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Saturday, December 3, 2022

English graduate students with disabilities cite the university as putting up unnecessary barriers

Multiple application processes for requesting accommodations have impacted graduate students with disabilities in their studies and employment

By KATHLEEN QUINN— campus@theaggie.org

Graduate students with disabilities have expressed frustration over the process of seeking accommodations at UC Davis. 

Heather Ringo, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in English, requested remote learning accommodations. After her accommodation was approved by the Student Disability Center (SDC), one of her professors refused to implement it, according to Ringo.

“It’s basically poisoned the well for me,” Ringo said. “I literally depend on them for my recommendations, and now I’m in this contentious situation and they’re denying my rights.” 

Jennifer Billeci, the director of the SDC at UC Davis, said that she was not aware of any outstanding complaints that have come to their office, but encouraged students who have concerns to contact them. 

Ringo said that, in her experience, the amount of work necessary to get remote accommodation weeds out students with disabilities in graduate programs.

One of the main barriers is the process of applying to the SDC and Disability Management Services (DMS), according to Emily Breuninger, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology who worked with students with disabilities to file grievances through UAW 2865, the graduate student union.

“There’s this separation between SDC and DMS so they’re always applying twice for everything,” Breuninger said.

SDC does not coordinate with DMS, the office that addresses employee accommodations. Instead, they will refer a student to DMS upon the request of the student. 

“Accommodations are made on an individualized basis, tied to the student’s functional limitation,” Billeci said. “You have a different role as a student than you have as an employee and different factors to consider.”

DMS has a separate process for requesting remote accommodations as a teaching assistant. All other requests go through the graduate student’s supervisor, such as a chair or instructor, according to DMS Director Elizabeth Hammond Delo. 

Claire Waters, the chair of the English department at UC Davis, said that one of the concerns she heard from students was that people did not request accommodations because the process was frustrating. 

Billeci said that the SDC’s focus is to provide quick access to accommodations for students. Long-term concerns are addressed by the university through a committee that includes SDC and DMS. 

“I know that we do not have a particularly accessible campus in general,” Waters said. “But I would say within the constraints, I think the [SDC and DMS] did a good job.”

Delanie Harrington Dummit, a second-year Ph.D. student in the English department, who identifies as hard of hearing, said that she had mostly positive experiences with accommodations within her department.

“A lot of that is that deafness is a little easier for people to grasp than other disabilities and chronic illnesses,” Dummit said. 

Breuninger said that she started to understand the issues associated with receiving accommodations better once she started handling grievances as part of her work with the union.
“The school imposes these things, and there is no mode of recourse,” Breuninger said. “I’ve seen graduate students leave their programs. That’s the saddest part, usually, folks end up getting pushed out because everywhere they turn it’s like impossible, it’s a constant fight.”

The Planned Educational Leave Program (PELP) is a program for students to temporarily suspend their academic work at UC Davis. Breuninger said that during the pandemic the university repeatedly mentioned the PELP program as an option for students who have struggled to get an accommodation request approved. 

Ringo said she has concerns that her efforts toward getting accommodations have jeopardized her chances of receiving fair treatment within her department.
Ringo’s Ph.D. program requires her to be evaluated by leaders in her department, and she said that after raising such complaints, the committee to evaluate her preliminary exam was restructured due to objectivity concerns.

“They had to go outside the department to find somebody to be on my committee,” Ringo said.

There is currently no mandatory disability-specific training at UC Davis for faculty, though compliance to the Americans with Disabilities Act is included in two of the mandatory supervisory training, according to DMS Director, Elizabeth Hammond Delo

The SDC, in conjunction with DMS, offered a faculty-only training in April at the request of the English department. 

Sarah Theubet, the president of the ASUCD Disability Rights Advocacy Committee (DRAC), also organized training for the department after hearing concerns about the refusal of accommodations.

Though the concept of training had been brought up before, Ringo’s SDC accommodations were refused. This refusal was a catalyst for the training, according to Dummit.

Waters said that their department wanted to mandate training on disabilities, but was told they could not mandate anything that the school itself did not require. 

“I personally think that it would be useful,” Waters said. “Insofar as we have other trainings, sexual violence, sexual harassment training for example.” 

As a member of the English Graduate Student Association, Dummit has advocated for mandatory disabilities training. 

“We as grad students said ‘We want to encourage you to mandate this training,’” Dummit said. 

For the department, Waters said that the plan is to regularly set aside time to discuss disability, as well as other topics, in a formal way coupled with graduate and faculty workshops.  

“The thing that we realized, and we were sorry to realize, was that there were some pretty fundamental things that maybe people weren’t thinking carefully about,” Waters said.

Ringo, who is currently on PELP, said her experience with pursuing accommodations and advocating for herself made her experience unnecessarily difficult. 

“They are already treating me like I’m gum stuck on their shoes,” Ringo said.

According to Dummit, well-meaning instructors and advisors may make common mistakes related to when to talk about a person’s disability due to the lack of education about disability. 

“People don’t think of themselves as ableists, they don’t think of themselves as creating barriers,” Dummit said. “There are tangible things you can be doing to make your class accessible regardless of whether or not you get a letter from the SDC.”  

Written by: Kathleen Quinn— campus@theaggie.org