Bryan Stromer, a senior at Vanderbilt University, writes that colleges can do better for students with disabilities. — Susan Svrluga

I used to be afraid of seeing my reflection in windows.

I would glance into these windows and see my walk, a stride that is slightly off balance and resembles that of a drunk person. This walk is the lifelong reminder that there was a lack of oxygen to my brain during my birth — the evidence that I have cerebral palsy.

As I walk across the stage at my graduation from Vanderbilt University Friday, I can proudly say that I am no longer afraid of my stride. I owe part of this growth to the opportunities that Vanderbilt has provided me to study and discuss disability culture in classes, such as “Cultural Diversity in American Education.”

But outside of the classroom, there is a sense of shame around disability at Vanderbilt.

This shame is evident by the fact that at a university that is home to one of the top special education graduate programs in the country, the only space Vanderbilt dedicates to serving its own students with disabilities is the unwelcoming Baker building, far from the heart of campus, that primarily houses ancillary functions of the university.

The idea of separating people with disabilities is a dated approach that is reflective of a time when individuals with disabilities were warehoused in schools and hospitals, far removed from society.

This separation stands in contrast to what is being taught to aspiring special educators across campus, where inclusive settings are now common practice in special education.

The most logical reason that I have heard for Vanderbilt’s annexing of the Disability Services Center is that the university wants to protect the anonymity of students who visit disability services.

Unfortunately, as a person with a visible disability, I have never had the luxury of hoping that people do not notice the way that I walk.

Disability services fall under a department that is responsible for ensuring that Vanderbilt follows federal laws since the university receives federal funding.

The focus on compliance allows students with disabilities to survive on Vanderbilt’s campus. But surviving is different from thriving.

My junior year, I walked into one of Vanderbilt’s academic buildings to attend a professor’s office hours. As I walked through the hall looking for the professor’s name, a woman stopped me and asked if I was lost. I told her that I was going to visit a professor for office hours and asked if she knew where this professor’s office was. She gave me the room number and told me it was upstairs.

As I walked toward the stairs, she began to scream: “The elevator is this way! The elevator is this way!”

I acknowledged her, but kept walking toward the stairs. She launched into a full sprint toward me shouting that the elevator was the other way. I, too, launched into a sprint up the stairs.

This was not a compliance issue; this incident was caused by a lack of understanding of disability.

For the past three years, I have acted as a resident adviser. Each year, I watch as representatives from offices like LGBTQI Life, Social Justice and Identity, and others come and conduct inclusiveness training surrounding the groups that their offices represent.

Each year, the onus falls on me and some other students with disabilities to ensure that a comment or two about disability is included.

One time, I stood in the lobby of one of the main dorms on Vanderbilt’s campus and stared at a set of posters. The posters promoted a community service trip and were hung all around campus.

One poster read, “Spend Your Spring Break Working with Farm Animals.” The other said, “Spend Your Spring Working with People with Disabilities.”

My identity is not interchangeable with farm animals.

In the past few years, the university has invested heavily in diversity and inclusion. These investments include the appointment of the university’s first chief diversity officer, the creation of the Office of Social Justice and Identity, and additional staff being hired by the Office of the University Chaplain and Religious Life, and the office of LGBTQI Life.

However, despite various students, staff and faculty advocating for improvements for those with disabilities, the university continues to relegate disability to simply being a compliance issue.

Institutions, such as Yale, the University of Chicago, Stanford and the University of Michigan, have set up committees of university leaders, professors and students who report on and address challenges facing people with disabilities on their respective campuses. Syracuse University has even created a Disability Cultural Center.

However, on most American college campuses the view of disability still rarely touches upon culture and student needs.

One in five Americans has a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And one in 10 students on American college campuses identifies as having some form of a disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is not a group whose culture should be forgotten or overlooked.

As a pioneer in the fields of education and disability, Vanderbilt must also be a leader in serving its own students with disabilities.

I am proud to be graduating from Vanderbilt, and I am hopeful that one day Vanderbilt can be proud of me and my identity.

At a time, when the disability rights movement appears to have been temporarily confused or forgotten by our elected and appointed officials, it is more important than ever for all institutions, including Vanderbilt to take a stand and ensure that the disability rights movement does not come to a halt.

When disability is neglected to office buildings at the backs of campuses, students who have a disability at the front of their identities are also neglected.

Windows should not be the only reflection of disability on our college campuses.

A spokeswoman for Vanderbilt sent this response to Stromer’s opinion piece: 

We want all of our students to be able to fully take part in and feel included in our university community — and we continue to explore ways for our students to do so. As part of its mission, Vanderbilt is committed to research and teaching that furthers the inclusion of people with disabilities, and to providing direct services to members of our campus community. Our Disability Services Program provides a wide range of support services to students based on individual student need, and strives to accommodate students’ requests — whether it is for academic assistance or for accommodations that will help them feel physically safe as they navigate our campus. We also make training available to students, faculty and staff to address campus culture and to help our community members enhance their ability to respond to difference with respect and understanding.
Much work is currently underway, and will continue, to ensure all students with disabilities, and all members of our community, are fully included on our campus and have full access to all opportunities and resources at Vanderbilt. This work has ranged from tours of the campus with students with disabilities that have resulted in immediate physical changes to the campus, to meetings between students with disabilities and members of the university’s leadership team to inform a systematic accessibility survey for the entire campus that will occur this summer. Vanderbilt also has made accessibility and universal design a focus of its long-range land-use planning and has sought student help in this effort through Vanderbilt Student Government, which also has made addressing accessibility a key area of focus as part of their input.
We are dedicated to the ongoing work of ensuring that all members of the Vanderbilt community feel supported and both “seen” and “heard” on our campus.”