Students Share Personal Experiences at Disability/Accessibility Panel

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As part of Discovering Abilities Week, student panelists shared personal experiences that highlighted the holes in accessibility on campus and suggested ways to bring visibility to the issues.

The Faculty-Student Panel on Disability/Accessibility, held last Thursday, found the College lacking a universal standard in access to resources. Both Alexandra Izdebski ’13, who has dyslexia and Hayden Dahmm ’15, who is blind, said they’ve faced challenges in accessing readings in an audio-friendly format.

Paul Cato ’14, who is epileptic, encountered faculty unwilling to implement accommodations in the classroom. He said one professor he approached spring semester 2010 told him an accommodation would compromise “the integrity of what I imagine this class to be and I don’t feel comfortable changing it.”

In another class, despite having been given instructions on how to handle a seizure, Cato said the professor assumed he was sleeping. “She left me seizing on the desk for twenty minutes,” said Cato. He left for a year due to a lack of support from the College.

Cato says upon returning he has found a much stronger support-structure. The increase in students who have epilepsy has provided a community and a sense of solidarity.

Student Disability Services is currently working to make disability awareness a presence in campus dialogues through diversity workshops and symposiums.

“Adding disability to the definition of diversity could reduce some of the stigma,” said Dahmm.

Last year, Leslie Hempling took over the position as Coordinator of Learning Resources and Student Disability Services. She and American Disabilities Act Program Director Susan Smythe are currently in the process of auditing the campus to determine its accessibility.

In addition to the physical campus, they have worked with the group re-designing the college website in order to make it more accessible to the visually impaired. Extending accessibility beyond the current student body, Smythe has worked to make perspective students with disabilities feel welcome.

There are many more steps for the college to take. Having more pictoral signs in easy-to-read fonts would make campus more navigable. The language of the accommodations policy could be made clearer, Cato suggested, and would result in less misunderstanding between students and professors.

Currently, there is no support group for students with disabilities. Izdebski said such a group could be a resource both for students in it and for educating the community at large.

“I’ll tell people I’m epileptic,” Cato said. “The first thing they think is of those movies where they warn about seizures, or The Exorcist. A lot of my friends haven’t fully grasped it until they’ve seen me having one.”

For Cato, his understanding of his disability was a gradual process. “When I was diagnosed, I saw myself as a person who had seizures. During high school, I came to see myself as a person with epilepsy. But it was much later that I came to understand myself as a person who was differently abled,” he said.

Izdebski, a domestic exchange student from Mills College, said she faces difficulties with her “hidden disability”: dyslexia. Many come from simple assumptions imbedded into daily life. “In our society we expect everyone to read,” Izdebski said. “The majority of information is passed through signs and symbols.”

Being an environmental engineer and working in labs that require interaction with visual data poses an obvious challenge for Dahmm, who is blind due to the birth condition “etinopathy of prematurity.”

Yet, Dahmm said, he’s been creative. Having his lab partners narrate what was happening gives him a unique perspective. “Describing the lab to me verbally opens their eyes up to seeing the lab in a new way as well,” said Dahmm.

Having a disability, the panelists said, has a significant impact on daily life. The culture of intellectualism at Swarthmore can lead to alienation of students with learning disabilities.

“Here, I feel like at Swarthmore, academia is the most valued aspect,” Izdebski said. “To come out and say that is a weakness for you is potent and can be debilitating, socially.”

Much of the stigmatization comes from a lack of understanding. In Dahmm’s experience, students’ attempts to help are often well intentioned but misguided. People will feel unconformable using the word “see,” around him, he said. He handles this with a degree of humor. “I say ‘I’ll see you later’ all the time,” he said. “For me “see” has different connotations, as in ‘I will enjoy your presence,’ a phrase which I obviously wouldn’t write in an email.”


  1. Thanks for sharing your stories, knowledge, and experiences, and thanks to the organizers who coordinated it! Looking forward to seeing more things like this happen at Swat in future semesters.

  2. Thank you to everyone for speaking. It was courageous and will surely help others in the future. In my experience, having a disability has made getting through my years at Swarthmore incredibly difficult because getting adequate support was so hard.

    With that said, things have been getting better. I see a HUGE difference since Leslie Hempling has been hired as the head of disability services. She really cares and does everything she can to help students with disabilities within the established guidelines. Thank you. The rest of the administration should look to her as a positive example of how things can and should be done. Kindness, attention to detail, and a positive attitude go a really long way.

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