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Town Hall covers disability, accessibility

The open format of the town hall allowed for discussion of accessibility issues to flow smoothly. Photo by Shadman Asif.

On Tuesday, Sept. 30, Grinnell students, faculty and staff participated in two town hall sessions that addressed the issue of disability and accessibility on campus. The sessions took place at noon and 7:30 p.m. in JRC 101 and provided a space where attendees could share their concerns and experiences about the struggles that Grinnellians with learning, physical and/or mental disabilities face at the College and in their daily lives.

A faculty member raises a point during the first town hall session of the year. Photo by Shadman Asif.
A faculty member raises a point during the first town hall session of the year.
Photo by Shadman Asif.

Participants had the opportunity to discuss how disability care or the lack thereof affected their personal, social and academic development. Both sessions were moderated by SGA President Opeyemi Awe ’15, who began the conversation by encouraging attendees to participate in a cell phone poll about the degree to which they considered themselves informed about disabilities.

Awe said that this issue has been at the forefront of considerations that Grinnell has to take on in order to provide a welcoming space for all.

“I believe it is very important to make the school work better for student with disabilities, because that is our role as SGA—to make the College a better place for all students,” she said.

In the town hall’s atmosphere of open discussion, attendees had the chance to voice their opinions about how they felt Grinnellians approach the subject of disability.

“The main problem Grinnell has with disabilities is apathy. I do not believe there are enough students that are passionate enough to speak out on disability, to educate themselves and to educate others,” said Dan Davis ’16 during the 7:30 p.m. session.

“It is just this huge lack of knowledge and lack of caring,” another student added. The discussion included complaints that Grinnellians often lock their bicycles to rails built intentionally for students who have limited mobility, which can often be a huge impediment.

A third student said that oftentimes able-bodied people are simply unaware of the complications that their peers struggle with.

“I think a big part of our campus culture is the invisibility of disability and the lack of conversation about it,” the student said. “People have no idea what living with

disabilities is [like] … how can we expect them to care. I mean they have never struggled [to] get into the elevator when all the backpacks are just thrown in the way.”

A faculty member in attendance noted that these conversations and topics are important in enabling solutions for accessibility at the College.

“I am sure that in the beginning having more conversations about these topics will be forceful, for lack of a better word,” the faculty member said. “But I’d like to believe these conversations will become more organic as people realize the magnitude of the problem and why it should be addressed.”

A day after the town hall, Awe said that SGA will take the concerns of Grinnellians very seriously and will work to make the changes and plans formulated during the town hall a reality.

“We will definitely implement the suggestions made in the town hall,” she said. “We want to empower students and let them know that if they need more affinity groups they can create those through SGA. The conversation does not end here.”

The open format of the town hall allowed for discussion of accessibility issues to flow smoothly. Photo by Shadman Asif.
The open format of the town hall allowed for discussion of accessibility issues to flow smoothly.
Photo by Shadman Asif.

During the town hall, Autumn Wilke was introduced as Coordinator of Disability Resources, a position she will serve congruently with her position as a Residence Life Coordinator. Wilke will be working with administrators in order to facilitate better access to classrooms and other academic workspaces.

“I am moving into my new position this week and my main role will be to educate faculty, students and staff about ways to incorporate universal design in the classrooms,” Wilke said.

Wilke added that as part of her work, she will be reaching out to the community and doing her best to bridge the gaps in providing for students with different levels of accommodation.

“My role will be helping individuals who are already registered for accommodations to make the most of their Grinnell education,” she said. “I will also support students who suspect they might have a disability, connect them with resources and support. I would like to partner with SGA to involve students in disability awareness.”

After the town hall, Davis said that he is excited to see the work that Wilke will be doing for students with disabilities.

“[Wilke] will start working as a coordinator and I am excited about what are the changes she will implement because there is a lack of resources available for students with disabilities,” he said.

Davis mentioned his role in student-run groups that are focused on delivering results from the conversations held regarding disability and accessibility at Grinnell.

“I am part of Active Minds, a group dedicated to spread[ing] mental health awareness in Grinnell, and we are having … a ‘day without stigma’,” Davis said. “This activity will be students talking about their experience with mental health on campus. We want to make people realize this is a topic we should be talking about on campus because many people deal with it.”

The next town hall will be held on November 13, and the topic of the town hall is still being decided.

Editor’s Note: Some quotations have been kept anonymous to reflect the safe space nature of town hall meetings.

Additional reporting by Steve Yang ’17.

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