Monday, December 6, 2021

How Yale-NUS Disables Students and How We Can Do Better

Story by | Xie Yihui, Editor-in-Chief (she/her), Alexander Goh, Guest Writer (he/him)
Photo by | Martin Choo (he/him)
Feature Image/Illustration by | Sun Woo Yoon (he/they)

We are currently seeking volunteers to translate this article into an easy-read version. Please email yncoctant@gmail.com if you are interested! Know more about what is easy-read and why we are doing it here.

Content warning: This piece contains language that degrades disabled people (under “How College Culture Disables Students”), personal accounts of traumatic experience, and references to suicides (both under “Content Warnings: Too Little, Too Late?”). Reader discretion is advised. 

A note on language and anonymity*: This piece will use a mix of person-first (people or students with disability) and identity-first language (disabled students, the disabled) to respect different preferences and identities in the community. Due to the private and sensitive nature of some of the personal testimonies, we have anonymized the identities of these interviewees. Pseudonyms are marked with asterisks (*) at the first mention. 

Yale-NUS College prides itself on embracing diversity.

A casual glance at our website and social media reveals the college’s ostentatious dedication—nay, celebration—of the strengths we derive from our differences. But does our university truly live up to its principles? With great diversity comes an equally great variety of backgrounds and needs. Recognizing and accommodating these needs isn’t a sign of cultural goodwill or a show of political correctness; it is a fundamental human right.

According to Mike Oliver, disability rights activist and the first Professor of Disability Studies in the world, there is a key distinction between having an impairment and having a disability. While variations in one’s physiology might result in physical, psychological, intellectual, or sensory impairments, it is not the impairment itself that disables people.

Society disables people. 

It disables individuals by creating physical, institutional, and cultural barriers that make life much harder. Collectively, barriers reduce choice, erode independence and subject individuals to a psychologically grueling regime perpetrated by their peers and mentors. Barriers are erected when architects envision only one body type when designing buildings, when professors assume that all their students have the same learning needs, and when peers use language that degrades disabled people. Are these infrastructural, institutional, and cultural barriers present in Yale-NUS?

The Octant set out to answer this question through a series of interviews with members of the college administration and seven students.

At this point, some of you might be thinking: why should I care? I don’t have an impairment. I don’t have mobility needs. I don’t need learning accommodations. To which the authors say: not right now, you don’t. Creating a more inclusive and accessible campus benefits everyone, from students who may need timely learning accommodations due to sudden burnout, to folks who may temporarily require mobility aids because of a sports injury. It is in our collective interest to ensure that Yale-NUS does not disable its students. Regrettably, we learned that not only does the college disable students, but it does so in a multitude of insidious forms.

And to some degree, we are all complicit.

Getting Around Campus: How Buildings Disable Students 

Accessible buildings are not just about designing routes around the college without stairs. It is also about making sure students know where these routes are and ensuring that these routes are actually accessible in practice.

For Max, an exchange student from The New School, figuring out accessibility routes was a matter of trial and error. Max attended Yale-NUS in the spring of 2020, and she was none too impressed by the school’s infrastructural accessibility.

“I have several disabilities and medical issues but the main one that affects my movement is my deformed hip,” Max tells us. She  finds walking and raising her legs difficult, and notes that “walking downstairs is possible on most days, but going up the stairs is terrible.” Without elevators, it would be physically impossible for Max to move around campus.

She had informed the Yale-NUS Infrastructure Office about her mobility needs prior to her arrival. Yet, when she got here, she did not receive any guidance on how she could get to her classes. No one taught her how she could reach the library without taking the stairs leading up to Cafe Agora. Max had little other recourse than to walk around campus on her own, trying out different routes so she could avoid getting stuck anywhere with stairs.

One would think that students with mobility needs might have benefited from orientation or a guided tour of the accessibility routes across campus akin to those given in the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), but this was not offered to Max during her stint at Yale-NUS.

She is not alone in this experience. 

Joshua Choo ‘24, who regularly uses a wheelchair, had also informed the school of his disability before his arrival. Like Max, he was not given an orientation to identify accessible routes on campus.

