Disability Inclusion for UT Affiliated Orgs/GreekLife: Advertise and Accept Accommodations

Disability Inclusion for UT Affiliated Orgs/GreekLife: Advertise and Accept Accommodations

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Rebekah Urban started this petition to Office of the Dean of Students and

 

                                         WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

The problem is the lack of disability inclusion in UT student orgs.

UT affiliated greek life and student organizations are not required to provide accommodations to their semester requirements or regulations. Even in the event that they do allow exceptions to the specific laws of the organization for students with handicaps, these organizations rarely advertise this option during informational meetings or during tabling sessions. Students with mental or physical needs/limits/health issues are so often unaware of the opportunities they could have because the organizations aren't held accountable for disability inclusion.

Depending on the disability, there could be several different variations of these options (more, less, different, or varying uses/styles/applications of them).

Some examples of regulations that could use amendments for members with disabilities would be: 

  • Rush Expectations: Time, physical exertion or money spent for any extra activities that may have a longer term/more negative impact on the student in comparison to others
  • Availability Expectations as an Active Member: Certain disabilities can inhibit a student from being able to spend as many hours doing certain things for a spirit, social, or philanthropic event, however that does not mean they do not appreciate and want to be involved in the mission, the people, the activities, etc. as much as they physical are able to
  • Dress Code (for meetings or events)
  • Late Notice (regarding an absence, event, etc). 
  • A Payment Plan for Dues
  • Trigger Warnings (for certain parties, events, charities, activities, etc.): Some examples include a warning to the student for the presence of strobe lights, specific content triggering to the student, certain environmental factors, locations, or allergies that need to be avoided, or the need for high or certain amounts of physical activity. Often the student would merely require time to prepare with their tools to adapt or cope, to find an alternative, or to speak with/notify the executive/committee member in charge. 
  • Attendance: Leaving early, needing to arrive late, or last minute absences/absences over the limit with proper communication or doctors note
  • The allowance for to perform makeup hours regarding philanthropy/volunteering or study time when previously missed

The University of Texas at Austin is known internationally for its phrase, "What starts here, changes the world." However, many students that start at UT never end up getting the chance to evoke change because of the outdated ignorance that students with disabilities or chronic illnesses have been enduring in silence for years.

Only this year, 2019, did the health center offer a support group for chronic illnesses, yet it was limited to a small number allowed. Last year, The Daily Texas interviewed Emeline Lakrout, a blind UT junior, when The Austin Transportation Department installed three Accessible Pedestrian Signals to make it easier for visually impaired students on campus to cross the street by using certain sounds to know when it’s safe to cross. A great step, but this didn't happen until only last year. Lakrout stated, "I grew up in San Antonio, where there are APS buttons all over the downtown area. When I came to UT as a freshman, it felt like I stepped 20 years back in time."                                  

 

                                  WHY DO WE NEED TO TAKE ACTION?

 Students with disabilities are allowed accommodations for their classes at UT and remain to be seen and respected as quality members of the campus. We, the social, ambitious, and hard-working students with disabilities, can handle the classes and the work and even do so while juggling doctors, constant physical inaccessibility, and suffering the mental illnesses that coincide with many disabilities like anxiety and PTSD, but it's the lack of inclusion on campus and within the organizations that make it all that much harder. The lack of campus inclusion for students with disabilities, the lack of follow-through on rules/regulations required of professors/colleges to ensure student safety (mentally and physically), and the mere tolerance rather than acceptance, is a large detriment to the overall performance ability of the student here at UT and for years to come post-grad.

The ripple effect on the lives of students with handicaps starting with the lack of recognition they receive amidst the entire culture of UT is more severe than people realize.

A strong community in college, often created/found in student organizations, not only make the transition into and out of this phase of life easier, but it also...

  • Builds one's self-esteem and stimulates self-discovery
  • Offers opportunities to engage with a diverse group of people
  • Helps students learn time management skills 
  • Aids the student in find networking contacts, resume/career preparation
  • Helps create a community to share information to better navigate the large university and the many opportunities and resources it offers
  • Develops student leadership skills
  • Offers opportunities to have philanthropy experience
  • Creates a support group of peers for emotional comfort, study assistance, protection for social functions while adapting to college culture and Austin
  • Offers the chance to apply what one learns in class

All of this, in turn, aids maturation, self-discovery, and academic success. According to UT, "accommodations are designed to ensure equal access and to level the playing field versus guarantee academic success." UT sees a ramp as an assistance to the already qualified, however unintentionally disadvantaged disabled student. Our university believes in providing a tool for the student to be successful because the admissions committee believes the student is qualified for higher education opportunities through UT Austin. I guess the question is... what constitutes a necessary tool to a student's success? Where does the university draw a line when it comes to leveling the playing field?

