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From Where I Sit: Advocating for Access

Sophia DeWitt, Mills College, Class of '96

My experience as an advocate for students with disabilities at Mills College in Oakland, California, was as valuable a learning experience as any class I took there. While difficult and frustrating at times, my efforts drew me closer to the community of Mills and led me to care about the institution in deeper ways than I otherwise might have.

The struggle to make Mills a more accessible campus for students with disabilities began in my first semester. The dormitory in which I lived--then the only one accessible to wheelchairs--was scheduled for renovation the following year. Initially, the renovation plan included an elevator.

During a meeting to update hall residents, it was announced that the elevator had been removed from the plan. Someone had incorrectly assumed that since Mills is a private institution it did not have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I started a petition drive to demand that the elevator be reinstated into the plan. In less than a week, one-quarter of the student body had signed the petitions. The college president reversed the decision to remove the elevator. This experience gave me important insights into the status of diversity issues on campus.

The first is that students care about diversity and are willing to be active in producing change. The support I received during the campaign for the elevator gave me faith in other students and made me feel part of a true community. Many efforts to increase diversity at Mills have been initiated by students. Our work to gain access to academic buildings and faculty offices was successful because of the support of other students. In my class, the involvement continued to graduation when the senior class and associated students provided a gift of six thousand dollars to pay to install a wheelchair lift in the Chemistry, Physics, and Math Building.

Faced with a constant "numbers game," where I was often told that it was too costly to make changes for so few students, I found that one of my most effective arguments was that increasing accessibility benefits everyone. Increased access ensures that more students with disabilities will attend Mills, bringing different perspectives to the classroom. Other advantages exist as well. For example, the installation of elevators and ramps makes it easier for nondisabled students to move in and out of their dorms every year. Elderly alumnae can move more easily around the campus. I always made an effort to point out these areas of common interest.

However, it is also important to recognize that the basis of the "numbers game" is inaccurate and based on a very narrow definition of what constitutes disability. Students with disabilities, like all people with disabilities, constitute one of the largest minorities. Ten to 15 percent of students have a declared disability. These range in type from cerebral palsy to dyslexia. With such a large percentage of students needing some kind of accommodation, it is crucial that colleges become proactive, responsive, and creative in addressing student concerns. One of the most important additions to any campus is a strong disability service program run by a committed director. At Mills the dedication of the director ensures that 140 of the school's 1,100 students receive the assistance that allows them to succeed academically.

My experience fighting for greater accessibility at Mills taught me valuable lessons. Students care about this issue and want to increase access. Their involvement is vital. The commitment of the college to create a strong advocate for disabled students is also important. With these structures in place, students with disabilities can continue to break down the barriers to access--one elevator at a time.

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