While the campus has erected signs outlining accessible routes across campus, they seem to have garnered little attention. Neither Choo nor Max were aware of their existence and as such, the signs have not benefited the duo.

A picture of accessible route map at Cendana College
Fig. 1: One of the accessibility maps at Cendana College Tower B. Photo by: Martin Choo

One might chalk these signs’ obscurity up to the lack of publicity surrounding them, or simply, to their position on the walls. After all, displaying these signs at the eye level of standing visitors makes them inaccessible to wheelchair users, who have a lower line of sight.

Even after figuring out which routes could be taken without running into a set of stairs, our interviewees were confronted with an unfortunate fact: Though these routes did not require them to use the stairs, they remained less than accessible in numerous respects.

A picture showing a steep and unsheltered slope in between two lines of greenies.
Fig. 2: Steep and unsheltered slope in front of Cendana College, near the science block. Photo by: Martin Choo

For one, these routes are lengthy, complicated, and unwieldy. Max laments that the “accessible route was always the longest way to get anywhere.”

Additionally, some routes are unsheltered from the elements, which is prohibitively inconvenient for those who cannot access the stairs. The pathway from Cendana to the Multi-Purpose Hall, for instance, is notorious for being unsheltered and too steep to use on rainy days.

Recalling her experiences from when she had temporarily used a wheelchair, a student who wishes to be known as Taylor* recounts what it was like to commute back and forth to class from her residential college.

Taylor, who lives in Cendana, is critical of the routes connecting it to the rest of the school. When it rains, she recalls, it is “very difficult to get around.” The slope in front of the Science Centre was not an option for her (Fig. 2) due to its lack of cover and sharp incline, Taylor notes that it was impossible to wheel herself up the steep, wet slope during a torrential downpour.

“My only alternative to get back to the suite is to move outside the school from the art studio to the Cendana Tower B gate—which is also not sheltered!” she tells The Octant. “This made it very difficult to get around when it was raining.”

Even when she had help, getting from Cendana to the rest of the campus proved challenging. “Even with umbrellas, it was hard to shelter both the person pushing and the person in the wheelchair,” Taylor recalls. “And it is extremely slow and scary because of the wet floor.”

Indeed, we realized that the limited accessibility of ramps is a sore point for those with mobility needs. When we asked Choo how well he thought our campus was doing in terms of infrastructural accessibility, the wheelchair user drily remarks: “Not that great.”

A picture showing a steep slope of around 100 meter long on campus. There are some pillars on the left of the slope.
Fig. 3: The ramp from the Oculus is challenging by virtue of its length and steepness. Photo by: Martin Choo

“On paper, the campus looks accessible. For instance, there are many ramps around campus. But in practice, the slopes are often very steep, and it’s hard to use them without your friends’ help.” The ramp from the Oculus is especially challenging, he tells us, because of its length and steepness (Fig. 3).

All in all, getting to one’s destination on campus has proven to be isolating, inconvenient, and at times, impossible without help. And once you do get to your destination—well, sometimes you can’t get through the door. Literally.

A great many doors on campus are inaccessible for wheelchair users due to their weight and the fixed direction in which they swing. Additionally, some doors have an elevated threshold at the bottom of their frame, making it extremely difficult for wheelchair users to traverse the door without help.

The metal door from Elm College to the upper level of the Performance Hall, overlooking the Oculus, has all three traits: it is heavy, set to swing outwards, and has an elevated threshold that prevents wheelchair users from wheeling in without significant effort. It is an issue that affects all who wheel into the Performance Hall—one of the authors has personally witnessed elderly custodial staff struggling to push their cleaning carts over the threshold.

A picture of a dark-colored wooden door with a stainless steel plate that says: Dressing Room
Fig. 4: As one of the many inaccessible doors, the Performance Hall’s dressing room door is known to be heavy and difficult to open. Photo by: Martin Choo

The interior of the Performance Hall is no better. Many doors, such as the dressing room doors, are made of heavy cherry oak in homage to Yale University. In an ironic twist, this homage comes at the price of inclusivity—these heavy wooden doors (Fig. 4) are unidirectional, and are extremely difficult to open should one be using a wheelchair or other mobility devices.

