On Nov. 24, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 invited all undergraduate students back on campus for the spring semester — a decision met by some with surprise and excitement, but by others with anxiety and frustration. Students were required to express their intent to live on campus by today, Dec. 3, with assignments and contracts released on Dec. 18 — which, for disabled students in particular, means an expedited and likely inequitable application process for housing accommodations.
The majority of accommodations for disabled students will be assigned based on the spring 2020 accommodations process, which prepared housing assignments for the 2020–21 academic year. However, students who did not apply, whose needs have changed, who were rejected, or who were assigned rooms that only partially met their needs last spring have been expected to fill out forms and gather medical documentation in less than one-and-a-half weeks. Not to mention that this process has taken place over Thanksgiving break, when many doctors are much harder to contact. This absurdly brief timeline reflects upon a lack of care for the needs of disabled students.
Furthermore, the Housing FAQ made no mention of when accommodations decisions would be released. In a Dec. 1 Undergraduate Student Government town hall, Director of Housing Dorian Johnson said, “I will work with my team to see if we can have those assignments made known to students before they receive the contract on the 18th.”
Working to see “if” assignments can be made known before the 18th is not enough. We in the disability community maintain that it is critical for Housing to guarantee disabled students that they will release accommodations assignments at least a week — preferably more — in advance of the 18th, in order to allow students to have the time to appeal, through self-advocacy and submitting further documentation, if they are rejected or assigned to a room that does not meet all of their needs. After the 18th, once all spaces have been assigned, it is highly unlikely that disabled students would be able to truly appeal — especially since the University is likely to run low on space this spring. If our demand is not fulfilled, the appeals process would exist in name only.
Secondly, over email, disabled students have been told that if assigned to a shared living space, they will not be allowed to choose their roommate. It is ableist to assign students with mental illness or immunosuppression to room with a stranger, since it can clearly be a huge strain on their mental health, as well as a major concern of physical safety, to share a living space with someone you don’t know during a pandemic. Refusal to acknowledge this point has been especially odd, given that Johnson said at the town hall that students who are currently in emergency housing would have “the option to indicate if there are specific students that they would like to be added to their suite” for the spring semester.
Allowing disabled students control over their roommates and implementing a reasonable, transparent, and well-advertised appeals process are absolutely non-negotiable for the University to truly attend to the needs of its disabled student community. This is especially true because the Housing Accommodations process has been historically unreliable, and in particular, explicitly discriminatory against students with mental and invisible disabilities; its application for many years has read, in bold: “Your physical needs will receive priority attention.”
We at the Disability Collective have gathered many anecdotal accounts of students with mental or invisible disabilities being rejected or assigned partially inaccessible rooms through an anonymous survey last spring.
One student with a mental illness, whose request for accommodations was denied, reported that their mental health “got so bad I couldn’t be on Princeton’s campus. I was told my accommodations weren’t really as valid as someone else who had an actual disability, so I would have to wait.”
“After being dragged through a month long process with [H]ousing often not responding to emails and me needing to have multiple doctors visits to fill out forms to declare me psychologically disabled, I was denied,” another student wrote. “The email in which [Dean Bryant] Blount [’08] rejected my reasonable request was also worded incredibly rude and condescending, which just added insult to injury. I called his office to try to talk with him and clarify a few points, but not only did no one answer, but he also never returned my call when I asked him to in the voicemail.”
One student reported only receiving an acceptable assignment after threatening legal action under Section 504.
Messages from the University regarding spring 2021 housing accommodations indicate that this trend will continue. On the Housing Accommodations Application for Spring 2021, it reads, “If you feel that this assignment does not meet your needs, know that this spring, students are not required to live on campus. Other requests will be considered after February 1.” Such a statement is incredibly insulting, as it implies that the needs of disabled students are simply a matter of feeling, and not absolute necessities for our well-being.
To say that students whose assignments are not fully accessible can just choose to live elsewhere is unacceptable and discriminatory, not to mention false, because there are disabled students who need to live on campus, and off-campus housing options in the area are often inaccessible or exorbitantly priced.
We have already brought the above concerns to the attention of Dean Blount and the Department of Housing, only to receive a chain of dismissive and condescending responses, in which administrators both refused to meet with members of the disabled community and did not acknowledge a single point raised.
As such, we are bringing these concerns to the public. If the University is inviting everyone back, that means that it must be prepared to support everyone who wants to come back, including students with disabilities. Housing must be fully accessible, and anything less amounts to ableism.
Signed, The Disability Collective
Benjamin Ball ’21
Naomi Hess ’22
Joice Kim ’21
Jennifer Lee ’23
Ellen Li ’22
Christopher Lugo ’22
Anna Macknick ’21
Deena Mainali ’22
Natasha Montiel ’22
Elaine Wright ’21
Additional signatories to this letter were granted anonymity for privacy concerns.