While seeking accommodations via Student Accessibility Services, some report unfair treatment; others draw attention to understaffed office

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When one student sought accommodations, she reported a negative experience. "This is a student accessibility thing," she said. "This is how they treat everyone who they don’t think fits into their perfect little box of disorders.” SARAH SMITH / THE FLAT HAT

During the spring 2018 semester, Hannah, a senior who has asked that her last name be withheld from publication in order to protect the confidentiality of her accommodations, entered the Student Accessibility Office to discuss her living conditions for the following year. Hannah had been diagnosed with idiopathic hypersomnia, a condition that causes her to fall asleep and become excessively drowsy throughout the day. Before receiving medication, she described how she would often fall asleep while driving, in class, in the movies and at other events she would attend. 

 At the College of William and Mary, students like Hannah who may need support due to mental health, wellness or accessibility concerns and any other experiences that may put at risk their academic and personal well-being can seek support through Student Accessibility Services or Care and Support Services, both under the umbrella of the Dean of Students Office.   

According to Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Accessibility Service Lesley Henderson, the mission of SAS is to assist students with diagnosed conditions, striving to create a barrier-free environment for those students. 

“Student Accessibility Services strives  to foster student independence, to encourage self-determination, to emphasize empowerment and accommodation over limitation, and to create a comprehensive, accessible environment to ensure that our community values persons with disability based on contribution instead of deficit,” Henderson said in a written statement. 

Care and Support Services, according to Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Care and Support Services Rachel McDonald, hopes to empower students and assist them during difficult times. McDonald said that the mission of Care and Support Services is to “provide advocacy, outreach, and support services.” 

‘Basically, she gaslighted me’

In preparation for her meeting with SAS, Hannah acquired doctor notes and a polysomnography, a sleep study that confirmed that she would be best accommodated through living in a single room her senior year. In the notes written by her doctor, it was explained that such accommodations would allow Hannah to use her sound machine, as well as control room temperature and overall room environment freely and without any inconvenience to a roommate. 

For her meeting, Hannah sat down with Henderson to discuss the accommodations she needed as recommended by her doctor. 

“Basically, she gaslighted me,” Hannah said. “That was my main feeling. She kind of was making me feel like I made it up like [idiopathic hypersomnia] wasn’t something people could actually struggle with, and that was really disheartening because before I was diagnosed I had been told a lot that I needed to just stop being lazy and trying to sleep all the time.” 

After being diagnosed, Hannah hoped her diagnosis would help change people’s perspectives and allow them to better understand why she was having issues staying awake, but quickly discovered that many people could not understand why she could not control her situation. 

“Accessibility is in the name,” Hannah said. “I thought they were supposed to be an advocate for anyone who needed accommodations or accessibility. They were supposed to be supportive and understanding and they were supposed to hear you out, and try to see where you are coming from and try to empathize with what you’re going through. And that really was not how I felt, at least with [Henderson].” 

After her initial meeting with SAS, Hannah said she was unsure about following up with the office, because she did not believe anyone would take her seriously. After speaking with her friends, she heard that other students shared similar experiences.

“At first I thought that this was just me overreacting or this was just like a one-time occurrence or something, and then, I started hearing these horror stories from some of my friends whose experience were much worse than mine,” Hannah said. 

“At first I thought that this was just me overreacting or this was just like a one-time occurrence or something, and then, I started hearing these horror stories from some of my friends whose experience were much worse than mine,” Hannah said. “And so I was like wow, this is not just a me thing, this is a student accessibility thing. This is how they treat everyone who they don’t think fits into their perfect little box of disorders.” 

In April 2018, Melissa Hudson ’19 attempted to take her own life, but was stopped by her girlfriend and another friend. As a preventative measure, Hudson’s girlfriend filed a CARE report under the Office of Care and Support Services and Hudson was called into the Dean of Students Office the following day. 

Hudson was called into Care and Support Services while she was at a COLL 300 symposium. The Dean of Students Office left a message for Hudson stating that she had to come into the office immediately, but did not explain the reasoning behind the request. In response, Hudson returned the phone call and informed them that she was unable to come as she was in the middle of the symposium. 

According to Hudson, she was informed that if she did not come in immediately, a police escort would be sent and she would be forcefully removed by campus police from the symposium. In the office, Hudson said she wanted to convince the woman she met with that she was not a danger to herself and others, but felt that decisions had already been made about her next steps without consulting her.