As if to twist the knife deeper, Taylor points out that even so-called “accessible” washrooms fail to live up to their designation: “Some of the wheelchair-accessible washrooms have a bump at the door, which kind of defeats the purpose of being wheelchair-accessible.” (Fig. 5)

A picture showing a 0.5 cm bump at the entrance of a toilet.
Fig. 5: The bump on the floor at the entrance of Saga College’s handicapped toilet. Photo by: Martin Choo

Having inaccessible doors bars students with disabilities from accessing common areas without assistance. In other words, they are forced to become reliant on others. When using his wheelchair, Choo has trouble accessing the library without the help of his friends. He tells us: “The library doors swing outwards, so you need a friend to hold them open while you’re wheeled in.” Without aid, the Yale-NUS library—a hallowed space for learning, self-improvement, and community-building—is wholly closed off to Choo when he is in his wheelchair.

Jos Boys, an expert in architectural design for the disabled, wrote in her book Disability, Space, Architecture that in public spaces, to be “ordinary and normal” is to be “independent, autonomous, mobile and have the appearance of mental competence.” Thus, if one constantly requires others’ help to move around campus, the campus is not truly accessible.

The unpleasant experiences of people with physical disabilities on campus show that some of the “accessible” designs on campus are tokenistic at best. This reflects a lack of consideration of inclusive design when the planners were conceptualizing campus infrastructure.

Our community is now paying the price for these oversights. At the end of our interview, Choo reminds us that having an accessible campus is important not only for students but also for faculty members: “The faculty offices are inaccessible for people in a wheelchair. When I enter these spaces, I need friends to hold the door open for me.”

“What about staff members with disabilities?” he asks.

Choo makes a salient point—if we are to create a truly inclusive learning and working space, we’ll have to step up in terms of infrastructural accessibility. Failing to do so has an additional insidious implication: potential staff members with disabilities might be disincentivized from joining Yale-NUS due to its infrastructural inaccessibility.

Yale-NUS claims to be an equal opportunity employer, dedicated to building a diverse community of faculty and staff. They can hardly make that claim if potential applicants can’t wheel into their offices.

Getting Learning Accommodations: How Administrative Protocols Disable Students 

Getting around campus is but one aspect of accessibility. While Yale-NUS does not have an access office per se, it has tried to meet these student needs through the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a department that aims to “improve learning outcomes for students with physical, cognitive, and psychological conditions that inhibit academic success.”

To that end, the CTL is responsible for facilitating accessibility provisions, including the arrangement of learning accommodations for students. To receive these accommodations, students must first consult with doctors from the University Health Centre (UHC). After receiving the recommendations from the UHC, the CTL then implements them, whilst also developing protocols to support both students and faculty.

It seems a fairly straightforward process until we reviewed each step of the application. Our research and interviews reveal that the application process for learning accommodations remains opaque and cumbersome, with several noteworthy gaps in the CTL’s administrative policies.

The CTL Website: A Lack of Web Accessibility and Content Organization

The very first step in seeking out accommodations is to find out how one might apply for them. As mentioned earlier, the CTL is responsible for providing such information. To do so, its website provides an infographic and a list of 26 uncategorized FAQs that cover questions on eligibility, cost, roles of different departments, the application process, and the renewal process for accommodations. Although well-intentioned, there are a few egregious gaps in the website’s format and content.

Firstly, the CTL page is, by and large, not web-accessible.

As the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines it, a website, tool, or technology is accessible if it is designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use it. Unlike at Yale University, web accessibility is not at the forefront of Yale-NUS’s site design considerations. The CTL website does not adhere to W3C standards, ironically rendering the page inaccessible to persons with certain disabilities. For instance, the infographic on the CTL site has neither alt-text nor an image description, making it inaccessible to those who are blind or with low vision.

