Hannah Faughnan ’23 is used to navigating Princeton as a disabled student. As someone with rheumatoid arthritis, she has had chronic pain for her entire life.
As her disability progressed over the last year, she began using a mobility scooter on days when her condition flared up. After she started using her scooter, she faced questions from students who were surprised by her use of a mobility aid.
“For the first few weeks, there would be people that were in my department but I never talked to and they’d stop and be like, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’” she said.
Although in those moments, Faughnan said she didn’t respond forcefully, looking back, she wished she could have conveyed a message to her peers: “I don't know how to tell you that disabled people just exist.”
Faughnan’s story, and many others, shows how more Princetonians have disabilities than might be outwardly visible. For many community members, having a disability impacts every part of their time at Princeton, from academics to residential life to social life. Several students spoke with The Daily Princetonian about their experiences as disabled students on a campus that wasn’t designed with their unique needs in mind.
Increasing support for disabled students over the past decade
The Office of Disability Services (ODS) was first established in 2006, and Elizabeth Erickson, the office’s director, has been there since the beginning.
“When the Office of Disability Services was created back in fall 2006, the main charge for the office was to provide academic accommodations for students with disabilities,” Erickson said. “Along with that, we also were charged to be a resource to the campus in general, faculty, staff, visitors.”
Over the years, the University has seen an increase in the number of disabled students on campus. Erickson provided data about the number of students who receive accommodations from ODS — not including housing accommodations. (She did not grant The Daily Princetonian permission to print exact numbers, citing concerns about misinterpretations of the data.)
The number of students receiving accommodations in the academic year 2019–2020 is over 250 percent higher than the number of students who had accommodations in academic year 2010–2011. Hover over each column to see the percentage increase in students with accommodations, utilizing the 2010–2011 school year as a baseline.
One explanation for the increase in students registered with ODS is that ODS now provides more accommodations for students with psychological disabilities than they did in the past, according to Erickson.
“When I first came to the University, students with psychological disabilities really weren't accommodated through the Office of Disability Services,” she said. “Now, the numbers of students with those disabilities is pretty much neck-and-neck with students who have cognitive disabilities.”
The data provided by Erickson shows that the percentage of students with cognitive disabilities and sensory disabilities registered with ODS has decreased since 2010, while the representation of students with mobility and psychological disabilities has increased. The following chart displays the primary disability for students registered with ODS, with primary disability referring to the category of disability that ODS considers the most prominent.
Yet even with this documented increase in the number of disabled students and the increase in approved accommodations, students continue to face a variety of challenges.
‘You have to keep fighting for your right to get things accommodated’
ODS facilitates academic accommodations by providing letters of accommodation to faculty members. Disabled students who spoke with the ‘Prince’ explained how those accommodations have been vital to their University experience. Even so, for some disabled students, navigating the classroom and interactions with faculty members still bears significant challenges.
“The process to notify faculty of accommodations is through a letter and we do not disclose a student's disability. We keep that confidential, but we tell them what accommodations they need to approve or arrange,” Erickson said.
Jennifer Lee ’23, who has Crohn's Disease, described how her professors’ understanding of the flexibility she needs in order to complete her school work has enabled her to thrive at the University.
“I've noticed that the empathy and compassion that comes from faculty is one of the most powerful gifts that I received,” Lee said.
Still, Lee said that she has occasionally encountered professors expecting her conform to a certain expectation of how a disabled person might look or act. During a particularly severe flare-up of her disease, Lee tried to dress up for her virtual office hours appointment with a professor. She remembered the professor saying, “I was so worried. We agreed to do all these extensions, but you look fine. You look great.”
“It was very well-intentioned,” Lee said. “It was a compliment from the professor, but I remember thinking that I need to look worse in order to be validated for extensions or to be sick, and that there was a certain image of what sick or chronically ill or disabled was supposed to look like in order to justify having these accommodations.”
Izabela Konopka ’25, who has ulcerative colitis, explained that she usually faces no trouble from her professors when it comes to getting the academic accommodations she needs. Although her language class allows for a maximum of five absences, after talking to the professor, Konopka has been allowed unlimited absences.
When students need extensions, they are often told to talk directly to their dean. But students told the ‘Prince’ such conversations have had mixed results. When Ellen Li ’23 asked her dean for an extension, the dean mentioned Li’s recent high grade in a different class and questioned whether Li needed this leniency.
“Even when you have it on paper, you have to keep fighting for your right to get things accommodated,” Li said. “You have to keep arguing about why you're actually sick and why you actually need it. It's just kind of tiring.”
Erickson explained that ODS only steps in to talk to professors if students tell the office about problems they encounter.
“We aren't involved in the implementation conversation about testing accommodations because it doesn't make sense to have ODS in the middle,” Erickson said.