Hudson was then escorted to the Counseling Center, which she felt sent the message that she was not to be trusted. In the Counseling Center, it was decided that Hudson would be sent to the hospital. Hudson was escorted by campus police, despite her request that her girlfriend drive her instead.

“We were driven to the hospital in the back of a cop car,” Hudson said. “It’s really great, there are bars on the windows, there aren’t door handles in the back. It feels very much like you’re a criminal.”

At the hospital, Hudson met with doctors and a psychiatrist who worked at the hospital, and was eventually approved to return to campus. Hudson later learned that she would be required to leave campus for an extended, but unspecified, amount of time.

“This was the first time that I had heard of that,” Hudson said. “No one, none of the people from the school, not the Dean of Students Office, not the Counseling Center and no one up until that point had mentioned that I might have to leave campus for some period of time. I had told the [psychiatrist] that I don’t think that would have been the best for me right now. It was a week before finals started.”

Hudson’s parents drove up from Richmond, Virginia, arriving between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. Her ID was deactivated so she could not enter her residence hall room, and she was escorted by her Resident Assistant to grab any clothes or objects she needed. Hudson was allowed to return the following Monday, and has since been required to attend meetings at the Counseling Center and Dean of Students Office.

“It very much felt that their priority was to get me off-campus as quickly as possible” Hudson said. “If I was going to hurt myself it was better for them if I was going to do it at home, then if I were to do it on their watch.”

Hudson has to meet with Care and Support Services once every semester and is required by the school to attend off-campus counseling every week, for which she has to pay $85 out of pocket per session.  

“The perceptions or experiences of this student (or these students) saddens me,” Henderson said in a written statement. “The Dean of Students Office and Student Accessibility Services staff work hard every day to meet the needs of students,” Henderson said.  “We hope any student who believes they have been ‘gaslighted’ or otherwise ‘mistreated’ will engage in direct conversation with us.”

‘Henderson’s door is always open’

Some students, however, do report positive experiences with SAS.

Morgan McCarthy ’20 said that Henderson was there for her when she was struggling with her mental health. She was referred to SAS by the Counseling Center and felt that SAS was helpful in accommodating her needs in an individual way.

“[Henderson’s] door is always open, basically,” McCarthy said. “I can always make an appointment and if anything in my situation changes. She’s made it very clear that I can go to that office to address it.”

“[Henderson’s] door is always open, basically,” McCarthy said. “I can always make an appointment and if anything in my situation changes. She’s made it very clear that I can go to that office to address it.”

Sarah Miner ’19 worked with SAS during her sophomore year because she was injured and was using their golf cart service. She described the process as relatively easy and said that she was immediately put into the system, despite still needing paperwork and had good interactions with Henderson and the broader office.

Alison, a graduate student, who has asked that her last name be withheld in order to protect the confidentiality of her accommodations, has interacted with SAS through her role in Corpus, a group that advocates for individuals with disabilities.

Her work with Corpus has involved filling in the gaps that SAS cannot provide, such as distributing flyers and providing students with information about how to talk with their professors. Corpus also tries to communicate student goals with SAS like promoting health for students with disabilities during Orientation.

Alison said that it is not necessarily SAS that causes the problems, but the gap in communication between students and administration. She said that students do not necessarily see the complexity of the administrative processes, and that the administration does not have a clear grasp on the effects their work has on student life.

“This College is not for you,” Alison said. “And this college is even better than most. William and Mary is still a primarily undergraduate institution. It’s really mind boggling when you think of it, but the College is a corporation.”

Mariah Vaughn ’19 said she was surprised with her interaction with SAS because she had a more positive experience compared to what she had heard about the office from friends. Vaughn said that most of the pushback concerning the accommodations she was provided was from professors. She also said that she believes she had a positive experience with SAS because she was in a position in which she could advocate for herself.

In addition to working with SAS, Vaughn had to work with the Care and Support Services. While Vaughn said that she often felt that Care Support Services staff members acted in a patronizing way toward her, she saw it as the College attempting to reduce liability.

“I think that it’s very sad that students are seen as liabilities when they’re struggling with mental health or disability stuff, or whatever it is,” Vaughn said. “It’s a reality, and I think William and Mary has internalized that, especially with the suicides that happened before we got here, and for that reason it’s pretty cold in the way it treats students like when they might be seen as a liability.”