I see accommodations and disability inclusion expectations, regulations, and awareness in UT affiliated student orgs as a way to even the "playing field" due to the massive affect that inclusion in extra-curricular groups can have on a student. How is stimulating an environment of inclusion for the disabled students at UT to care for their mental/physical health any different than providing support groups for the various illnesses/instances/disabilities through the UHS and SSD? The university expects the organizations to take responsibility for hazing and takes it upon itself to require documentation, student contracts, and a term of potential probation if the rules on rush/hazing are broken.

Hazing is any action or situation, with or without the consent of the participants, which recklessly, intentionally, or unintentionally endangers the mental, physical, or academic health or safety of a student.

If the university and the organizations associated with it can create a universal expectation to ensure the safety of the students and apply it to all org. constitutions, then why couldn't UT do the same to help require organization compliance with the accommodations needed for students with disabilities joining the organization? After all, the definition of hazing bares a striking resemblance to the silent injustice that the handicapped students of the University of Texas endure when attempting the mandatory requirements of some organizations created for able. bodied members only with no advertisement or amendment for accommodating students with disabilities. Needing to ask a new peer group for leniency despite the clearly constituted rules or attempting mandatory physical activities intended for able-bodied individuals can be humiliating, and the endangering of one's mental or physical health can occur when peer pressure, rules, or rush requirements have expectations unreasonable for someone in a certain condition. If a disabled student has the right to accommodations for their courses, then why shouldn't they be entitled to reasonable leniency from student organizations. If an group affiliated with UT won't advertise this kind of behavior, in which they're willing to work with a student in a wheelchair or with vision issues or narcolepsy for example, then it can only be assumed that there is underlying discriminatory intentions. That sounds harsh, however, as someone with first hand experience, I can say it's hard not to feel like it's personal in the moment when you're in or looking for an organization.

Why don't they just say something when they feel they're not being included or that the org. is being unfair? Well, acceptance is a huge part of one's experience in college. The need to fit in and the appeal of a potential community often outranks the painful consequences required for the handicapped individual to attend and participate fully in the required organization events/activities. 

I'm not the only one that feels this way.

In a recent article this February in The Daily Texan, Emily Hernandez interviews Kate Strickland who has relied on a wheelchair ever since her car accident her freshman year at UT in 2013. "Strickland, co-director of the Disabilities and Inclusion Agency, is one of the 2,800 students registered with Services for Students with Disabilities, the University’s office that provides accommodations for disabled students. She said one of the biggest challenges coming back from her injury was dealing with peer acceptance." She continues about the social isolation's affect on her studies and quality of life. She describes feeling invisible, like the uncomfortable elephant in the room, or a prop to the social atmosphere. Recently, the stigma and invalidation of many people with invisible/chronic illnesses or disabilities has increased on a federal level. According Cortland's article online, "an Instagram story from a low-pain day or a Facebook post with an old photo could be used against an applicant for disability benefits, a change from the status quo where the agency only looks at social media in cases of suspected fraud." The potential constant social media monitoring is quickly shutting down the vital online communities we use to connect and replace the organizations that we can't keep up with without a few accommodations. "In this climate, it’s easy to understand why disabled people might be afraid, and the consequences of curtailing social media engagement can be immediate and painful." “It is so isolating being really sick, especially when you have something unusual enough that you don’t know anyone else who has it. To find someone like you can make you feel less lonely,” said Rachel Graves said in response to this proposal and counter movement. This is why we need to open our arms and amend our club constitutions to include accommodations for disabled members of our UT community.

 

                                          WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?


So, while UT chants "what starts here changes the world", we ask them to take a moment as we protest with the phrase "what's included here changes the world".

  1. Include us in your culture outside of the classroom, and we'll change the world when we come back to our studies.
  2. Include us in the university climate, and we'll change the world post-graduation because we will have had the opportunity to grow, learn, change, and pursue our dreams with confidence.
  3. Include us in the conversation, and we'll change the world for others that are marginalized or ostracized.
  4. Include us in the legislation of UT affiliated groups and we'll be able to participate in the manner you push us and want us to. The physical features of UT are unkept and outdated in terms of accessibility. "DASC vice president Emeline Lakrout said that there are several less obvious issues on campus for disabled people, including braille on classroom doors either being above the door or only saying the word “classroom” with no room number, and electric scooters being left in the middle of sidewalks and wheelchair ramps."

Because if what starts at UT changes the world then I am starting this movement and hoping it's contagious. Even if it doesn't change the world, I know that if UT embraces this, the world of every disabled student here will be changed when both the university and it's social atmosphere validate that they're not a burden. In the end, we all have baggage; the disabled just don't have the privilege to hide all of it.

