CW: This piece contains frank discussion of ableism at Hamline University. If this is a topic that affects you, please read with caution.
In her first semester at Hamline, Xyola Holm ran for a first-year representative position on HUSC and started working for the Wesley Center’s Spirituality Scholars. However, after winter break, Holm will be transferring to Minnesota State University Moorhead to continue her studies, due to the institutional ableism, barriers and inaccessibility she’s faced on campus at Hamline.
Like many disabled students at Hamline, Holm feels that she is being brushed aside.
“[Hamline is] talking about being like an inclusive community and [in orientation] they brought up race, they brought up gender, and they brought up sexuality, but they never brought up, you know, people with disabilities,” she said.
At the beginning of the fall semester, the elevator in Holm’s dorm room broke for a prolonged period of time, leading to her decision to stop using her wheelchair around campus.
“After that point, I kind of just decided I was going to suck it up and endure the pain [on foot],” Holm said.
Sometimes, she isn’t able to get to her classes, which are all in-person, and she says her grades have suffered because of this.
In a Facebook post, Holm wrote, “I’m tired of constantly fighting for equal treatment and overall respect. I’m tired of fighting for a proper education because nobody is willing to work with me… I will be leaving Hamline University. I was hoping for that fresh new start, and got the opposite.”
According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy on the US Department of Labor website, people with disabilities make up the nation’s largest minority group, yet are often underrepresented in conversations about inclusion, as Holm noticed during her first-year orientation. She is not the only one disillusioned with Hamline’s resources, as disabled students at Hamline face inaccessible buildings, a lack of advocates and institutional ableism at every turn.
Max Lakso is a disabled first-year who was initially able to secure some accommodations through the Residential Life and Disability Resources offices. However, Lakso says that throughout the semester, he has had bad experiences with the Hamline administration. Despite notifying Hamline of his physical disability and mobility aid, he was placed on the second floor of a building without an elevator. When the Oracle asked to comment, Residential Life declined to do so.
Lakso has written further about his experience with inaccessibility at Hamline for Untold Magazine. His difficult semester has been exacerbated by the need to advocate for accommodations.
“The greatest barrier is not a direct result of my disabilities, but the fatigue of being my own untrained, powerless advocate,” he said.
Other students relate to the feeling of needing to self-advocate. Jennifer Martinez Badillo is a visually impaired sophomore at Hamline who has introduced various resolutions to HUSC to make campus safer and more accommodating for students with disabilities.
“There have been times that student organizations on campus haven’t been accessible to me or others,” Martinez Badillo said.
She hopes that her advocacy empowers students to start conversations about accessibility and help them feel comfortable in student organizations.
Students have also faced issues outside Hamline’s physical barriers. A student in the psychology department who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said that she’s witnessed both students and faculty in the department say ableist things about stigmatized mental health disorders.
“I have been navigating a psych degree as someone who deals with severed and stigmatized mental health disorders,” she said. “I would never do a psych degree again… I’ve heard some of the most horrible things about people like me said by people who are planning to go on to work with people like me.”
After a bad experience with a professor not accepting an accommodation she requested after a medical emergency, she felt too embarrassed to go to Hamline’s Disability Services office to get legal accommodations.
Regardless of students’ differing ability levels, mistreatment has been a common experience seen in departments, accommodations, and social life.
Kimia Kowsari is a Hamline sophomore with cerebral palsy (CP) who often feels the need to justify their disability.
“People forget that I’m disabled because I don’t have a wheelchair, I don’t have a cane,” they said.
Still, they’ve experienced ableism from fellow students.
Kowsari uses accessibility features like elevators and automatic door openers on a daily basis, and struggles when buildings don’t have them, or they’re broken.
“It’s 2021, we should probably be putting elevators and accessibility in these places,” they said in reference to Manor, Osborn, Peterson and Schilling Halls, which were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
The ADA requires certain accessibility standards on new constructions of public accommodation. The Heights have no elevator, while Manor Hall only has a lift between the first floor and basement.
Kowsari and a Hamline junior both mentioned broken automatic door openers at the Hamline Apartments.
