The Disability Advocacy Club was recently started to better meet the needs of students with disabilities at Mills College.
Originally suggested by Julia Cohen, Director of Accessibility Services at Mills, the Disability Advocacy Club aims to secure accessible technology, collaborate with staff to make buildings and the Mills farm more accessible, and get larger signs for the campus. Julia Cohen, who was hired at the beginning of this semester, proposed the club in order to create provide better representation for disabled students on campus.
“30 percent of the Mills community is registered with this office,” Julia Cohen said.
Since 30 percent of the student body at Mills identifies as disabled and there was no previous student organization in place for disabled students, club President Katherine Neithercutt felt that the club was needed.
“That’s a big chunk of students and there was no representation,” Neithercutt said.
Although the percentage of Mills students with disabilities is higher than the national average, which is between 11 and 14 percent, Mills College is currently not completely in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but is working toward it.
“No institution is fully in compliance, it’s impossible, it takes time to get things up to standard to be compliant,” Julia Cohen said. “What’s important and what matters to the law is if the institution is taking steps to be compliant, to be more accessible, to meet ADA requirements, so if you are taking those steps then under the law you are less liable.”
This is Julia Cohen’s first year as Director of Disability Services, and the office was not properly staffed for two years prior.
“There was a lot of turnaround, a lot of people came in and didn’t stay in the position, so they did not have a person who oversaw the office for any sustained period,” Julia Cohen said. “As a result of it not being staffed students have gone without accommodations, so it was terrible.”
During the time the office wasn’t filled, many students with disabilities needs were left unfulfilled.
“I struggled a lot last year, I could not get my accommodations,” Neithercutt said. “I think a lot of students struggled with that because nobody was in the position for two years. It was really hard for me.”
Because there is a considerable population of students with disabilities on Mills campus, the staff and faculty were supportive of the new club.
“The faculty and staff here were desperate for help,” Neithercutt said. “They’re really desperate for that perspective, so they were really happy when we formed the organization because they really need help, and they know it.”
Student Meredyth Cohen joined the club to get more involved with organizing around and supporting students with disabilities, particularly mental health issues.
“My biggest passion in life is helping people with mental health issues and learning differences,” Meredyth Cohen said.
Neithercutt says that since many buildings at Mills were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed in 1990, they aren’t all in compliance. In order to be in compliance with the ADA, a building needs to have elevators, ramps and any barriers that impede access by people with disabilities must be removed.
Along with the buildings, there are other parts of Mills, such as the farm, that are inaccessible to many students. The Disability Advocacy Club hopes to relocate the Mills farm so that all students can enjoy it.
“We are going to try to relocate the farm,” Neithercutt said. “Hopefully to a bigger and flatter space and hopefully to a place that has more fertile soil.”
Along with updating buildings, relocating the farm and making bigger signs, Meredyth Cohen hopes that faculty members will consider the needs of their students with learning differences. She believes that it isn’t fair for faculty members to only cater to one type of learning.
“For people with learning differences it’s not an IQ thing, its a processing thing.” Meredyth Cohen said. “You’re still really smart and there’s still ways that you’re going to process information so it’s not ethical to not give students the opportunity to process it in the way that they learn.”
Neithercutt believes that there is a disparity between the disabled and able-bodied community, and that they need to work together to achieve justice.
“Disability goes into every minority and social justice issue that’s on this planet,” Neithercutt said. “Disability is in Black Lives Matter, disability is in the LGBTQ community, it’s in the transgender community, and its in every single minority and social justice problem in the nation.”