If I could address these organizations as a whole on this topic, I would say:

There are so many people that are interesting, influential, fun, and spirited that just need the chance to join and grow. How many more amazing potential brothers, sisters, members , people would rush or apply if they knew that their mental illness, disability, or physical limitations would not inhibit them from being a part of this journey? So many of them turn away at these info sessions when they see the expectations and mandatory events/hours/etc. Even if your org has allowed exceptions before for people with sudden tragedies or invisible illnesses like mine, that's only the first step.

Advertise this inclusion! Put a standard accommodation example in your constitution or better yet, your info session. By excluding or staying silent, you're only inhibiting yourself and limiting your organization's potential.

As the Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported, “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” This kind of mental and physical good health has created the opportunity gap between able bodied studies and those with disabilities. One way we can help disability inclusion at UT is make an amendment to the constitutions for fraternities and sororities, and hold UT affiliated organizations accountable for providing accommodations, accepting SSD paperwork to aid compromises on mandatory aspects of social, spirit, or philanthropic groups involving time, physical ability, or payment plans.

Due to the inexcusable epidemic of dangerous hazing and harassment within greek life, there are several regulations, expectations, and mandatory notices within the college constitutions about such behavior every semester. A sorority can be put on probation. Even grades of their members are monitored to be above a 2.5 average. UT does have the power to encourage and demand change amidst the culture of extra curricular organizations, and, luckily, we have an organization that can help now.

"Student Government’s Disabilities and Inclusion Agency recently initiated a project in collaboration with disABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition and the Student Council for Exceptional Children to include disability awareness presentations in the safety and education training for student organization leaders. If implemented, this training would educate student leaders on how to be more inclusive of disabled members."

There are plenty of meetings and orientations already expected of committee members or executive leaders of these organizations at the start of each term or semester, so would it be that absurd to suggest amending the constitution duties to include available disability accommodations or attendance at an inclusion training? Even if it is, this petition could spark awareness of the importance of advertising the open inclusion and not only tolerance but acceptance of students with disabilities in your organization. It's the moral choice, the fair solution, and the UT/Austin way of embracing those that are different.

 

                             MY EXPERIENCE WITH THIS ISSUE IS...


I started this petition because...
Every person I have asked, "Have you ever seen a sorority girl in a wheelchair?" to has said no. But why is that? Can't they volunteer, socialize, and enjoy a sisterhood? I have seen friends quit organizations or my previous service sorority in tears because their mental or physical health snowballed the technicalities of the constitution against them. Something as menial as being late to chapter meeting can ramp up into monetary fines. Being on time to meetings with your sisters shows respect and may not seem menial to some, however in the grand scheme of things to someone just fighting to feel included, involved, alive, and surviving, those minutes here and there, those small lapses, can seem quite small with unnecessarily large consequences.

Especially since no one chooses to be sick.

That makes it all the more frustrating when you have to quit without becoming an alumni because you can't afford the fines because of your medical condition. The alumni status allows you to keep in touch via facebook groups with your sisters and revisit their philanthropic and various social events. When I was a freshman and sophomore at UT, I went to so many information sessions for groups trying to find "my people". I still hadn't found the cause, much less the cure, of my Trigeminal Neuralgia, and was fighting my anxiety and depression all the way through. I wanted a group I could serve the community with, an organization I could create social justice performance art with, or a sisterhood I could rely on as friends. I watched my peers discover life-long friendships, engage in communities, grow and evolve via new experiences, and even meet the person they would eventually marry. I was on the outside the whole time, and the reason why isn't right. I am also not the only one with this story.

 

                                   A PLAY BACKING A MOVEMENT.

I've been drawn to the voices of my fellow Theatre and Dance majors and thanks to the New Works Festival at UT, we found a creative outlet to express ourselves, create artistic activism, and devise a play to exemplify authenticity in one's community. 


The Cohen New Works Festival is producing my original play "The Things We Can't Hear In Silence" at UT in a couple weeks (April 17th/18th). It is devised* pieced of theatre focused around how a the extended empathy one gains after a painful experience, as well as the social isolation of being misunderstood. We follow the narrative of woman who was disabled and returns to her life, yet everything has and must change. We personify that empathy through magical realism and watch her manipulate her surroundings and learn empathy from the outside in. It is a play backing a movement for disability inclusion at the University of Texas at Austin especially among students organizations who do not offer or advertise accommodations for people with disabilities. We are advocating for people to take the active choice and next step of empathy. It's one thing to feel empathy, but acting on it is the key to breaking the silence that has created our social epidemic of disconnection in this digital age.
Lastly, we wanted to practice what we preach, therefore we utilized our own experiences with these concepts and themes when designing and writing the play. The show states that authenticity, honesty, and treating empathy as a verb creates the foundation for a healthy community, so we wanted to embody that and also be authentic, bare, and brave with the audience (many of whom are our peers) to exemplify the behavior we found to be so crucial to living during the process of learning active empathy within the devising stage.
[*devised- the process of creating a show through movement, improv, and discussion/analysis workshops as a team]

Thank you for listening.

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