By Morgan Hancock
Ash McElroy is a proudly disabled student. They came to Cal Poly Humboldt well aware of the hills and stairs the campus was built upon. McElroy informed Housing they would need an accommodating dorm for their mobility aid, Housing assigned McElroy to the notably inaccessible College Creek dorms on the hill.
“To their credit, they put me on the first floor, but I could not get my chair through the door,” McElroy said. “I was like, hey, this is not working. Can we move me?”
Housing took months to reply after denying the dorm was inaccessible in the first place. McElroy requested at least adding a push button to get in the door.
“They told me that actually my building was accessible and they didn’t know what I was talking about,” McElroy said.
In an email to McElroy, Housing said a locksmith had confirmed that the press to open button does work.
“I had to have the SDRC go and take pictures of the building to prove that there is not one. Like how’s [Housing] straight-up gaslighting me about this?” McElroy said. It would take a few more months before housing accommodated McElroy’s needs.
13% of Cal Poly Humboldt students have a disability, the second-highest rate of disability in any Cal State University. Humboldt is right behind Cal State Maritime Academy, which has only 600 students. At the Student Disability Resources Center, Mary Smith and one other part-time staff advisor address accessibility needs on campus. Smith believes the access to green space, small classrooms, and positive learning environment attract students with disabilities to Humboldt’s campus.
“We feel like we’re drowning,” Smith said. “We have nearly 800 students with registered disabilities and one and a half advisors. At California State University San Bernardino, the ratio of accessibility advisors to students is one to 65. At Cal Poly Humboldt, the ratio is one to 500.”
“A majority of the disabilities on campus are psych disabilities. It used to be learning disabilities,” Smith said. “Learning disabilities are much more manageable. It requires some training and accommodations, but usually, you set them up, and they’re good to go. Psych disabilities are a much more revolving door. You can’t set someone up, and they’re just good to go. The level of services is way more intense.”
In the past years, between the pandemic and Cal Poly Humboldt’s fiscal history, Smith has struggled with job security.
Two years ago, the administration offered a retirement buy-out offer. Smith took it and retired.
“They never replaced me, and they called me back…I have so many asks, and I also have absolutely no job security,” Smith said.
The strain of an undersupported SDRC can go undetected by non-disabled admin, faculty, and students. It is not something that disabled students have the privilege to ignore. Alicia Martin is a Cal Poly Humboldt grad student and the founder and director of Adaptable, the campus club for students with disabilities.
“We’re the only club that serves this population of students on campus, and there’s a lot of pressure,” Martin said. “We’re not funded by A.S. It’s all just completely our time and our energy. And we love doing it, but it’s overwhelming. Because we end up having to support students who can’t access food. Who can’t get into buildings. Who aren’t able to hear or see their lectures. Who are months behind in course work because their accommodations aren’t met.”
Martin is working with students on campus to transition to a post-pandemic world. The pandemic forced to change and exacerbated problems that impact students with disabilities. On the other hand, with so many people adapting to the pandemic new adaptive technologies became commonplace.
“Some of this technology is very useful,” Martin said. “We have people who don’t use sign language and rely heavily on lip-reading, and so Zoom was great. Now, they’re transitioning back to the classroom.”
Students with disabilities continue to support each other despite the obstacles and limited bandwidth on campus. They find support from each other while advocating for universal design. Universal design centers on usability and access for all. It often makes life more convenient for everyone when design is accessibility-based. Accommodating issues on a need basis frames people with disabilities as a problem.
“We are not the problem,” Martin said. “[Campus operates] on a medical model of disabilities. In a social model, the people who say I can’t are the problem, not me.”