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Disability advocacy groups partner to bring greater accessibility to GW

Chuckie Copeland | Staff Photographer
The Disability Support Services office in Rome Hall.

Updated: Jan. 16, 2024, at 7:10 p.m.

Two student organizations that advocate for students with disabilities are partnering to work with officials to make GW and its campus more accessible.

Leaders of the GW Disabled Student Collective and Chronic Health Advocates said they have been forming a plan to repair and add door activation buttons in all GW buildings on the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses, increase faculty training to avoid academic ableism and push for increased funding in the Disability Support Services office. Executive board members in the groups said they will also meet with Multicultural Student Services Center Director Dustin Pickett this spring to discuss implementing an accessibility branch to the MSSC.

Lauren McCutcheon, a sophomore and the vice president of advocacy and education for CHA — a student chapter of the National Organization for Rare Disorders — said the two groups have regularly met with Eunice Dollete, GW’s assistant director for cultural programming and social justice education throughout the semester who has connected them with appropriate officials and helped them spearhead the changes they are requesting. She said the groups’ asks have centered around increasing funding and staff to the DSS office after students began complaining of longer wait times for responses and challenges accessing accommodations after staff turnover and loss in the office.

“We found that a lot of staff there don’t really know much about accessibility or disability, they’re just put into an admin job in this office,” McCutcheon said.

She said the lack of staff and funds in the office leaves students with disabilities unaware of the limited resources offered to them and has diminished their quality. She said the automatic doors in District House — which are frequently nonfunctional, according to McCutcheon — represent one example of GW leaving consistent accessibility issues unaddressed.

She said the DSC — a support and advocacy group for disabled students and nondisabled allies in the GW community — and CHA are planning to meet with Pickett the first week of February to discuss adding an “accessibility branch” to the MSSC’s list of values, which currently include LGBTQ+ identities, race and ethnicity, and religion, faith and spirituality. In October, Pickett said the permanent relocation of the center from its former home in a G Street townhouse to the fifth floor of the University Student Center last January was among his first goals as director because the former townhouse was inaccessible for many disabled students.

“They have three branches, but none of it includes accessibility or disability, so that’s a huge part that is blacked out, and there’s also a lot of intersectionality that can go into that,” McCutcheon said.

McCutcheon — who lived on the Mount Vernon Campus her first year at GW as a member of the Women’s Leadership Program, which houses its members in Somers Hall — added that the Vern is difficult to navigate for disabled students with its steep hills and lack of elevator in the Academic Building. She said the DSC and CHA are working with administrators to create a timeline for when the Vern will become more accessible for students and faculty with disabilities, starting with making sure all doors on the campus have functional automatic door buttons.

“All of the GW Living Learning Communities are housed on the Vern making them inaccessible to students with mobility issues,” McCutcheon said in a message. “The GW Band-Aid fix for that is that they can live on Foggy and not the Vern, well, that takes the living out of living-learning community!”

McCutcheon said while GW’s buildings are technically compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, facilities that predate the 2010 updates to the legislation do not have features like door activation buttons, which causes the University to relocate many disabled students to housing in Foggy Bottom.

University spokesperson Julia Metjian said GW Facilities is conducting a survey of the automatic operating doors across all three of GW’s campuses.

“Ensuring accessibility for our entire community is a priority for the university,” Metjian said in an email. “We strive for every building to meet the standard for our university to be accessible to all, and for compliance to be met across our campuses.”

Madison Jennings, a second-year masters student and the president of the DSC, said the two organizations ultimately hope to meet with University President Ellen Granberg and the Board of Trustees to bring accessibility issues to their attention, collaborate on a funding plan for DSS and initiate a third-party accessibility assessment of the campus. She said the groups are working with the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, to set up meetings with the dean of each school to update training for professors to ensure professors are able to accommodate disabled and chronically ill students properly.

“Anybody can be disabled at any point,” Jennings said. “You may not be disabled now, but we’re still fighting for you because you may be disabled tomorrow or you may be chronically ill or have a chronic condition tomorrow. You don’t know. Anything can happen. It’s one of the only identity groups that you can join at any time in your life.”

Jennings said through the groups’ collaboration, she hopes to see accessibility issues addressed on campus like updated elevator signage and updated training for professors, while spreading awareness about disability to the GW community in hopes of destigmatizing what many still think of as a “bad word.”

Le Nguyen, a junior and CHA’s financial officer, said he knows officials are trying to make GW a more accessible campus but they fall short in making students aware of available resources like class attendance flexibility for students with chronic conditions who aren’t able to attend class regularly. He said the groups have been trying to figure out how much funding DSS receives from the University after hearing complaints from students about difficulty receiving accommodations from the office.

“We think the root of these problems lies in their lack of funding from the University, but since their budget isn’t publicly disclosed, we don’t know how much of a priority DSS is in the eyes of the University,” Nguyen said in a message.

Lilly Shaw, a first-year and junior officer of CHA, is a member of both the DSC and CHA, which she said helped her facilitate the collaboration between the two organizations in October. She said she saw the aligning goals between the two organizations and felt that more people fighting for increased accessibility on campus would bolster the chances of future change.

“It’s important that people with disabilities get those human rights because if you think about it, making campus accessible, it’s not a choice. It’s not ‘Oh, I want an accessible campus,’” she said. “It’s, ‘I need an accessible campus. I cannot go to school without an accessible campus.’”

This post was updated to correct the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Jennings is a sophomore. She is a second-year master’s student. We regret this error.

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About the Contributor
Fiona Bork, Assistant News Editor
Fiona Bork is a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication from San Diego, California. She is The Hatchet's 2023-2024 assistant news editor for the Student Life beat.
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