Disabled Student Experiences

Issues faced by UofSC’s disabled student community.

by Jaylen Anderson / Garnet & Black

In November of 2021, members of student government’s Senate attempted to describe a bill that would introduce a Secretary of Disability Services to the Cabinet. One of the bill’s major proponents, Jacob Carroll, recalls that the major opposition to the bill centered around questions like, “Is there a large enough student population represented by the Student Disability Resource Center to establish a secretary position in Cabinet?” In short, the answer is yes, there are plenty of students registered with Student Disability Services on campus, and still more students who are disabled but unregistered or undiagnosed. But questions like these represent an alarming and deeply ingrained misunderstanding of just how vast the disabled student community is, here and at universities across the nation. When we fail to understand how much of our community is affected by issues of ableism and inaccessibility, we inevitably fail to understand the importance of these issues.

Disabled adults make up 26% of the United States population. And, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, disabled students account for 19% of undergraduate university students. Though the disabled community is the largest minority group in the U.S.— and the only minority group of which anyone can become a member, at any time, and likely will before the end of their life— disability rights issues are often swept under the rug. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, are a step towards protecting the rights of disabled people, but many disability rights activists across the nation are still fighting for basic rights, including fair pay and marriage equality. And though the ADA provides legal protection against discrimination, in practice, it often fails to protect disabled people from ableism. College campuses, with their fast-paced and rigid academic environment, often prove ample breeding grounds for misunderstandings that grow into ableist behaviors and discriminatory practices. 

As a major SEC school in the South, the region with the highest concentration of disabled people in the United States, it’s fair to assume that approximately 1 in every 5 undergraduate students at the University of South Carolina is living with a disability, making disabled student rights a major issue on campus. With so many disabled students living and working on campus, discussions about the experiences of disabled students are absolutely essential in our efforts to shape a more inclusive campus community.

I have had the opportunity to speak with four disabled students, two of whom wish to remain anonymous, about the issues and experiences that characterize life for disabled student at the University of South Carolina.

Ableism, defined as the unfair prioritization of able-bodied individuals and experiences, is often, but not always, subtle and underhanded, particularly in social settings. It’s the little things. Because so many disabilities are invisible, it’s nearly impossible to tell whether the person standing next to you in line at Russell House or sitting on your row in your afternoon lecture is disabled or not. These “invisible disabilities” may not be easily observed by passers-by, but that doesn’t mean they have any less of an impact on a person’s life. Students with invisible disabilities are more likely to find themselves in situations where a group member says something hurtful about their disability, without knowing that someone in the group is, in fact, disabled. Hurtful comments like “Thank God I’m not like you.” or “They don’t look autistic.” or “He’s so r*tarded [CC1] .” are passed about like candy, treated as innocuous everyday statements. More often than not, this casual or social ableism comes from a place of misunderstanding rather than malice. This doesn’t mean that ableist words or actions without ill intent hurt any less, but it does mean that becoming confrontational is rarely the best approach to ableist behavior. Feelings of hurt and anger are justified, but each of the students I spoke with expressed feeling that the perpetrators of casual ableism are simply uneducated or unaware of the hurt that their words and experiences can cause. 

Often, the most effective, albeit not always the easiest, path to take is to attempt to “bridge the gap between lived experiences” by explaining why ableism is hurtful and attempting to broaden the worldview of the person displaying ableist behavior. As student disability rights activist and president of disabled student honor fraternity, Isabelle Bordaus, explained, “[these students are] just using in general what they’ve been taught all their lives,” and states that she finds the best approach is to call the perpetrator out and say “Hey, this is a terrible thing to say to someone like me. So, if you could, think it through before you say this again, and just think about the consequences of your words.” It's a matter of channeling righteous anger into grace and using that grace to plant the seeds for change. But planting the seeds for change is exhausting, and disabled students don’t owe it to the world to educate everyone around them. That’s where allies come in, and where the UofSC campus community comes in. If you hear ableist language on campus, whether you think someone nearby is disabled or not, call out the student who’s being ableist and explain to them why that sort of behavior is unacceptable and hurtful.

