On Housing Accommodations and Student Disability Services

Swarthmore students at large do not need to worry about the housing lottery process until mid April, but the considerable number of students who need housing accommodations are facing a deadline this Friday in order to start the application process. With only two official emailed reminders about this application, students may find this experience bureaucratic or overwhelming, especially if they are navigating it for the first time. At Swarthmore, housing accommodations are not retroactive and can only be applied for if the student is registered with Student Disability Services first. Students must also reapply for accommodations each year. At the same time, housing accommodations are facilitated through the Student Disability Services, even though not all students who require housing accommodations have disabilities. Student Disability Services consequently manages more than student disability. As a result, students may not know whether they meet the qualifications for housing accommodations in the first place. We, at The Phoenix, would like to advocate for a more transparent and guided process for students who need housing accommodations. 

We believe there should be more clarification and active outreach around housing accommodation eligibility and technicalities. According to the Accommodations Process website, “in college, it is the student’s right and responsibility to request accommodations,” which means that students must initiate this process. We would like to acknowledge that the Student Disability Services office encourages students to reach out to them directly, but while certain difficulties regarding this process may be more efficiently and effectively clarified by an office visit, a student who doesn’t already know they potentially qualify for accommodations may not know to visit the office in the first place. 

Navigating this process online can also be confusing. The Housing Accommodations website indicates that students are eligible for accommodations if they have “documented disabilities” and redirects them to the Student Disability Service website, which, in turn, lists details of eligibility under a third website Documentation Guidelines, where disability is finally defined as “1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; 2. A record of such impairment; or 3. Is regarded as having such an impairment.” This chain of redirections, as well as the title “Documentation Guidelines” itself, can be counterintuitive or misleading because they presuppose that the individual who is investigating these sites identifies themselves as someone with a disability or a qualified recipient of accommodations and is already in the process of assembling documents. Students who suspect that they may qualify for accommodations but have yet to receive official or medical confirmation may feel automatically discouraged by this process; students who have recently become aware of disabilities and may not know exactly what they are looking for may, likewise, be confounded by this chain of redirection and counterintuitive website names. Not to mention an applicant is required to have a note from a doctor, and that is the only kind of proof that the office will accept. Acquiring a doctor’s note can be stressful and expensive for students depending on their insurance; certain students may face difficulties in obtaining a doctor’s note, especially if the assessment requires seeing a specialist.

The criteria of what conditions qualify as disabilities — and thus, qualify for accommodations — are very vague on the website and little advertised. Of the listed conditions in “Documentation Guidelines,” besides ADHD, no specific qualifying condition is mentioned. The lack of specificity in what conditions can qualify for accommodations means that qualifying students can only find out about their eligibility through visiting the office or word-of-mouth. It may surprise students that relatively common conditions, such as allergies and chronic illness, such as asthma, can qualify for certain accommodations. Although these conditions technically fall under the “Documentation of a Physical Disability or Chronic Medical Condition” section of “Documentation Guidelines,” it is not immediately apparent that they are qualifying conditions as neither of them are explicitly listed on the website. Similarly, students with mental health needs may potentially qualify for housing accommodations, yet this may also not be immediately apparent. Even though the “Documentation Guidelines” website includes a subsection “Documentation of Psychiatric/Psychological Disability,” it seems that only students who know what they are looking for will come to this section of the website. Consequently, it may be the case that a number of students on this campus do not know that they are actually eligible for housing accommodations in the first place.

Furthermore, because housing accommodations are mainly facilitated through Student Disability Services, student needs that do not fall under the category of “disability” are also managed by this department. Housing issues related to gender identity, such as housing accommodations for transgender students, are also managed through Student Disability Services.  The needs of transgender students, as well as any gender identity related needs, are categorically different from the needs of students with disabilities. Managing gender identity related housing issues through Student Disability Services implies that these issues are disabilities. We, at The Phoenix, emphatically do not see the word “disability” as demeaning in any way, but we would like to point out that this current arrangement seems to imply that having gender identity related needs is the same as having a disability, which is a conflation that can be harmful.  

We would like to advocate for a more transparent housing accommodations process. Because housing accommodations are not retroactive, a student cannot apply for it without having a pre-existing registration with Student Disability Services. Yet a quick search through the student Gmail account indicates that, besides sparse promotion of community events and the occasional public service announcement and reminder of personnel changes, Student Disability Services only habitually reach out to the student body to remind them of the housing accommodations application when the deadline approaches. If a student is only reminded of their eligibility for housing accommodations two weeks before the deadline, they may not have enough time to assemble the necessary doctor’s notes to register their needs.  

We would also like to invite the administration to reconsider the name of the Student Disability Services. While the name itself is very straightforward and salient for students with disabilities, the other aspects of student accommodations this office manages are categorically grouped under disability as well. Using disability as the overarching label not only conflates categorically different issues, but also renders the non-disability-related issues managed by this office invisible. We also emphasize that we are not comparing the importance of the plethora of reasons that students seek accommodations from Student Disability Services — they are simply separate issues, all of which deserve treatment with respect.

In short, we believe that housing accommodations and Student Disability services are essential to the Swarthmore community, and we would like to acknowledge that a lot of necessary work is being done through these channels. We, however, call for a more streamlined and clarified process of seeking accommodations that will make health and wellness more accessible to students at Swarthmore.

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