Leveling the Hill: Disability Justice at Tufts

Editor’s Note: Anthony Davis-Pait is currently a member of Access Betters the Lives of Everyone (ABLE).

Among much of the student body, it is understood that Tufts is a very inaccessible campus. However, the actual barriers disabled and neurodivergent students face are not as widely known and go beyond the fact that the campus sits on a hill. 

Julian Hammond, a senior in the Resumed Education for Adult Learning program and founding member of Disability Queers, a new student-run affinity group with the LGBT Center, defined ableism as “systems that privilege able-bodied people, either directly or by virtue of harming and restricting access to non-able-bodied people… and anyone who has a different neurotype or learning style or dietary need, or literally anything.” 

Sophomore Morgane Hanley emphasized how ableism is a systemic issue at Tufts. For example, they have had to advocate for broken accessible door buttons to be fixed rather than someone being in charge of making sure the infrastructure works properly. Hanley said, “Ultimately [all of these things combined take] a physical, social, and mental toll on my wellbeing and [ensure] that I do not have an equal opportunity to succeed as a student on campus.”

Noe Montez, the chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, cited the Aidekman-Jackson complex as an inaccessible space on campus. He said, “Until the university puts in the money and resources necessary to transform the space, the building itself is going to be a fundamentally ableist structure.”

In Hammond’s experience, a major aspect of ableism at Tufts is the lack of learner variability and the rigid grading styles in classes. “All people learn in different ways and demonstrate what they have learned in different ways—regardless of whether they are diagnosed as neurodivergent or not,” Hammond said. Senior Jessica Goober, a co-leader of Access Betters the Lives of Everyone (ABLE), spoke highly of one of their professors who had lenient attendance policies, granted extensions, and employed a system in which students graded themselves. According to Goober, an inclusive class design would also include recording every lecture and posting all slides.

Montez said, “My job as a faculty member and chair of the [department] is to serve every student of the university and to make sure that they’re given a space to learn, to experiment, to thrive… So if there are students who have accessibility needs that are connected to disabilities that they have, that’s part of the work that I have to do as someone committed to student learning, to make sure that I’m fostering that environment.” Montez said he tries to meet with students individually to get a sense of what their needs are and whether they have diagnosed disabilities or not.

Senior Al Bolton, who is teaching the Experimental College course “Disability Theories” next semester, said the primary reason they wanted to teach this course is that there isn’t one like it at Tufts. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that there’s not more dedication to [disabilities studies classes],” Bolton said. They hope that this course will become a permanent part of the Tufts course offerings and that more professors will incorporate disability justice into their curriculum.

Ableism also extends outside the classroom. Goober explained ways student groups can make their spaces more accessible to disabled students, including offering a Zoom option and using closed captioning for meetings and events, not making meeting attendance mandatory to be a member, and having an anonymous form for people to communicate their accessibility needs. Further, she encouraged students to look at different behaviors and ways of communicating that may be outside of the accepted norm with curiosity rather than judgment and to ask more questions like, “Is there anything I can do to support you?”

Some students claim COVID protocols are another source of ableism on campus. Hanley specifically spoke on Tufts’ decision to remove the mask and testing mandates this semester. “There are a lot of people who are immunocompromised, so when you take away precautions, those people… [are] more likely to catch COVID from the same exposure of other people [and] more likely to have [severe symptoms] from it,” they said. “I don’t necessarily have the same kind of ability to be less cautious about [COVID] because I am personally worried about the potential higher complications if I do have COVID.”

Junior Ary Wolfe-Herman, a co-leader of ABLE who is also immunocompromised, pointed out that the problem isn’t just with the administration’s policies. They said students who aren’t disabled or immunocompromised haven’t been taking COVID seriously enough. Wolfe-Herman said, “You could just put a piece of fabric on your face and that would just be so easy.”

The StAAR Center—formerly the Student Accessibility Services Center until its merger with the Academic Resource Center (ARC) in 2020—is supposed to be a place to provide disabled students with support in finding accommodations; however, many students feel it is just another source of ableism on campus. Wolfe-Herman hasn’t engaged with the StAAR Center and says many disabled people choose not to engage with the StAAR Center for a variety of reasons. According to their website, the StAAR Center requires students to submit a registration form and clinical documentation of their disabilities in order to receive consideration for accommodations. Students who have not been formally diagnosed with a disability are, therefore, not eligible for accommodations. Further, Goober said, “The definition of reasonable accommodations is subjective, so there are no checks and balances” to ensure that students receive the accommodations they need. 

Goober said during her sophomore year she requested an accommodation from the StAAR Center to take a part-time semester and still be considered a full-time student, which would have helped her succeed during online learning, but she was denied this accommodation even after submitting a note from her therapist and doctor. Wolfe-Herman said even for students who have a formal diagnosis, the StAAR Center does not provide a list of accommodations students can request. Disability Queers has created such a list to fill this gap. 

Overall, some students feel the StAAR Center makes it unnecessarily difficult to receive accommodations. Hanley said they experienced “immediate pushback or prolonged pushback” against accommodations they needed.

ABLE is in the process of collecting student testimonies about their experiences as disabled and neurodiverse students at Tufts. They plan to use them to inform their work on campus and advocate for a Disability Center on campus. They hope a Disability Center will be a fully accessible space and a step towards making the campus more survivable for disabled and neurodivergent students.

The Disability Justice Movement, which formed out of conversations between disabled queer women of color activists in 2005, seeks to challenge systemic ideologies that are at the core of ableism. Patty Berne, one of the creators of Disability Justice and founders of Sins Invalid, a Disability Justice-based performance project, wrote in a blog post, “A Disability Justice framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them.” Part of Disability Justice focuses on shifting our understanding of access from individualized to collective and interdependent.

Hammond said, “I feel like Disability Justice is a lot about eliminating the need for accommodations.” Hanley shared a similar sentiment: “How do we make it so that access needs are already built into spaces and systems? How do we ensure that access is treated as an inherent right rather than privilege so that disabled people don’t have the unjust burden of constantly fighting for the resources they need to exist and be successful in spaces?” 

Bolton believes access does not solve ableism in and of itself. They encouraged people to focus not only on access but also on dismantling ableist ideas and norms at their core. They cautioned that increasing access is not liberatory if “all of the societal ideals and norms are still built in a way that [excludes] disabled people and [frames] them as abnormal—as something that needs to either be cured, disappear, or not be integrated.”
Collective access is a part of a broader vision of liberation from ableism. Wolfe-Herman sees this future as one that “allows us to simply live and exist and not have to constantly prove our worth and who we are and what is deserving… of time, attention, money, whatever it may be.”