University struggles to connect students to disability resources

An art of people walking on a purple road with a part of the road broken and two people struggling to climb it.
(Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan)

Writer’s Note: While looking for sources to speak to in regard to this article, I attended a Wednesday evening meeting of the Student Assembly for Accessibility, a newly incorporated assembly under the Undergraduate Student Government, dropping by for a quick plug before letting them get back to their painting event. I was instantly stunned, watching the screen fill with squares including attendees, assembly leadership and — most prominently — student interpreters. 

I’d never seen this in any form before, and as a disabled student, I wonder how quickly we can move forward in implementing these accessibility features for everyone to foster a conducive academic environment.

The time to ameliorate the lack of disability awareness and education is now. 

When Gigi Robinson gained admittance to USC as a sophomore in 2017, she started planning early. Over summer break, she took the time to research USC’s Disability Services & Programs and submit her 504 Plan, a colloquial term for the documentation that secures learning accommodations for students with disabilities.  

As a person with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a family of inherited conditions that affect the body’s connective tissue, Robinson didn’t experience many flare-ups of chronic pain in high school or at her previous college. Arriving at USC changed that.

Now a graduate student in the Iovine and Young Academy, Robinson completed her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in design and photography in December. Along the way, many of the issues she faced related to her condition came at the hands of her own professors at the Roski School of Art and Design. 

“I experienced issues primarily with my art professors,” Robinson said. “And I think, it’s really kind of unique because from conversations I’d had with them, it was almost like so many kids play hooky all the time or they play sick or whatever. But the professors in the art school have kind of lost track of like, ‘How can you believe a student, you know, unless you can visibly see what’s going on?’”

Questioning her condition was a repeat occurrence by her professors, Robinson said, despite being registered with DSP. 

“I don’t want to go as far as to say public humiliation, but in one of my classes my professor didn’t believe I had a condition,” Robinson said.

In her first year at USC, her beginning drawing instructor saw no reason to accommodate Robinson’s condition, which in part makes it difficult for her to write.

“When I tried to tell my professor about it, she was like, ‘Oh nothing was wrong, I don’t believe you, like come on, try harder, you’re not trying hard enough,’” Robinson said. “It felt like this teacher just didn’t want to believe, and she didn’t want to help me come up with alternatives for my condition.”

For her final project in the drawing class, Robinson compiled her CAT scans into a conceptual art piece that used the perspective of a mountain landscape through a mirror of a car to reflect on her illness, illustrating some peaks that have been crossed and some that have not yet been crossed. 

In a photography class with another unwavering professor, who required handwritten notes and didn’t accept a DSP note explaining the difficulties Robinson had with that format, she created a project of portraits from an EDS support group meeting of individuals posing with various mobility devices and medications that they brought with them. Seeing some reprieve as the project “pretty much shut her [professor] up,” Robinson dove deeper into incorporating the viscerality of her condition in her artwork. 

“I wanted to do a further iteration on the experience as a chronically ill person,” Robinson said. “I didn’t know what it would like, I didn’t know how to really do it, and the professors just kept saying ‘No, you’ve already done this, we don’t want you to do this, you’ve done this work, why can’t you do something else.’ I was like, because this is what I’m passionate about and it’s what I have a lot of trouble with.”

Taking a medically reduced course load in Spring and Fall 2020 through the bulk of the pandemic, her initial faculty adviser encouraged her to drop the senior thesis class, the concern stemming from projections Robinson’s professors had of her abilities. After petitioning to get a new adviser, her thesis was born. 

“I was really bamboozled at the fact that these professors could be that shallow for people that are supposed to be conceptual artists,” Robinson said.

Holly McCauley, a sophomore majoring in English literature, has had a completely opposite experience to Robinson’s in terms of her major-specific classes.

“Last semester, I just had a rut where I just didn’t want to do anything, it felt like [the coronavirus] was never ending,” McCauley said. “I did have several professors, all in the English department, reach out to me and be like, ‘Are you OK, like what’s going on?’ And I really think it’s because it’s smaller classes, and smaller classes leads you to have stronger relationships with professors.”

In the 2020-21 school year, USC has 19,500 undergraduates of the total 46,000 students attending. Boasting an average class size of 26 students and an 8:1 student to faculty ratio, it seems that most classes should provide the foundation for strong student-teacher bonds. You get a mixed bag of results, with some professors passing the work over to DSP.

The office and its objectives

When support was sparse to find with Roski’s academic leadership, Robinson leaned on the support of her disability officer, who backed her up when professors would call with doubts along with when she took on a medically reduced course load senior year. 

Melody Brown-Clark, a senior majoring in neuroscience, is appreciative of DSP’s role in shaping her college life from the beginning. 

The key factor for Brown-Clark in choosing to attend USC was the ability to secure a single room and private bathroom, so as to provide comfort when her ulcerative colitis was severe.

“I contacted disability services as soon as I was accepted, and I was able to be accommodated with a single room and private bathroom in McCarthy my freshman year, and then later a single room and (almost) private bathroom in Ilium my sophomore year,” Brown-Clark wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “This was genuinely a very large reason that I settled on USC over another school that I was considering.”

In addition for Brown-Clark, experiencing postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which can cause nausea or dizziness when standing up, facilitates the need of a comfortable learning and classroom environment.

Debbie Jih, interim director of DSP, illustrated the office’s constraints in bridging the student-teacher gap while simultaneously advocating for greater inclusion. 

“If the specialist feels that it’s within their scope to be able to reach out to the professor … we might reach out and say ‘Hey, this happened, what are the different options available for the student,’” Jih said.