A picture showing the infographic at the CTL's website
Fig. 6: The existing infographic on CTL’s website is neither accessible nor comprehensive enough to guide first-time applicants of learning accommodations. Credit: Centre for Teaching and Learning

Furthermore, little heed is paid to color contrast, font sizes, or the clarity of these fonts, and the written content on the page lacks a plain English complement.

These measures are important to ensure that web pages are accessible to people with sensory and intellectual disabilities. Given its monetary resources and avowed commitment to accessibility, Yale-NUS could do better in terms of web accessibility. Why hasn’t it?

Additionally, the CTL website could stand to improve how it conveys content. While the FAQs do cover several student concerns, it might be difficult to navigate the site when one is trying to find information relating to a specific area, such as eligibility (Fig. 7).

A screenshot of the information page shows that questions on the roles of different departments, timeline, and eligibility are mixed in the FAQs list. Image credit: Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning
Fig. 7: A screenshot of the information page shows that questions on the roles of different departments, timeline, and eligibility are mixed in the FAQs list. Image credit: Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning

By contrast, Yale College’s web page on accessibility is neatly organized and comprehensive. It has dedicated sections addressing different demographics and scenarios, such as exams, dining, transport, and housing, all in one page (Fig. 8).

A screenshot of Yale College’s accessibility service page, which provides information for someone who first started applying for access. Source: Yale College Student Accessibility Services
Fig. 8: A screenshot of Yale College’s accessibility service page, which provides information for someone who first started applying for access. Source: Yale College Student Accessibility Services

Administrative Delays

Even after a student with a disability receives their recommendations from the UHC, it might take a while for them to receive the appropriate accommodations. This was experienced by James*, who had to spend weeks in limbo waiting for the CTL to communicate their learning accommodations to their professors.

James is a Yale-NUS undergraduate who had depression before enrolling in college and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in the latter half of 2020. As a result, James obtained learning accommodations last semester. Knowing that they would need learning accommodations for an additional semester, James sought out their psychiatrist in the preceding winter break. Their psychiatrist re-affirmed their diagnosis of depression and renewed their existing referral during the break. James “sent it to CTL almost immediately.”

“But what was communicated to me,” they say, “was that [Registry] will only inform the professors around Week 3 or 4 of the semester.”

Prof. Catherine Sanger, Director of the CTL, explains: “Typically, Registry will notify faculty members if a student in their class receives a certain accommodation when Round 3 of module registration is complete, which is usually during the third week of the semester.” She reasons that informing faculty in Week 3 is logistically sensible, given “the amount of course-switching that happens in Weeks 1 through 3.”

Furthermore, she explains that “most courses do not have high stakes assessments until after Week 3.” Lily Seah, Assistant Manager of the CTL, also notes that the professors are only contacted after students have confirmed their courses in Week 3 “so the accommodation information is not shared widely.”

However, should students request immediate accommodations, Prof. Sanger assures us that there are certain situations in which the CTL would inform the faculty of their needs in advance. For instance, she elaborates, “students may request this if their accommodations need to be initiated early, perhaps because a course they are taking has weekly exams or deadlines.”

If the student’s needs pertain to classroom management, such as requiring note-takers and larger font sizes, they will also inform faculty as early as possible to ensure that the student’s learning experience is not compromised.

Yet, this statement does not seem to reflect James’ experiences. According to James, they had explained to the CTL that they had upcoming assignments in Week 3. However, the CTL did not offer to inform the faculty in advance; instead, the CTL recommended that they informally communicate their needs directly with their teachers—a method James found to be problematic in several respects.

Firstly, it provides no guarantees that the professors would provide accommodations for their students. While we do not doubt that most professors would be willing to accommodate their students’ needs, they are not obligated to.

As one might imagine, this uncertainty exacerbated James’s stress more than the situation already did. “This put me in a situation where I was kind of rushing to communicate with my professors about what my assignment deadline should be,” James recounts. “I feel like this should have been communicated [by the CTL] at the start of the semester.”