The need to call out ableism isn’t limited to social situations. While casual, social ableism is hurtful and damaging, academic ableism is a major form of systemic discrimination that can prevent disabled students from accessing educational spaces and realizing their academic goals. This barrier to education is formed by a general lack of understanding within the culture of academia, which is closely tied to productivity culture and emulates a Darwin-esque survival (or success) of the fittest mentality. As one student so eloquently stated, “The fast-paced environment of academia is not well-suited for anyone who is not perfectly typical, and it frowns upon people reporting things like refusal to give accommodations.” 

At the university level, academic ableism primarily stems from two sources: policy decisions made at the administrative level and lack of understanding amongst faculty and staff. Policy decisions include a lack of funding to the SDRC and not mandating that professors receive accessibility and anti-ableism training until after an offense (such as denying a student access to accommodations) has been committed. These decisions trickle down to student-professor interactions, which typically have the most impact on a disabled student’s educational experience. Lack of understanding from faculty and staff, on the other hand, impacts students by making it harder to integrate with the classroom. When professors make ableist comments, or are dismissive towards the experiences of disabled students, it creates an othering atmosphere. In an environment where students are already under the authority of their professor, being othered can make it feel nearly impossible to stand up for yourself. To add another layer of complexity, many students feel afraid to stand up against professors, as they are afraid that this will cause the professor to be negatively disposed towards them, eventually impacting their grades. 

Because it can be near impossible to stand up for oneself alone, it is crucial that students stand up for one another. When students band together and speak out, the power dynamics shift, and the sense of “otherness” can be dismantled. If you observe ableism in your classroom, you have the power to shift the narrative by speaking up and approaching your professor politely about the harmful nature of ableist language or comments. 

 As a public, state-funded institution, UofSC is required to operate accessibility services for disabled students under the ADA. The university’s Student Disability Resource Center, or SDRC, promotes equal access on campus by “ensur[ing] that students with disabilities receive reasonable accommodations and serv[ing] as consultants to faculty, staff and campus partners,” as per their website. Students who require accommodations to succeed on campus can register through the SDRC, and once the proper documentation is submitted, the SDRC will serve as a liaison, contacting professors about accommodations on behalf of students. 

According to students I spoke with, the staff at the SDRC are incredibly supportive and helpful in both obtaining accommodations and managing any issues that arise throughout the year. Additionally, the SDRC also houses Delta Alpha Pi, an academic honors organization for disabled students that seeks to celebrate disabled students’ excellence, provide a social network for disabled students and promote activism and involvement both on campus and in the Columbia area at large. Isabelle Bordaus, the current president of the organization, is making efforts to expand Delta Alpha Pi’s membership and the programming offered. Disabled students registered with the SDRC who demonstrate academic excellence are eligible for active membership, and any student who is passionate about disability rights issues is welcome to attend forums and apply for associate membership.

Despite the many benefits offered by the SDRC, there are several large issues that impact both the center and the students who utilize its services. One of the largest issues, yet one of the hardest to solve without the help of upper-level university administration, is fact that the center is both understaffed and underfunded. Jacob Carroll, a dyslexic student who is registered with the SDRC, and has worked closely with the center’s director, Sonia Badesha, stated that the center is operating at 50-60% capacity, leading to staff being overloaded with cases. According to Carroll, the center and its staff are doing the best that they possibly can, but unless the university advocates for increased funding to the SDRC and hires more SDRC staff members, the center can only do so much. Additionally, while the application process is fairly streamlined, the documentation requirements and social stigma both prevent students from applying for necessary accommodations. 

While documentation requirements are intended to ensure that accommodations are provided to those that truly need them, Carroll, Bordaus and another student disability rights activist I’ve spoken with have brought up that the required documentation, which includes an official diagnosis, can be hard to obtain for certain students. Finances constitute a major blockade to receiving a diagnosis and thus receiving accommodations. Diagnosis for many conditions, especially invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities or chronic illnesses, is a long, arduous, and expensive process, particularly if the student does not have quality health insurance. Add to this the fact that discrimination in the medical field can make it harder for minority groups, including people of color, women and LGBTQ+ people to find a provider who takes them and their health conditions seriously, and receiving a diagnosis quickly becomes exponentially harder than it should be. Though the university cannot be expected to waive the documentation requirement entirely, the university could greatly lighten the burden by connecting students to low-cost diagnostic services. 

