Students with disabilities speak on accessibility and inclusion on campus


Design by Maria Albers

While Iowa State’s campus is easily accessible for students without disabilities, it may not be fully navigable for those with physical limitations.

Victoria Reyna-Rodriguez

Iowa State’s campus strives for accessibility, and students with disabilities on campus have spoken up about whether the university is reaching that goal.

Emma Hill, sophomore in pre-architecture, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a connective tissue disorder that affects every part of the body, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a malfunction of the autonomic nerve in which her blood vessels and heart cannot adjust to position changes. Her symptoms include pain, fatigue, double vision and frequent subluxations/dislocations of multiple joints.

Hill said her disability affects her ability to do many things as a student on campus.

“I cannot walk far as joints tend to pop out, fatigue takes over or my POTS will cause me to almost pass out,” Hill said. “I find it very difficult as a college student as my disorder causes constant fatigue […] and the daily grind of going to classes carrying my backpack and portfolio […] causes joints to slip out and pain to be worsened immensely.”

Hill mentioned she also suffers from a number of cognitive issues and finds herself having difficulties reading large sums of text and retaining memory. She also has a constant fogginess of the brain.

Hill said that having a disability as a college student does not only make tasks more difficult for her academically, but also socially.

“I also get many rude looks when I park handicapped,” Hill said. “I have a state-issued handicapped tag, but since I do not use aided devices like wheelchairs, people see me as a perfectly abled individual. Even when I wear orthopedic braces, I still get looks as if I am taking a handicapped spot for no reason.”

Hill calls her disability “invisible,” which means that no one can see when she is in pain, feeling unwell or has a dislocated joint.

“They assume I am a healthy 18 year old as I do not appear to be sick or ‘disabled,’” Hill said. “All disabilities look different. Do not assume because someone doesn’t use the traditional assistive devices associated with disabilities that they do not have a disability. I do not have to ‘look sick’ or be in a wheelchair to suffer from a physical disability and therefore I have the right to use amenities available to those with a disability.”

While Hill shared some frustrations about being a student with disabilities, she also shared her pleasant experiences at Iowa State.

“Student Accessibility Services (SAS) has made my student life significantly easier, as they have provided me with both classroom accommodations — to ensure a better, and hopefully less painful, learning environment — and exam accommodations,” Hill said.

Hill had nothing but positive feedback about SAS.

“For anyone with a disability, both physical and mental, I highly suggest seeing Student Accessibility Services to ensure a learning environment that works for each individual,” Hill said.

Morgan Tweed, graduate student in architecture, also had positive feedback about Iowa State’s accessibility services.

“I think that ISU has been very good about helping me out,” Tweed said. “Shout out in particular to the College of Design staff and the Student Accessibility Services office […] They have helped me by listening. I am pretty vocal about what I need. I’ve been an active advocate since before becoming disabled, but action requires the other side to listen as well as ISU has.”

Tweed also highly recommended the Alliance for Disability Awareness club for a support system, though he said most of the clubs on campus really are worth it as well.

Tweed has stiff person syndrome, which leaves him wheelchair-bound, and complex post traumatic stress disorder.

Tweed said his disabilities impact every aspect of his life.

“I have to do everything a little bit different and ‘work smarter, not harder,’” Tweed said. “It calls for a lot of communication. In order for the teachers, students and staff to help me succeed, I need to tell them what I need.”

Tweed said his disabilities also affect his accessibility in a literal way, in the sense of making his way around campus.

“Because I’m in a wheelchair, getting to classes, or really anywhere on campus, is difficult,” Tweed said. “I have to add time to figure out getting into buildings, most that only have one accessible way in. What most people think is accessible is barely passable for me. Most of the buildings on campus are older, thus not really accessible.”

Tweed said college also affects his energy greatly because it is hard, time consuming and stressful.

“I have to get specialized permission to take extra time off,” Tweed said. “That does not mean that I get a break on assignments, just class time, which can make keeping up harder.”

Similarly to Hill, Tweed said his disabilities also affect him socially. While some of his classmates are accepting and helpful, others are far from it.

“Some people […] have voiced that they think I get special treatment and couldn’t be here on my own,” Tweed said. “Aside from being hurtful, it just isn’t true. I have to work harder to do everything. The accommodations are to level the playing field, not give me special treatment.”

Tweed has many words of encouragement and advice for students with disabilities considering attending a traditional university.

“The percentage of the disabled community that moves on to college is painfully low, and mostly because the people in the disabled community don’t feel like they can manage it alone or that they won’t be accommodated — or worse, that they won’t be taken seriously,” Tweed said. “There is so much that we can do, so many spots in the job market that we could be filling. I think it is important to try and get more people with disabilities to go to college; it isn’t nearly as hard as you’d think.”

Tweed commented on intimidation and finding resources on campus for students with disabilities at Iowa State.

“My advice would be don’t give up or be daunted when you hit a snag; speak up, people will listen,” Tweed said. “The Student Accessibility Services office in the Student Services Building is a great resource.They make sure that teachers and classes accommodate your needs and help with resources. They can even make classes move to accessible locations and make sure certain areas are cleared of snow during your class time.”

As the SAS office was highly recommended and reviewed by students with disabilities on campus, the director of SAS, Steven Moats, commented on their goals as an organization.

“SAS believes that equity, social justice and diversity are essential to creating and maintaining an environment of equal access and opportunity for all,” Moats said. “We believe that disability is a naturally occurring aspect of the diversity of life and that it is an integral part of society and to the Iowa State University campus community.”

According to their website, SAS aims to “[support] students with disabilities related to the services and programs that enable their access to education and university life.”

Moats explained the variety of ways which SAS works with multiple campus partners to promote opportunities for students with documented disabilities. This includes frequent communications with instructors on reasonable academic accommodations, including access to facilities, coursework and activities.

“We are proud to collaborate with students, instructors, staff in room scheduling, Department of Residence, ISU Dining, Human Resources, IT Services, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and departmental and university leadership to provide reasonable accommodations for eligible students while working to promote universal design that effectively reduces the need for specific accommodations by creating the opportunity for access by designing inclusive spaces and practices,” Moats said.

Moats said inclusion for students with disabilities is important on a college campus.

“‘Ability/disability’ is a human characteristic akin to race, gender, age, etc.,” Tweed said. “Therefore, if/when we recognize it as a diversity concern, it only makes sense to provide opportunities for all individuals to participate in the collegiate experience — that is, to be able to have equal access to facilities, courses and related materials, events, activities and related. So in addition to providing equitable opportunities for students as a legal mandate […] being inclusive is the right thing to do.”

Moats said SAS believes equity, social justice and diversity are essential to creating and maintaining an environment of equal access and opportunity for all.

SAS as a whole invites everyone to participate in any and all activities scheduled for Disability Awareness Week, taking place Sunday through Friday. Information for these events can be found on their website.