Secondly, having to informally communicate one’s learning needs to a professor might pressure students to provide more information about their conditions than strictly necessary. According to our interviewees, necessary information refers to information required for the professor to meet their student’s learning needs. Asking for anything more could be construed as an intrusion of privacy – which is what happened to James. They found themselves on the receiving end of questions about the details of their condition that they did not find comfortable answering and that they thought were irrelevant to their learning needs.

“One of my professors asked whether I could share more [about my personal details] so that they could understand my needs better,” James recalls. While they appreciate the sentiment, they pointed out that not everyone feels comfortable sharing the details of their personal, intimate experiences with their professors, who would likely be complete strangers to them at the start of the semester. 

If people with disabilities are forced to expose the intimate parts of themselves to survive in a system, then it would be disingenuous to say that the system is accessible.

How Our Classroom Environment Disables Students 

A picture of Yale-NUS's classroom
Fig.9: Numerous aspects of the classroom are potentially disabling. Photo by: Martin Choo

The classroom is where the primary activities of the college—teaching and learning—take place. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the classroom is a safe, inclusive, and accessible place for all students.

One classroom policy that should be examined is the refinement of content and trigger warnings during lessons. Content warnings can be a crucial accessibility measure in the classroom, as they can accommodate a diversity of experiences.

Many humanities courses (including the mandatory Common Curriculum modules Literature and Humanities) encourage in-depth personal reflection on certain psychological experiences. However, one should consider that the process of reflection might be traumatic or triggering for those who have mental health conditions.

Without content warnings, some materials could potentially deal debilitating blows to a student’s mental health.

This was the case for K*, who was triggered by a passage on suicide in class. For days after the class, they “[wrestled] with suicidal ideation with no knowledge of when [it would] end.” Fortunately, they were able to get an Assistant Dean (AD) note to extend their assignment deadlines while dealing with the psychological aftermath. However, the triggering effect was irreversible, and there was no guarantee that they would be able to recover in time to finish the essays by the extended due date.

“There’s no telling when I’ll ‘get back to normal’ or be able to function normally again.”

In the meantime, to prevent the impacts on their mental health from getting worse, they have to advocate for extensions and other accommodations, which is an emotionally and psychologically taxing process.

While they have an AD note, they still have to specify how much extra time they need while negotiating with their professors: “I basically have to predict when I’ll get better or my professor decides when I’ll get better and grants an extension. Then, asking for alternative assignments is based on individual professors’ discretion. And it’s incredibly disheartening having to go through that process of advocating for yourself whilst you’re mentally or emotionally compromised.”

To prevent the recurrence of such events for them and other students, K stresses that a codified document on how to create and use proper content warnings is needed.

Content warnings flag the contents of the material that follows so that readers, listeners, or viewers can prepare themselves to adequately engage with or, if necessary, disengage from the material for their own wellbeing. Content that warrants warnings includes but is not limited to rape, sexual assault, racial violence, racial slurs, violence against LGBTQIA+ people, self-injurious behavior (depiction of self-harm, eating disorders, etc.), suicide, and suicidal ideation.

However, merely mentioning the topics of potentially sensitive content is not enough. “What makes a content warning useful is actually being detailed and descriptive, such as ‘the n-word is on p. 38’, ‘there is an immersive racial hate crime detailed on pages 18-20’, ‘implied rape’, or ‘explicit rape scene’,” K explains.

“A sentence like ‘she killed herself’ is not as triggering as an in-depth unpacking and close reading of the character’s mind when they are about to commit suicide,” they explains. “So [in the latter case], a useful content warning would be: ‘Content warning: we will be close-reading and unpacking suicidal ideation’.”

K also emphasizes that content warnings must be made before the lesson. A content warning that doesn’t give people ample time and privacy to excuse themselves is insincere: “If your presentation is going to close-read a suicide scene, that’s worth a warning in advance. If you just mumble ‘content warning suicide’ and then start your presentation, do you really create a comfortable space and enough room for me to judge [whether it’ll be triggering]? Also, if I want to leave, won’t I be outing myself to my 12 other classmates? I don’t want them to know this about me.”