Regardless of progress made on the issues listed above, until the social stigma surrounding accommodations is dismantled on campus, registering for and requesting accommodations will remain an intimidating process due to the plethora of misconceptions about accommodations and the students who use them. One of the largest misconceptions about accommodations is the notion that accommodations are intended to make a disabled students’ life easier than that of their peers. Quite the opposite is true. Without accommodations, “simple” tasks that able-bodied students can complete without second thought—from being able to read and comprehend class materials, to taking a long walk across campus, to hearing and understanding what the professor is saying—are near impossible for disabled students to complete without support. Accommodations are intended to make both academic and personal settings on campus more accessible to students by leveling the playing field. But when peers and professors misunderstand accommodations, promoting the narrative that students who request them are needy or trying to get ahead, students who need accommodations begin to wonder if they truly deserve them, and begin to doubt themselves. 

One student I spoke to described the way that self-doubt can creep up on a student, leaving them feeling inadequate and afraid to stand up for themselves. “At some point, after a professor or two tells you why your accommodations aren’t important enough to give you, you start to feel like maybe it isn’t that big of a deal after all … maybe you’re just making a big deal out of nothing and causing problems where there weren’t any … and you ask yourself if you’re just being dramatic about it all.” Throughout my interviews, I asked each student what advice they would give to a student who is looking to self-advocate by requesting accommodations but is hesitant due to feelings of self-doubt or fear of stigma. Though all could understand the feelings of hesitation, each student sought to encourage their peers to pursue accommodations if they felt they needed them. 

One student sought to remind students pursuing accommodations that “They don’t just give those accommodations out. You [need] them for a reason, and that reason is perfectly valid.” Yet another student wants to dismantle the notion of a “hierarchical structure” to receiving accommodations. There is no such thing as being “not disabled enough” and there is, as he said, “no baseline criteria for registering.” If you feel that you need accommodations, or if you feel that you need to request further accommodation, I urge you to reach out to the SDRC. Everyone deserves to receive the accommodations that will help them achieve success.

While accommodations can impact a variety of aspects of a student’s university experience, from housing to dining to transportation, arguably one of the most integral spaces for accommodations is the classroom. Students of all ability levels are ultimately here to learn, and accommodations make learning possible. Almost all students indicated that professors serve as a “make or break” in terms of accessibility in the classroom. Professors who care about their students, and who go above and beyond to ensure that students being accommodated in a way that suits their individual needs, create meaningful academic and personal experiences by cultivating a genuinely inclusive environment. One student I spoke with described her experience with a professor who was exceptionally accommodating as “something I still think about. It stood out to me because I felt so accepted and accommodated.” 

On the other end of that spectrum, unfortunately, some professors are unwilling to accommodate students, making students who request accommodations to feel as if they are “difficult students” and contributing to feelings of self-doubt. In extreme cases, professors may flat out refuse to comply with the accommodations set forth by the student and the SDRC. In this case, students can contact the SDRC staff, who will reach out to the professor on behalf of the student and take action if necessary. However, the fear of forming negative relations with a professor and potentially earning a poor grade in the course as a result, can prevent students from reporting professors. According to students I spoke with, many professors fall to neither one extreme nor the other. During our conversation, Bordaus related an anecdote about a professor whom, likely without ill intent, once called out across a packed lecture hall to ask her if she was the student who needed accommodations, thus revealing her disability to the remainder of the class without allowing her to do so on her own terms. In far too many cases, professors like the one described before are willing to accommodate students, but simply lack the understanding of the nuances of offering accommodations, and thus fall short of creating a truly inclusive classroom, despite their best efforts. 

Living with a disability is a personal experience, and every disabled student is different. The ways in which students conceptualize their disabilities vary widely, from students who “own their disabilities” to students who prefer that their disabilities are only discussed when necessary. But throughout my conversations across campus, I found one thread connecting each student I spoke with: the notion that disability is an intrinsic part of them and their lived experiences, one that’s not going away anytime soon. As a campus community, we should recognize that disabled students are valuable members of the UofSC community, members who are here to stay, and that disability rights must be a part of our ongoing equity discourse. Disabled students are more than just present. They’re active members of our student body— hard-working and dedicated students who want to learn, have fun, and build a better future for themselves. Their experiences have value, and as a student body, we should seek to be more inclusive in any way we can, from standing up against ableism and listening to the voices of disabled students, to demanding that the university itself adopts more inclusive policies.