The junior, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of further ableism, has accommodations from Disability Services like assignment extensions and quiet spaces for test taking. However, in her experience, getting accommodations was a long process, and she can see the ways Hamline is failing disabled students.
“There’s a reason why there’s not a huge disabled population here,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like Hamline supports disability in a way that they should.”
From physical issues with the buffet style Bishop’s Bistro, to the cramped communal showers, she sees many spaces on campus as half-accommodated.
The anonymous Hamline junior recognizes that institutional ableism is a much larger issue in academia as a whole.
“I don’t think it’s an isolated issue,” she said. “I think it’s a broader university issue, period.”
However, she believes Hamline has a lot of funding issues that make the campus more physically inaccessible than some other places.
Dean of Students Patti Kersten acknowledges this inaccessibility.
“Hamline is the oldest campus in the state of Minnesota and yes, there are buildings that are not fully accessible to someone with limited mobility; however, arrangements are made to ensure that all programs and offerings of the university are accessible… Hamline provides all reasonable accommodations,” Kersten said.
She also mentioned the Online Degree Completer (ODC) program that Hamline offers for specific majors, as well as Disability Resources.
Disability Resources offers accommodations and equal access for students with disabilities or temporary injuries.
“I’ve experienced ableism all my life… structural ableism exists here on our campus, as it does in many parts of our society, but we are making progress towards a more accessible campus for all,” Director of Disability Resources Steve Anderson said.
However, the process is not simple. Professor Jen England of the English Department has done research on the rhetoric of mental illness and understands that the process of getting accommodations can sometimes be complicated.
“At Hamline, like most universities, [getting accommodations is] a two-step process of submitting documentation and meeting with Disability Resources,”England said. “It seems deceptively easy, but gathering the specific documentation required to register with Disability Resources and start the accommodations process could feel insurmountable to students struggling.”
Kowsari appreciates the accommodations that Disability Resources offers, but thinks there’s a long way to go.
“I think [ableism is] a structural issue at Hamline, and it needs to be fixed… It hurts because you get promised a good education and good access to things and then you don’t get those things,” they said.
Other students mentioned that they’ve thought of transferring due to lack of support on an institutional level. When asked about disabled students leaving, Kersten said that she hopes students are working with Disability Resources to address accommodations.
Many of students’ concerns go beyond Disability Resources’ domain, so students and advocates are finding other ways to change some of the inaccessibilities at Hamline.
England believes that professors need to confront internalized ableism to better serve their students.
“It was only by reading current scholarship of teaching and learning, talking with colleagues, and most importantly listening to students who raised concerns that I began to unlearn my own ableism and create a more inclusive classroom.”
She encourages professors to look closely at their own policies and attitudes.
“[We must begin] normalizing support systems, reducing stigma and challenging the structural and systemic ableism that runs through so much of higher education,” she said.
A senior who is registered with Disability Services and wants to remain anonymous due to her closeness to the issue thinks that it would be helpful for faculty to have more exposure to disabilities.
“I think the main experience I’ve run into is just a lack of knowledge, they want to help and work with me but they don’t have any understanding of what we are working with,” she said.
She does note that Hamline had one of the best disability programs of all the colleges she looked at, and with the help of Disability Resources, she has been able to make the Dean’s list for five semesters.
For the anonymous junior mentioned earlier, they hope that someday every building on campus is physically accessible, that there is a better system for physical assistance in classroom settings and more accommodation for student workers.
“Disability is a big word. It encompasses a lot, and people should remember that,” Kowsari said.
The journalist would like to acknowledge that the issue of institutional ableism and inaccessibility at Hamline University cannot be covered in one article, and encourages readers to continue to engage with the topic. She would also like to thank senior columnist Emily Brown for her previous work on this topic, as well as her support and expertise on this story. Oracle readers are encouraged to read Emily’s opinion articles on disability rights and more.
If students would like to add to the discussion, please email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org to make a comment.
Students facing ableism at Hamline University can reach out to Disability Resources, the Dean’s Office or confidential support through Counseling & Health Services or the Wesley Center.