“I wish more people understood how scary it is to advocate for yourself by showing your discomfort and leaving,” K tells us. “That’s hard—it means outing yourself.”

How Students Disable Each Other

The empathy of one’s peers, K mentions, makes a huge difference in the college experience.

At times, our interviewees found their fellow students to be shockingly unempathetic to their circumstances. It’s easy to shine a spotlight on the disabling aspects of institutional policies—what’s far more difficult is turning the light upon yourself. The onus of ensuring an accessible college environment should not fall solely on the teaching staff. We all have to play a part in preventing ableism—the unintentional and implicit discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities—from thriving on campus.

In addition to greater respect for people’s privacy, James pointed out that Yale-NUS’s campus culture is unreceptive to bodily, mental, and psychological conditions that do not fall within the “norm.” One of our authors has personally seen numerous cases of their peers disparaging neurodiverse individuals in Yale-NUS.

As someone with ADHD, James found themselves subject to hurtful comments from their peers during everyday activities. They recall often being called “dumb” and “idiot” within recreational settings such as strategy games. Whilst these comments were likely made in jest, their impact on James was anything but humorous. “Due to my condition, I find it hard to focus, plan and strategize within a short time. And comments like this lay blame on me, and frame [my condition] as a personal fault.”

More generally, James opines that “Yale-NUS’s vision statements [champion diversity] but this doesn’t necessarily reflect in the student culture.”

“The campus culture is rather competitive, in which people are competing against one another instead of collaborating. This culture can put in place a lot of unnecessary guilt on the people who are receiving accommodations.”

Other interviewees point out a general assumption among members of the student body that “looking ‘normal’ equals no disability”.

Max thinks that both the students and the school could stand to realize that disability takes many forms. Recounting her experiences in Yale-NUS, Max states that the student community was quick to assume the worst due to the invisibility of her disability.

“People often forget I am disabled because I don’t look it,” she tells us. When she took the elevator to the second floor, she received many dirty looks. “I knew people could have thought I was lazy for taking the elevator to the second floor, but it was necessary for me.”

Max’s experience is not an isolated one. We received similar accounts from other students who had trouble climbing the stairs. Taylor, who had injured her knees before enrolling in college and experiences periodic pains while climbing stairs, reports feeling “paiseh” (a Hokkien way of saying something is embarrassing) about having to take the elevator from the first to the second floor. To circumvent the judgment of her peers, Taylor often elects to bear with her pain and leave for classes early, so she “won’t get called out for taking the lift from first to the second floor.”

Intentionally or otherwise, we are all complicit in creating a disabling environment for those around us. We are all responsible—but that also means we all have an opportunity to change things.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As far as accessibility goes, our college infrastructure, policies, and culture do not pass muster. Still, there is promising news on the horizon. Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students, reiterates that the college is taking a proactive and dedicated stance on improving accessibility. Clarifying the college’s plans, he assures us that Yale-NUS seeks to “elevate and emphasize the kinds of support which the college can offer—financially or otherwise—to students with a range of physical and cognitive learning needs.” The college’s accessibility plans will now be headed by Cory Owen, Associate Dean of Students. “It’s an area that she’s quite passionate about,” Dr. Stanfield adds.

Dr. Owen seems to have bold ideas for improving the college and is aware of the monumental task ahead of her. “We’re looking to create the most efficient model, so we’re looking at different resources now. There’s a lot to unpack.”

What Can the College Administration Do?

Creating infrastructural accessibility in Yale-NUS will not be an easy task. Quite frankly, inclusive design should have been part of the architectural vision from the start. According to one definition from the British Standards Institution, inclusive designs should be “accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible … without the need for special adaptation or specialized design.”

To achieve this, in The Ramp House: Building Inclusivity, authors Thea MacMillian and Katie Lloyd-Thomas offer the following words of wisdom: instead of construing an architectural vision first and then retrofitting accessibility routes and lifts later, design a universally usable route that ensures equal access to all spaces.

