Talking circle focuses on stigma-reducing and community building for students with disabilities

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A wheelchair lift was installed to to improve Fowler Hall’s accessibility at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Flora Villalobos/The Occidental

The Diversity and Equity Board (DEB)* held its first disability services talking circle of the year at noon Oct. 10 by the Gilman Fountain, according to a flyer advertising the event. Luci Masredjian, director of disability services and student support, said students expressed a desire for stigma-reducing and community-building during the talking circle. Both Masredjian and Chris Arguedas, the new full-time case manager for the Disability Services office, attended the event. Approximately ten other students were present, according to Venitia Boyce (senior), a student life liaison for DEB.

Students at the talking circle discussed creating a space where students with disabilities can come together to support one another and talk about shared frustrations and experiences, according to attendee Margot Hoffman (first year).

“A lot of people don’t really know where to find other people. That’s been my takeaway is there’s not enough community, so it’s hard to find your place,” Hoffman said. “It’s very isolating and it’s also very confusing because there’s no one to really talk to and ask about things. I feel very lucky just because I have talked to someone who’s older, but if you don’t have that you kind of have to fend for yourself.”

Masredjian said the amount of students with accommodations for disabilities, both physical and psychological, is increasing by about one percent every year, with 18 percent of the student body currently having a documented disability. She said many factors are potentially responsible for this growth.

“Many students who can afford to go to a highly selective college probably could afford to get psychoeducational testing and documentation when they were younger,” Masredjian said. “Another reason, that I think is a good one, is that the stigma is reducing a little bit.”

Last year, Masredjian said some students had to wait up to a week and a half to meet with her. The addition of Arguedas to the staff has made the workload much more manageable, according to Masredjian.

“Students are really connecting well with him, which is awesome,” Masredjian said of Arguedas.

Masredjian said community building seems to be prominent in the minds of a lot of students this year. Previous attempts to start a club for students with disabilities haven’t succeeded, according to Masredjian, in part because managing a club can be an added burden for students with disabilities. Both Masredjian and Hoffman said that allies could potentially play a role in making this kind of club successful, as long as they don’t overstep their bounds.

Director of Disability Services, Luci Masredjian, discusses the responsibilities of her position in Berkus Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Flora Villalobos/The Occidental

Arguedas said it’s important to view disabilities as part of an individual’s full self-identity, and that he plans to do more outreach to connect Disability Services with marginalized groups.

“I identify as a queer man of color, and in all of the jobs I’ve held up to this point I’ve wanted to be that representation so folks feel empowered to reach out and get connected to support,” Arguedas said. “Something Luci and I feel very strongly about is taking an intersectional approach.”

According to the 2017 – 2018 Disability Services Office Student Satisfaction Survey Report, only 39% of students agreed that the college promoted disabilities awareness. Arguedas said the office plans to continue to educate peers and faculty about academic accommodations to reduce the stigma around disabilities. Last year, Masredjian and Vivian Garay Santiago, assistant dean of students and director of student success, had multiple meetings with various faculty members to provide information about accommodations and to answer questions, according to Arguedas.

Another theme of the talking circle was the difficulty of navigating mental health and chronic illness, according to Masredjian. She said that the highest percentage of students who currently have accommodations are those with psychological diagnoses and that this is a new trend in the last three to five years. Research in the past decade has indicated a link between psychological disorders and physical illnesses, which Masredjian says likely explains the increase in medical diagnoses the office has seen recently.

Accommodations are also available for students with temporary injuries. For example, Campus Safety offers rides between lower and upper campus for students with restricted mobility. Theresa Nevins (first year) used this service and said it was helpful, though occasionally inefficient.

“Other than rides, I don’t know if there are any other services for temporary injuries. That information isn’t very well advertised, so I could’ve been missing out on other services that would’ve helped my injury,” Nevins said.

Masredjian said the Disability Services office will also try to provide lower-campus housing and meal delivery if needed, but that Occidental’s hilly campus can be a challenge for students will mobility restrictions.

Some buildings on campus were built before the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, posing another challenge for accessibility. Erica O’Neal Howard, senior associate dean of students, said that lifts have been added to older buildings like Fowler and that renovations, such as the 2012–2013 renovation of Johnson Hall, are required to update buildings to the current code, which has provisions for accessibility.

Masredjian said that the Facilities department must use a certain amount of their funds every year to make the campus more accessible and will often come to the Disability Services office to hear what problems students have found. She said she sends out a survey at the end of every academic year to get feedback from students about what could be improved on campus and within the Disability Services office.

“We’re constantly changing policies and procedures based on what student feedback is,” Masredjian said.

Hoffman said that while her experience with Disability Services has been unproblematic so far, current lawsuits against the college and concerns she’s heard from other students are disheartening.

“I’m not sure how to feel about [Disability Services] now,” Hoffman said. “What is the outcome going to be. Is it going to be in my favor or not?”

According to Masredjian, she and Arguedas will be holding the first Students with Disabilities support circle Oct. 24 from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m in the Dean of Students Office. This circle will be open to students with disabilities, with the possibility of opening up future circles to friends and allies.

*Representatives from DEB deferred to the attendees who were present to comment on the talking circle.