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Disability community cites transportation challenges, housing costs as barriers to accessible education

Experience with OAE and fight for permanent community center also among key issues

SHIRLEY CAI / The Stanford Daily

While the lack of a permanent community center has come to the forefront of the student-led push for increased attention to the disability community, the everyday challenges students with disabilities face are less visible. Barriers to getting around campus, higher costs that come with alternate housing and logistical challenges of working with OAE are among such struggles.

Transportation via golf cart

As advertised by the Office of Accessible Education (OAE), students who need one can rent a personal golf cart to get around campus. However, the process for registering for golf carts, overseen not by the OAE but by Parking and Transportation Services (P&TS), takes weeks to complete. First, students must verify their need for a golf cart with a medical certification signed by their doctor. The form is reviewed by P&TS, which then directs students to Santa Clara-based company Turf and Industrial Equipment, from which students must arrange to pick up the cart. Finally, students must complete an online cart safety training and pick up a cart permit from P&TS.

Carts cost $90 per week or $285 per month to rent, plus a $90 delivery and pick-up charge. However, these costs aren’t listed online — students must instead call Turf and Industrial Equipment to find out the rates.

OAE declined to respond to inquiries about financial aid, instead redirecting The Daily to the P&TS website. Stanford’s Financial Aid Office declined to comment as well, redirecting The Daily back to OAE.

As a less costly option, P&TS recommends the Disability Golf Cart Service (DisGo), which is a free transportation service to on-campus locations. The registration process requires completion of a single form that can be completed within minutes. However, DisGo only runs Monday to Friday from 8:15 a.m. to 8:45 p.m, and all rides must be scheduled a day in advance.

“All of the drivers are extremely friendly and it’s made my life (and my health) so much better to have DisGo taking me to and from almost all of my classes,” wrote Anna Mason ’22, a student who relies on DisGo to attend classes, in an email to The Daily.

According to Mason, however, DisGo’s scheduling leaves little room for flexibility or spontaneity. Oftentimes, last-minute decisions to go somewhere else after class are impossible because a cart is picking her up.

“If I want to go over to a friend’s dorm, I have to deal with the medical consequences of walking or biking there, and then getting home,” Mason wrote. “I stayed out of a number of clubs because I didn’t have transportation there and the medical consequences weren’t worth it. My job opportunities on campus are super limited because I have to worry about getting there and back on my own.”

Before using DisGo, Mason attempted to register for a personal golf cart, but immediately faced challenges. She came to campus newly diagnosed and reliant on her cardiologist back home, and had to wait two months to find out that she could not see a doctor here until January. However, this became irrelevant when she found out the cost of a personal golf cart.

“Not being able to pay hundreds of dollars a month for my own cart has made me a social prisoner to my disability; I have to choose every day between having fun and feeling okay,” Mason said.

Trisha Kulkarni ’22 has had issues arriving to class on time due to fully booked slots on DisGo.

“When they have a lot of rides, they don’t really try to schedule it so that nobody’s late,” Kulkarni said. “As a student and having so many things packed together, it can be really hard to just roll with that.”

Housing costs

Golf cart protocol is not the only potential issue for disabled students. Some undergraduates with disabilities require alternate housing that can cost more than twice as much as regular undergraduate housing, according to one student who needs such accommodations. Such students are required to pay these additional charges even when the arrangements are deemed medically necessary, one student said. The student was granted anonymity to preserve her relationship with OAE.

A financial aid officer wrote in a Sept. 10 email to the student that “there is a discussion going on about the University not charging extra for a student who is required to have a housing accommodation due to a disability.”

The officer added that it is not known when the results of that discussion will be disclosed.

University spokesperson EJ Miranda confirmed this in an email to The Daily, saying that discussions “regarding how to enhance housing support for students with disabilities” are ongoing. However, Miranda stated that “no proposals have been finalized.”

“For now, students with disabilities and their families bear the burden of these additional costs,” the student said.

Beyond financial issues, disabled students also face stigma from their surrounding community and must navigate institutional challenges.

“I feel like a lot of kids just don’t know how to respond to disability despite [their] best efforts,” Mason said.

According to Rachel Wallstrom ’20, member of Disability Equity Now and of the disabled community, students with disabilities have to deal with not only academic stress but also the specific issues that revolve around their disability.

“I think the whole ‘duck syndrome’ tendency of people here at Stanford really prevents people from talking about real, persistent hardships,” Wallstrom said.

OAE and disability community center

Students report mixed experiences with OAE, but widely feel that a community center is necessary to supplement the work of the administrative office.

“In my experience, the OAE has been nothing but a positive, helpful place for me to go and receive the accommodations that I need,” Wallstrom said. “I know that hasn’t been the case for everyone.”

The OAE is responsible for providing services to students with disabilities on campus “to remove barriers to full participation in the life of the University,” the OAE website states.

Kulkarni expressed the same sentiments as Wallstrom but also spoke to the time and effort put into meeting accommodations.

“I haven’t had too many issues with getting materials on time, but I definitely think that there is a lot more that is involved with accommodations that people don’t realize, philosophy-wise,” Kulkarni said. “The purpose of disability services is to be giving you equal opportunity in the classroom, but there are many other factors to consider when achieving this goal. For example, a lot of responsibility is placed on the student to be proactive with their academic plans.”

Kulkarni, who is blind, also recounted how she needs to notify OAE weeks in advance if she plans on taking a STEM class. While she understands the logistical necessity, she wishes she had the flexibility of any other student when it came to shopping classes.

“The reality is that accessible materials take time to make, but they are also necessary for success and independence academically,” Kulkarni said. “This makes the add-drop process more challenging and creates stress about choosing wisely on the first try.”

As reported by OAE, the office serves around 18 percent of the total student body — comparable to the size of the Asian-American population on campus.

“Supporting a student population this size is a massive endeavor,” said Lindsey Felt Ph.D. ’15, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric who teaches the course titled “The Rhetoric of Disability.”

Given the size of the population and nature of the office, Wallstrom recognizes that the OAE is not a cure-all for the problems that students with disabilities face.

“The OAE has been my friend, but what you can’t find at the OAE is a sense of belonging,” Wallstrom said. “You can find yourself in a room with your advisor, talking about what you need and how that’s not being met at Stanford — with the goal of giving you tangible accommodations. It’s not counseling, it’s not therapy. They’re not there to help you manage that stress.”

Wallstrom cited the need for a sense of belonging as the crux of why a disability community center is necessary. She also stressed the idea of disability being an identity, with the idea that the disability community does not come together because of their shared medical issues, but because of the shared stigmas and hardships that they face.

According to Felt, the establishment of this community center would signify a marked change in the way the Stanford public views disability — not just as a medical condition, but as an identity.

“[It] would undoubtedly mark a significant turning point in support for students with disabilities and their allies,” Felt said. “But equally important, if not more so, is the permanent staffing of this center so that it is a living resource for students and community-building, and not just a gathering space.”

Currently, activist groups are waiting for the Vice Provost for Student Affairs committee to release a revised process on how to become a community center, and hope to use that to petition for a disability community center. In the meantime, students with disabilities cross their fingers and hope for change.

“We could be having conversations about … social or economic implications of disability and working to make the campus more accessible overall, including providing mobility assistance to disabled students at reduced or no cost,” Mason said.


Contact Anushree Thekkedath at anuthekk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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