We see, then, that our campus design will never be wholly inclusive—after all, you can’t unscramble an egg. Given that Yale-NUS’s architecture is already built, all we can do now is implement step-by-step improvements and modifications.

Dr. Owen outlines the plans to systematically improve Yale-NUS’s physical accessibility: “What we want to do is set up sessions to assess what’s going on, [discover] what the needs are and do an analysis of what’s feasible and what should be prioritized.”

“For example, automated doors are a high priority, but to change every door to an automatic door? That’s going to take years. That cannot be done overnight.”

By comparison, features like accessibility maps are much easier to implement. Dr. Owen assures us that they planned to complete them “in the next couple of months.”

Aware of the complaints that the walkway from Cendana to the rest of Yale-NUS is uncovered, she responds: “That is very much on the Infrastructure team’s radar. The budget [for the shelter] has been approved and the work is planned for Academic Year 2021-2022, though [it is] still subject to authority clearance.”

As for institutional accessibility, the Dean of Students Office and the CTL are committed to improving the learning accommodation application process.

Dr. Owen informs us that the college is “in the middle of revamping accessibility services to increase transparency about eligibility and procedures.” This is a complex task, considering  the sheer diversity of students’ circumstances.

“There are students who come to the college with a diagnosis and those without, requiring separate procedures.” Dr. Owen explains. “What adds to the complexity is that 45% of the student body are international students, each of whom come from countries with different standards for diagnosis and assessment.”

The CTL is also aware of the website’s deficiencies. Sam Hussain ‘22, a Student Associate at the CTL, stressed that students must be given sufficient resources to advocate for themselves. 

Hussain is revamping the CTL’s online resources to provide step-by-step guidance for students with different learning needs. The existing infographic will be changed into a list of check-in questions and actions to be taken for students applying for accommodations. The FAQ will also be turned into a flowchart that directs students in any phase of academic life or any stage of the application process to the information they need.

“It won’t just tell you what you don’t know, it will also tell you what you need to do after you have [completed a certain stage of the application process],” Hussain says.

He will also be crafting tipsheets for communicating with professors and doctors about learning needs.

Hussain—who has ADHD himself—believes that it is important that students with disabilities are able to access these resources so that they can be empowered to communicate their learning needs to their professors: “I am advocating for healthy, identity-centered student empowerment. The more we know about ourselves, and the more we see how our condition manifests in various areas of our lives, the more we slowly but surely learn how best to advocate for ourselves.”

Ultimately, he hopes that by providing sufficient information on the website, he will be able to help students navigate and negotiate in-class accommodations with their professors, thereby increasing their confidence and agency as members of the educational system.

What Can Professors Do?

We do not doubt that the hearts of our faculty members are in the right place. We commend their current efforts to create an accessible classroom environment: Yale-NUS’s guide for inclusive and accessible teaching, for one, provides general guidance for inclusive teaching. Yale-NUS professors are encouraged to adopt universal design which benefits the entire class and, according to practitioners, “offers a way out of the normal vs. needy framework.”

Throughout our interviews, not a single student has portrayed their professors to be unkind or unsympathetic. Laura*, a social science student with ADHD, recounts their positive experiences seeking learning accommodations: “My professors have all been very accommodating and very kind.”

Nevertheless, even when they don’t intend to, professors might end up compromising the mental health of their students. As mentioned earlier, well-intentioned professors might end up pushing the boundaries of their students’ comfort zones when speaking to them about learning accommodations.

When asking questions, professors should be mindful to only ask questions that are relevant to meeting their student’s learning needs. We understand that this is a fine line to toe, and that faculty should do their research into learning how to navigate these conversations.

On the authors’ part, one of us has this advice to offer: when she converses with professors about accommodations for her hearing disability, she thinks questions related to the nature of her disability are relevant—for instance, queries like “can you hear me through this classroom’s AV system?” are fine. However, queries that are not immediately relevant to her learning needs—such as “how did you lose your hearing?”—are unnecessary and intrusive.

