For 21 years, I have had to exist as a disabled woman in a society not built to accommodate me.
I was born with muscular dystrophy, and I use an electric wheelchair to navigate the world. I’m not going to lie, having a disability can be difficult at times. I regularly encounter businesses in Princeton and elsewhere where I cannot enter in my wheelchair. I interact with people who think my life is lesser because I am disabled or that I am inspirational for simply being in public. I read countless stories about disabled lives being harmed in the healthcare and criminal justice systems.
There are laws and policies in place that are supposed to ensure access and inclusion for people with disabilities, yet these laws can only go so far when there are still societal barriers that prevent people with disabilities from obtaining education, employment, and quality of living. My existence as someone different from the norm has shown me the importance of advocating for those in the margins of society and making sure that everybody’s story gets told.
This commitment to telling people’s stories explains my passion for journalism. As a news writer and outgoing Associate News Editor, I am so proud of the steps The Daily Princetonian has taken to create a better culture for disabled students inside and outside the organization. The ‘Prince’ has been a driver of conversation on campus about major issues related to disability. In 2016, the Editorial Board called for an expansion of the American Sign Language program. Several op-eds last year continued this advocacy, and this past spring the University finally approved ASL as a way to fulfill the language requirement. The ‘Prince’ assisted in raising the visibility of this important issue.
The ‘Prince’ regularly highlights problems the disability community faces at Princeton, like when the rise of electric scooter usage created access barriers and when many students with disabilities did not receive appropriate housing accommodations last spring. This coverage brings awareness to problems nondisabled people may overlook. We also write about new initiatives meant to help disabled students, such as how I became the first person in a wheelchair to enter Nassau Hall without assistance when it became accessible this summer after 265 years and how the new TigerAccess program improves accessible transportation services. It is important to document both setbacks and improvements in the University’s accessibility.
We’ve also made significant progress in accessibility and inclusivity within the ‘Prince’ itself. Last year, editor-in-chief emeritus Jon Ort ’21 pushed for an automatic door opener to be added to the accessible entrance of 48 University Place, which houses our wonderful newsroom. This feature makes it possible for me to enter the building without struggling, because no one should have to struggle to enter their figurative home on campus.
Under the leadership of Emma Treadway ’22 and the 145th Managing Board, we formed the very first Accessibility Working Group, where a team of dedicated staffers has focused on web accessibility so that anyone and everyone can read our stories. In collaboration with John Jameson ’04 of the Office of Information Technology, we identified key ways to improve our website. Our dedicated tech team has already started implementing changes, such as adding image descriptions to our photos. The copy section has also been working on updates to their style guide to promote inclusive language.
These accessibility efforts will only be expanded in the future. Marie-Rose Sheinerman ’23, our newly elected editor-in-chief, plans to make a masthead-level position for an accessibility chair. She has also set several specific accessibility goals, from ensuring that every article has an audio readout to improving the accessibility of our social media platforms. I am so excited to see disability becoming more prioritized for the organization going forward.
The welcoming environment I’ve encountered at the ‘Prince’ reflects the inclusive environment at Princeton as a whole. I feel fortunate that my experience as a disabled student at Princeton has been overwhelmingly positive. The Office of Disability Services has done a great job providing the accommodations I require in order to succeed. I have a fantastic dorm room with adequate space for my wheelchair, plus air conditioning, grab bars in the bathroom, a remote to open the door, and other accessible features. If a class is supposed to be in an inaccessible room, it immediately gets changed to a space I can access.
I’ve also made the most amazing friends here who do their best to make sure I’m always included physically and socially. From checking the accessibility of a restaurant before we go out for dinner to finding an accessible room for gatherings, my friends have learned the best ways to account for my needs. I truly appreciate how my peers, professors, and University staff are always willing to lend a helping hand.
While I’ve enjoyed my time at Princeton, I recognize that there’s still so much work to be done to make the campus better. Many physical infrastructure barriers remain, like unnavigable sidewalks and inaccessible dorms. Professors could be better about understanding medical needs, student groups and eating clubs could do more to include disabled students, and housing accommodations could always be improved.
Luckily, there are plenty of students pushing for these improvements. The USG Disability Task Force will continue advocating for the expansion of the disability studies curriculum and the addition of information about disability in first-year orientation, among other initiatives. I’ll also keep working with the AccessAbility Center to increase the visibility of disability on campus, and with the Disability Collective student group to create a community for disabled students.
On this International Day of People with Disabilities, I want to commend both the ‘Prince’ and Princeton for becoming better places for disabled students throughout my four years here. I look forward to seeing Princeton continue to improve access and inclusion, and I know the ‘Prince’ will be waiting to document these changes.
Naomi Hess is an Associate News Editor who focuses on university policy and alumni affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @NaomiHess17.