The past few years have been pivotal in engaging the entire University of Richmond community to foster a more inclusive campus with events like the Black Excellence Gala and movements like the Trans Inclusivity Initiative. But according to sophomore Melissa Lewis, there is one part of the community that has largely been left out of the conversation, and that is those who receive disability accommodations and how best to serve them.

Lewis has congenital hip dysplasia. This results in cartilage degeneration that causes other medical issues such as knee, ankle and back problems. Overall, Lewis’ condition causes great bodily stress, soreness and pain, she said.

When she first came to UR in 2017, Lewis said she had been promised – specifically by the housing department – that she would be taken care of. 

Her housing accommodation states that she needs a first floor room and a building with an elevator. In order to receive accommodations for a physical disability, students must meet with a university medical professional, be it from CAPS or the Student Health Center depending on their disability, before their freshman year. That medical professional will assess what accommodations the student needs, said Tina Cade, director of disability services.

Dr. Alene Howard Waller M.D., assistant medical director at UR, is Lewis’ disability case adviser and one of the medical professionals who assesses the accommodation needs of incoming freshmen with physical disabilities. At the end of her freshman year, when Lewis wanted to request a room on the Westhampton side of campus for her sophomore year, Waller directed Lewis to contact the housing department, Lewis said. 

Lewis had been worried about not getting a room that would fit her accommodations or having to room in Robins Hall, which is far away from Gottwald Center for the Sciences, where most of her classes are.

“I didn’t care who my roommate was,” Lewis said. “I didn’t care where I lived as long as it was on that side on campus because I am Gottwald student. I needed to get to Gottwald early in the morning, and getting to my first class can be difficult for me because within the first hour of getting out of bed I am the most stiff and sore than I am all day, so it takes me a long time to get to class.”

After making this request and letting the housing department know that Waller had referred her, the housing department denied Lewis this extra request because it was not part of the specific accommodations Lewis was given before her freshman year, Lewis said.

Cade said there was legislation that stated the university must provide students with accommodations and work with the students to ensure they get what they need to be safe and succeed as long as it is reasonable. 

Lewis said that after the request had been rejected, she did not feel as though the promise that the housing department made to her had been upheld.

After their first year, students with disability housing accommodations are placed into the housing lottery along with the rest of the UR student body, said Patrick Benner, director of residence life and undergraduate student housing.

“If there is a room available at their time slot when it’s open for them that meets their accommodation, it is up to them to choose that space,” Benner said. 

The housing department does hold rooms during housing selection in case students with accommodations are not able to get the space they need during their time slot per accommodations given by disability advisers before their first year, Benner added.

Lewis said that she had initially contacted the housing office at the end of her freshman year to ask for these accommodations in addition to her original ones because she was never told that a room would be reserved for her had one not been available during her time slot that fit the accommodations given by Waller.

“I was never presented with the guarantee to get a room,” Lewis said.

Along with housing, academic accommodations can also be made for students by way of extra testing time. 

Cade gave a hypothetical example in which a student was being denied testing accommodations. This is both against the law as well as UR policy, Cade said.

“Let’s say you were in Dr. Smith’s class, and Dr. Smith just pays no attention at all,” Cade said. “It’s not a difficult thing. You circle back [to the disabilities services office] or you circle back to your disability adviser and say, ‘Dr. Smith said he could care less if I needed time and a half.’ Rest assured, that disability adviser is going to have a conversation with Dr. Smith.”

If the disability adviser cannot get through to a professor, then Cade takes it upon herself to go talk to the professor and help the student get their proper accommodations, Cade said.

This seems to be a rarity on UR’s campus, however, for many professors do their best to accommodate students.

Kevin Cherry, associate professor of political science, is one professor who not only adheres to official policies but aims to make the classroom an inclusive place for all. 

“As professors, our job is to help students do their best work,” Cherry said. “One of the things I had to learn is to meet students where they were and to help them go from there.” 

Cherry and his colleagues across all disciplines want their students to do as well as they can, he said. 

“I want [students with disabilities and accommodations] to show me that they’ve learned just as much as anybody else,” he said. 

Senior Chris Garino, a business administration major with a concentration in finance, has never been turned away or given grief because of his disability accommodations. 

“I’ve had zero issues with it at all,” Garino said. “Professors are super accommodating.”

He has even had professors contact him to make sure he has his proper accommodations, Garino said.

The disability services office helps lead faculty trainings in order to help professors accommodate students with disabilities, Cade said.

However, should any issues arise, getting hold of the office can sometimes take awhile for students, Lewis said. 

In addition to serving as the director of disability services, Cade is also the associate vice president of student development and director of multicultural affairs, and this causes lag in getting back to students, Lewis said.

“We don’t have a sole director of disability,” Lewis said. “When [Cade] has multicultural stuff going on, I get put on the back burner because a lot of administration on campus puts emphasis on stuff like that, and the program I want gets put aside. It’s not her fault. It’s a collective issue, but it’s just unfortunate.

“The disability department does all they can, but they don’t have very much power here on campus.”

Cade said that even though students may feel this way, it is not true, and that she would do everything in her power to help the students she serves.

“We want our students to be successful,” Cade said. “There are not a lot of steps to this. It’s not complicated. I know my folks working as advisers tell students to get back with me if they have a problem. There is nothing that prevents them from walking in here, sending an email or shooting up a flare and saying, ‘Something is going on.’”

Lewis, who is a disability services ambassador, said there are changes coming to campus next year that give her hope such as a bigger and more active disability services ambassador program

Next year, Lewis has a vision for a more visible and interactive disability awareness week. She wants to allow people to rent out a wheelchair for an hour and understand first-hand how hard it is to navigate our campus. 

“I feel very positive about what’s going to be done,” Lewis said.

Contact contributor Holly Schiltz at holly.schiltz@richmond.edu