With a professional background in psychology and mental health, Jih recognizes the office’s responsibility in supporting each student rather than a single disability type, an individualized strategy that has remained throughout the coronavirus’ reaches. 

But online learning has posed new and unique difficulties for the office and students, including testing accommodations. 

“Some professors … turned on no backtracking for students, which could be challenging for students with limitations related to visual tracking, attention, concentration, so … those are individual case-by-case situations where we meet with the students who really get an understanding of their disability and the limitations,” Jih said. “From there, it may be that we approve additional accommodations where we really haven’t had before, prior to being online.”

McCauley, who is hard of hearing, said that online learning without captioning being professionally done rather than auto-generated, can be confusing and frustrating to follow. One of her Thematic Option professors, Edwin McCann, set a positive example for her by allowing students to view video assignments outside of class with their own accessibility features. 

“If you are going to caption videos to be able to have like, audio descriptions, or whatever it is to make sure that all students can watch your video and hear your video, because otherwise everyone else in the class gets to watch it and a few students don’t, and they’re just not getting the same education that everyone else is,” McCauley said. “And that’s the base definition of inequality.”

The pandemic has shown DSP the lasting advantages and disadvantages to online learning. While asynchronous learning or a virtual learning option is still under discussion between University administrators, the office is prepared to accommodate students in the best ways they can. 

“If there are students with a disability that significantly impacts their stamina in attending class, we still, even before the pandemic, we work with those students individually to determine what the best support is, what’s a reasonable accommodation for those students,” Jih said. “So it’s not that, you know, we would say, you must or have to take class in person 100% right, it still depends on the student and their limitations related to their disability.”

Finding community in the crowd

Regardless of how a student chooses to interact with the University administration with regard to their condition, connecting with similarly situated students can be a whole different ball game. 

Robinson, who enrolled in IYA for the semester following her bachelor’s completion, had trouble identifying where to go for that sort of camaraderie. 

“I honestly, as a disabled student, I didn’t really know where to look for that kind of community on campus,” Robinson said. “And I will say, especially I think another thing for me about my like disability and chronic condition is that I only really recently have identified as disabled, and it came around that time, where my professors were acting really ableist around me but that said I had no idea of any organization, other than the disability students service center DSP to look for guidance, I didn’t know where to find friends with other conditions.”

Participating in disability advocacy in high school, McCauley immediately saw an opportunity when she spotted the Undergraduate Student Government table at the involvement fair freshman year. There, she heard from the founders of the Student Assembly for Accessibility, including her current co-director Javin D’Souza and Gabrielle Afflick, and jumped right to work before the pandemic hit.

“We just recently became incorporated as an assembly, and we basically reverted back … to the budget that we had pre-incorporation,” McCauley said. “So we were working on a budget that we’ve done before, and it wasn’t impossible for us, it wasn’t nearly as bad as Concerts Committee or something like that that had a huge budget, because to begin with, we didn’t have that much to work with and I think being an assembly that focused on community building, there’s a lot of stuff we can do for cheap.”

Brown-Clark found her own little collective when the Student Assembly for Gender Empowerment hosted a talk with “The Good Place” actress Jameela Jamil, who has EDS as well.

“I asked her a question about EDS during the event, and two of my acquaintances from USC who were there and heard me ask the question reached out to me and said that they also had EDS, so we’ve formed our own little community that we just happened to stumble into,” Brown-Clark wrote. “It would have been really nice if there had been some sort of organized way to get support from other students with the same issues before then, though.”

Community-building can be difficult when many students are not aware that their condition or situation can be accommodated by DSP and the University. In Fall 2019, only 6.7% of USC students were registered with the office — speaking to a lack of disability awareness and education from administrators to connect students with the proper help. 

While the Office of Health Promotion Strategy administers its annual Healthy Minds survey, DSP is already looking at how to track performance and well-being indicators with the new DSP Student Well-Being initiative. 

“So there is a scale for a sense of belonging,” Jih said. “We’re looking at incorporating some of this data into DSP work and how DSP is able to consistently and routinely track gathered data to ensure that we are making sure that students are connected with resources right away, once we learn that there may be some challenges or lower sense of well being, or resiliency.”

Between running an IGTV series, teaching Roski and Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism students and guiding social media literacy, Robinson sees the future of accessibility in her hands. For USC, she says learning those nuances early can improve the outlook of professors and students alike. 

“I really hope there’s some kind of disability, or mental health and well-being trainings that the professors can go through, so that they can not only be resources, but they can also be more understanding and hopefully like, there won’t be these issues because like what I went through was just awful,” Robinson said. “It was really awful and it consumed me and it made me feel my work wasn’t worthy and as an artist, that’s one of the most invalidating things you know?”

Brown-Clark isn’t capitulating to less accommodating measures for learning ever again.

“Online learning has taught me that I will no longer accept classes not being recorded ever again,” Brown-Clark wrote. “There were so many days when I dragged myself to class because I didn’t want to miss the information, even though my body was begging me not to, and I wouldn’t have had to do that had the classes been streamed or recorded in the first place.” 

McCauley sees USC’s improvements beginning with an open line of communication and the same student tenacity as Brown-Clark’s. 

“I think they want people to believe that they have an open ear and I think they are trying, but it’s difficult, because a lot of students have a ton of different needs,” McCauley said. “And I do think they’re trying their best, I think they could do better. It’s up to the students that are immunocompromised or have these other conditions to fight for themselves and advocate for what they need. And that’s irritating, but if students are willing to advocate for themselves that an admin is willing to listen, they’re not going to go out of their way to do it on their own.”