campuses, as accessible as possible?
When I told a professor at Brooklyn College that I was nervous about navigating the school, she happily replied, “Every building on this campus is accessible.” The fact that she knew this off the top of her head was such a relief. And she was right about the accessibility too.
Although there were many reasons I chose Brooklyn, accessibility played an important role in my decision. Every single building on campus has ramps or a flat entry. Every building has an elevator. Boylan Hall, where the creative writing department is located, has these features plus multiple accessible bathrooms. I don’t mean the ones that are common in other bathrooms—the ones where there is one accessible stall and I have to wait around to use that stall specifically—I mean bathrooms with multiple accessible stalls inside.
Brooklyn College also has an amazing app with floor plans for every single building. These floor plans include every entrance, water fountain, restroom, vending machine, cafe, ATM, and specifies which ones I am able to use. It also benefits from having an accessible train station just one block from campus. While looking for housing was difficult, I did find a flat entry apartment building with an elevator just six blocks from school. It all worked out.
Is it perfect? Of course not. Like anyone in an MFA will know, social events are an important part of the MFA. Not the most important part, perhaps, but much of the cohort camaraderie is built in those post-workshop bar visits and weekend literary events. And those, unfortunately, are not always accessible. Sometimes that can feel isolating. While I’ve been able to attend many outings, it’s an important aspect that both disabled and able-bodied MFA students should think about.
I gave this post the title I did because accessibility and inclusivity don’t come from the efforts of disabled students alone. If you’re an able-bodied person in a program, think: If someone in a wheelchair came to visit the program tomorrow, would they be able to attend the classes? Hell, make it more personal: if you injured yourself so badly you needed a wheelchair temporarily, would you be able to attend your classes? Ask your Office of Disability Service how they would accommodate you. Ask your faculty and program administrators next time you bump into them. Hopefully the answer you get are good ones. If they aren’t, well now you know. And knowing is necessary for change to begin.