By Brooke Schultz
It was when she saw state Sen. Barbara Mikulski last February that Rebecca Railson was inspired to start a disabilities group on campus after her experience at Washington College.
“To get anything done, you have to be crafty,” said Railson, a sophomore. “You have to be kind of an asshole. You have to push.”
Railson doesn’t consider herself the assertive type, she said during an interview at the start of the fall semester in Corsica Hall — but she said she’s working on it.
“With disabilities, you have to work about three times as hard to get something you need,” she said.
A disability is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.”
“So, what does that mean?” said Andrea Vassar, director of the Office of Academic Skills. She defined physical impairment as physical disabilities, sensory impairments, someone in a wheelchair, someone with hearing loss, and blindness; all of those things that are related to the body, as well as chronic medical or health conditions.
“So, all of those physical impairments could possibly qualify if they substantially limit the person’s ability to participate in activities,” she said.
She defined mental impairment as a learning disability or a psychiatric disability.
“Any kind of cognitive disability would be considered a mental impairment. Once again, it has to be to the severity that it’s impacting a life activity,” she said. “So, then you get to: what’s a life activity?”
Those are things such as walking, working, learning, any kind of bodily functions — “just about anything you can think of that a person without a disability would be doing in the world, that’s what a major life activity is,” Vassar said.
“So the determination is: does the person’s condition — does it rise to the severity where it’s impacting the person’s ability to function in all those kinds of ways?” she said.
When it comes to disability rights on campus, there are two laws of significance: ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Ratified in 1990 and later amended in 2008, ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public life. This includes jobs, schools, transportation, and public and private places.
As a private institution, WC must follow the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because it accepts federal financial aid, but the College does not have to abide by Title II of ADA, which is for state and local government public services.
Over time, through the Office of Civil Rights, the Department of Justice, or the Department of Education, an individual is likely to have filed a complaint or grievance which has resulted in a ruling, or resolution agreements.
“We look at those court cases and, based on the Office of Civil Rights and Department of Justice ruling, that helps to guide what our decisions are,” Vassar said. “So you’re dealing with a vague law. How does that work in other situations? And then that gives you guidance to know how to make good decisions about what’s reasonable and what’s not reasonable.”
Despite what the College is obligated to follow by law, Vassar said the philosophy is to do “everything we can within reason.”
“I think it’s important to know that WC does follow the guidelines, we don’t discriminate against individuals with disabilities, we do our best to provide accommodations within a reasonable amount of time,” she said. “We are committed and we put a lot of resources to this commitment. This is an ever-evolving thing, as the Office of Civil Rights provides additional guidance as things come up, because things change and the interpretation of laws change.”
For Railson, her experience here in regards to her six disabilities, both mental and physical, has made her into more of an advocate for people with disabilities on-campus.
“Everyone here is very nice. I feel that, as far as mental disabilities, we’re understaffed and a lot of the professors are undertrained,” she said. “I feel like it would be beneficial for professors to have some kind of training when it comes to people with mental disorders and different learners. Anxiety, depression, all of that. It makes things a lot harder for those particular students.”
Railson recounted an instance where a professor allegedly said, “Oh, you’re so smart, but I just feel like you’re self-sabotaging with this anxiety thing.”
“It’s not really in my control. That’s what I want people to know. It’s just like having a broken leg; I can’t really help it sometimes,” she said.
As a freshman, she was placed in East Hall and had to go up several flights of stairs, which she said wasn’t accessible. Residence Life eventually moved her to Corsica, which is equipped with elevators and accessible doorways, when she returned in the spring semester after withdrawing due to her health part-way through the fall semester.
“I felt very discouraged. Like, ‘Oh they don’t want me here because I’m different,’” she said.
At first, she felt angry, she said. She toured other schools and gave herself time to think about where to go next. Her mother, whom she calls her biggest advocate, gave her a book on disability-friendly colleges. WC was not among them.
In a list of the 50 Best Disability Friendly Colleges and Universities, compiled by College Choice, only one peer institution of WC was included: McDaniel College, located in Westminster.
The ranking, according to the website, is based on schools that “that have strong programming and solid support services for students with needs including, but not limited to, learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, visual and hearing impairment and those with physical needs that require special access, accommodations, service animals, and/or alternative transportation.”
For WC, Vassar said the College is up to date “with regards to providing accommodations to individuals who would come forward and request them. … Where we have to work is our facilities, but that’s because we’re a historic campus.”
Reid Raudenbush, construction project manager, said that since ADA went into effect in the 1990s, the College has been in compliance with it. For the new buildings, such as Corsica and Cromwell, they were built as per the 2010 ADA guidelines.
When the College has renovated different buildings, such as Hodson Hall and Gibson Center for the Arts, they have added elevators for easier access.
“When buildings undergo a full renovation like those two buildings did, we get an architect involved. They’re brought up to ADA-compliant standards,” he said.
For the historic buildings, things are more complicated. For some, like the Custom House, there’s an easement held on the building by the Maryland Historical Trust.
“Any changes to a building like that have to have their full approval before you go forward,” he said.
The process includes hiring an architect — generally an individual who specializes in historic renovations — and then taking it to the Historic District Commission in Chestertown or the Maryland Historical Trust if they have an easement on the building. The College must secure their permission to go forward with the renovations.
“There’s a full review process by the historic authorities,” Raudenbush said, “because their primary goal is the preservation of the historic structure and so they want us — or only allow us — to solve a problem like accessibility to the extent that we don’t damage the historic fabric of the building.”
For William Smith, they were able to put the elevator and bathrooms in by stripping out a row of classrooms up through the building. In the case of the Custom House’s modifications, they had to stay outside when they placed an elevator and ADA-compliant bathrooms.
“It’s L-shaped and in the crook of the L, there’s a brand-new structure that was constructed that contains both restrooms that are compliant and a little elevator,” he said. “As renovations occur in older buildings, particularly ones that have public access, where they are programs … those need to be made accessible to the public,” Raudenbush said.
For upcoming renovations, Cullen is next on the docket for the Fiscal Year 2019 capital plan, Raudenbush said. Constructed in the 1950s, there is only one at-grade entrance and it has no elevator. It is also unique because Public Safety is located in the basement, which can only be reached by stairs.
“The College’s philosophy is to do what we need to do to make the buildings friendly and accessible when we’re renovating them or when we’re building new,” he said. “As an institutional philosophy, it’s to do what we can.”
Vassar said she works closely with Buildings and Grounds and Residence Life to make sure students have access to the campus. She is planning to make a committee that comprises of faculty, staff, and students for an ADA advisory group.
Ultimately, Railson decided to give WC another chance.
“I’ve always said this since day one, it feels like my actual home. And I had to ask my parents, ‘Can I try again? Can we talk to them and see what we can do to make my life easier here?’” she said.
At the end of last year, she, working with Vassar, began putting together a group for students who have disabilities.
“The idea started when I realized there wasn’t a group on campus and I thought that was strange because most colleges have a group and other minority groups on campus are represented,” she said. “So, I wanted to create the group as a safe space to talk, make friends, and realize they’re not alone.”
The day of the interview, Railson was sending out emails to get it started for the new year.
“As much as an advocate as I’d like to be, I’m still busy with classes,” she said.
If you are interested in contacting Railson for more information about the group, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on disability services, contact Vassar at email@example.com or go to the Office of Academic Skill’s website: washcoll.edu/offices/academic-skills