Professors should also be wary of assigning more work than their students can handle. In a previous Octant article, Madhumitha Ayyappan ’23 observes that currently, toxic academic expectations are prevalent on campus, due to “academic workloads that far exceed student capacities.” She adds: “This is apparent when one sifts through the college’s Academic Resources Hub on Facebook, where it is not rare to find students expressing their sentiments regarding professors who assign over 100 pages of reading multiple times in a week, sometimes even before the semester has begun.” To remedy this, she suggests reviewing faculty policy on academic expectations and workloads for course offerings.

Ayyappan also suggested that we should inform professors on best practices when it comes to responding to students who require certain learning accommodations.

One best practice that professors can adopt, for instance, is to be open to working with students on crafting their individual learning needs. Recounting her personal experiences, one of the authors remembered how accommodating her professors were last semester in regards to her hearing disability.

When the noise from the air conditioning in certain classrooms made it challenging for her to listen in class, she emailed her concerns to her professors. They responded by switching classrooms until they found a location suitable for her.

In one particular discussion-heavy class, her professor arranged for microphones to be passed around the classroom to ensure audibility. The same professor even checked in with her several times throughout the semester regarding the audibility. All in all, she was heartened to see her professors go the extra mile to make sure her learning needs were met.

Professors could also play a larger role in pushing for better classroom accessibility guides and policies. The guides provided to teaching staff in Yale, for instance, far outstrip ours in terms of comprehensiveness. So do their institutional policies: Yale’s Classroom Media Policy, for instance, explicitly dictates that faculty are responsible for ensuring that all content assigned for the class is accessible for students registered with their Student Accessibility Services. 

Allies within the teaching faculty should advocate for similar policies to be implemented in class. As professors, their positionality in the classroom is one of immense influence. We hope that this influence will be wielded in service of care and inclusivity.

What Can the Community Do?

Before we can create a truly inclusive campus, we need to first take the step of acknowledging that ableism is a problem in Yale-NUS.

Taylor observes that her peers might regard calls for additional accessibility measures as excessive. “Yale-NUS students tend to think that we shouldn’t be so whiny because Yale-NUS already has it a lot better than the rest of NUS, or Singapore in general.” She also notes that there’s an implicit assumption that things in Singapore are better than many other countries—so “why are we complaining so much?”

Well, we disagree.

For one, it seems fallacious to assume that we’re more inclusive than the rest of the nation. In many ways, other educational institutes have outdone us in terms of campus accessibility. For instance, both NUS and NTU inform disabled students of accessibility orientations around campus. Both NUS and NTU assist with internship opportunities and career counseling geared towards disabled students. NTU even has specialized pastoral care and support for disabled students transitioning from junior colleges or polytechnics into university life. For all its self-proclaimed bluster about progressiveness, Yale-NUS could stand to learn a few lessons from its contemporaries in the field of tertiary education.

Secondly, it is reductive to laud Singapore as the global gold standard for accessibility. While this nation has made strides in the realm of physical accessibility, there remains much to be done in terms of inclusiveness—the nation’s lack of anti-discrimination legislature and low employment rate amongst the disabled community being two of the more glaring gaps.

At this point, it’s time to admit that in terms of accessibility, Singapore needs to do better. And more to the point, Yale-NUS needs to do better.

Perhaps one day—sooner rather than later, we hope—we’ll move beyond doing the bare minimum. We shouldn’t just be avoiding ableist slurs—we should be celebrating disability as an identity. We shouldn’t just be ensuring that a place is physically accessible—we should make it a fun, communal place for all. We shouldn’t see disabled students as additional burdens on overtaxed teachers—we should be seeing them as valued contributors to the classroom. Instead of asking questions like “how does this institution disable students?”, one day we’ll be asking: “How can this institution empower students more?” After all, true inclusivity is not merely an absence of barriers: it is the creation of a space where everyone can thrive, regardless of their divergence from the ableist norm.

But first—we’ve got to get rid of those barriers.

Additional resources: 
Disability Language Style Guide by National Center on Disability and Journalism
Trigger Warning Guidelines by Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo

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