The Student Assembly (SA) voted last Tuesday to support legislation that will develop a disability awareness and advocacy task force, one month after Phoebe Fico, A&S ’16, wrote in a Letter to the editor to The Heights about the lack of handicap accessibility on campus.*
The resolution—sponsored by Dan Ibarrola, a senator representing the University’s seven political organizations and A&S ’15—will create an ad hoc committee to study BC’s policies regarding students with disabilities, with the hopes of creating a permanent disability advocacy board within UGBC’s division of diversity and inclusion.
The legislation was cosponsored by vice president-elect Chris Marchese, A&S ’15, and senators Bryan White, A&S ’15, and Olivia Hussey, A&S ’17.
Fico—who has cerebral palsy and must navigate campus with crutches—applied earlier this semester to create a new student organization, the Disability Awareness Committee, but was deferred by UGBC’s Board of Student Organizations because the proposal was not complete. Ibarrola, who sits on the board, said Fico’s application needed more information about specific logistics before it could be officially recognized by UGBC.
“I actually floated the idea when we were considering her application of making it part of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion, which is what [the] task force is trying to do now,” Ibarrola said of Fico’s proposed organization. “Basically, it would be somewhat of a leadership council like ALC or GLC.”
In Fico’s Feb. 13 Letter to the Editor, she addressed the lack of disability advocacy on campus. When compared to other minority groups on campus, students with disabilities have little formalized advocacy, something she said leads the campus community to overlook disability issues.
“Their problems are most of the time forgotten or even worse, pushed under the rug,” wrote Fico.
At Boston College, there are two primary offices that serve the needs of students with disabilities—the Connors Family Learning Center, which supports students with learning disabilities, and the Disability Services Office, an office within the Dean of Students Office.
The Disability Services Office is charged with assisting students who are physically impaired by their disability. Assistance could include anything from providing audio exams for blind students to coordinating transportation for those required to attend physical therapy. Students must register with the office in order to be provided services, and must show written medical documentation of their disability.
Public and private universities are required by federal law to offer reasonable accommodations in order to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to take part in courses and activities, but are not required to provide accommodations that would fundamentally alter an academic program. Nor do they have to provide services that would result in undue financial or administrative burdens. Installing expensive computer software or hiring a personal assistant for a student with a disability, for instance, might be considered unreasonable.
According to recent government figures, about 11 percent of undergraduate students have some type of disability. Most have learning disabilities, but about 15 percent are physically impaired. Unlike elementary and secondary schools, universities are not required by law to identify students with disabilities. These students must advocate for themselves.
Ibarrola’s resolution seeks to create a body within UGBC that will advocate for students with disabilities, and organize relevant programming events and promote awareness. The idea is not without precedent. Heights articles from 2001 and 2002 show that a disabled student services cabinet position within UGCB was established in 1999 by then-student Greg Mihal, BC ’01, and worked primarily as an advocacy organization alongside the University’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities.
The goal of the position was to “increase social awareness among the students and faculty, and create more dialogue between students interested in this issue,” Jennifer Barrow, then co-director for disabled student services and BC ’03, told a Heights reporter in 2002.
Barrow and then-co-director Sarah Kuchinos, BC ’03, organized disability awareness programs in 2001 and 2002. In one event in October 2001, UGBC created an obstacle course in the Dustbowl that simulated disabilities.
In addition to the cabinet level position, a November 2003 article in The Heights revealed that a disability council was created within UGBC in the fall of 2003. The council—which focused more on awareness and programming than did the cabinet position—actively organized events to raise awareness about disability issues, held panel discussions featuring students with disabilities, and fundraised for the Massachusetts Spina Bifida Association. A later article shows that between 2004 and the fall of 2006, the council was without a director, but was revived in 2006.
“I think there is always a flare up of interest in a certain policy area … but I think that [Fico’s] Letter to the Editor was the spark that sort of set the whole process to start,” Ibarrola said. “No on has really demanded that student advocacy be done on this area, but people like Phoebe … are important because [they] make sure we are put on notice.”
The task force that Ibarrola’s resolution creates would operate under the Institutional Policy Review Committee, and, because it is an ad hoc committee, it would need to be renewed annually by a resolution. He acknowledged that it could take up to two years before the task force becomes a permanent council within UGBC’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion.
The resolution allows any interested undergraduate students to join the task force, and Ibarrola said that both he and Fico intend to be involved with it. Ibarrola, however, is not seeking reelection as a senator. He is applying to be the new administration’s vice president of student organizations.
“In the short term I’m hoping to work on developing relationships with administrators to make sure that these lines of communication are existing for whoever takes up the causes next year,” he said. “I want to make sure that this short term progress doesn’t get lost.”
Unlike the student organization that Fico hoped to register, a UGBC committee would have more power to operate, program, and interact with University administrators.
“It gives her [idea] more flexibility and mobility on campus in terms of how she can operate and program,” Ibarrola said. “It will definitely give her a bigger set of resources.”
*An earlier version of this article misstated that Tuesday’s vote on the legislation was a preliminary vote. This information was misreported to The Heights. The article now accurately reflects that Tuesday’s vote was final.