She continued, “If a student comes back to me with an issue about an accommodation, then I’m the one, rather than the student, who tries to understand what the problem is and address it, so it’s really about the faculty or student coming to us and saying something’s off, something’s wrong, so we can fix it.”
Residential assignments and re-assignments: Dorm life for disabled students
Students who require housing accommodations work with the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) to provide documentation of their disability and explain what accommodations they need in a room assignment.
According to Housing Engagement Specialist Dennis Daly, around 200 students were approved for housing accommodations for academic year 2022–2023, a 20 percent increase from this past academic year.
Faughnan was originally placed in Spelman Hall when she moved back to campus in summer 2021. At first, her room assignment worked for her, but as her disability worsened, the room no longer met her needs.
“There were days when I wasn’t eating or leaving my room because I couldn’t,” she said.
It took a long time for Faughnan to be relocated to a more accessible room.
“When I communicated that it was no longer accessible for me, it took about two months to get me here [to her new room in Dod Hall],” she said.
Daly said in an email to the ‘Prince’ that currently matriculated students who need a new housing accommodation mid-semester can submit such requests and relevant documentation to ODS.
“If approved for a mid-semester housing accommodation those students are offered an appropriate modification or a room change that meets their documented need based upon availability,” he wrote.
Konopka requested a private bathroom as part of her housing accommodations. Yet as an incoming first-year, she was placed in Rockefeller College, which does not have private bathrooms.
“I already submitted all my forms by that point, so they could have easily put me into one of the Butler or whatnot considering they were already making the assignments, but they didn’t,” she said about the process of assigning her a residential college.
She spends most nights in her boyfriend’s room because it meets her needs better than her own room.
“I stay in Whitman with my boyfriend because he has closer access to a bathroom, and so basically, I have to figure out by myself what's going to work the best for me,” she said.
“If a student feels that their assignment does not meet their approved documented need, then they should reach out to Housing and ODUS to discuss,” Daly wrote.
Amid mixed experiences in eating clubs, disabled students find (and found) their own social outlets
Much of Princeton’s social life revolves around “the Street,” the set of 11 eating clubs lining Prospect Avenue. The eating clubs are a main source of food and social events for the campus community, particularly for upperclassmen. Despite their prominence in University life, many of the eating clubs are not fully accessible.
A page on the eating club website created in 2019 details the accessibility of each club. Ten out of the 11 clubs are at least partially accessible, with ramps leading to some floors of the clubhouse. Five clubs have elevators, while one club, Cloister, is not accessible at all.
Faughnan is a member of Quadrangle Club, yet she cannot access the full clubhouse because stairs are required to reach the second floor. To get to the basement, students with mobility disabilities must enter through the back of the club. She received a discount on club dues to make up for her limited ability to navigate the club.
Faughnan recently started a petition to install an elevator that could transport her and future members with mobility difficulties to every floor. Currently, 128 members and alumni have signed the petition, according to Faughnan. As of now, the graduate board estimates that they can install an elevator in about three to four years, Faughnan said.
“Right now, I am the most vocal person in the club about this, but I'm not the only person in the club that needs it. There are other disabled people currently in Quad that just aren't as comfortable or aren't as public about things,” she said.
Other eating clubs are moving towards installing elevators to improve accessibility. Tower Club will be installing an elevator this summer, according to former president Savannah Hampton ’22.
“This is important to Tower as part of our continuing effort to become ADA compliant and work for inclusion within our Club,” she wrote. “The Club has been around since 1902, and we’re constantly looking to adapt for the benefit of our membership. This takes form in a few ways, and the elevator is a salient point to see this ongoing effort.”
But physical accessibility is not the only issue that disabled students have faced at the eating clubs. Students report also experiencing a general lack of understanding from eating club staff and contracted security personnel about how the club can accommodate their needs.
Due to her disability, Julia Elman ’23 cannot stand for long periods of time, especially in the cold. One night, as she struggled to wait in line at an eating club, she asked a security guard if she could sit inside to warm up.
“He said, ‘Okay, come this way’ and I was like, ‘Oh, thank God.’ And then he put his arm out and directed me out of the line,” Elman said.
“No, this isn't a place for you. You shouldn't be here,” she said the guard had told her.
The ‘Prince’ was not able to independently contact this guard as Elman could not disclose the eating club in question.
Outside of the eating clubs or other social spaces on campus, disabled students have found their own community through the Disability Collective (DisCo) student group, which was founded in 2020. Members described how this group provides a sense of solidarity and shows them that they are not alone in their experiences.
“It's been great to talk to other people in a way that gives me more confidence to stand up for myself and ask for accommodations and use ODS,” Elman said.
Because the club was created right before the pandemic, much of the community was formed through a virtual group chat. Disabled students use the chat to ask each other questions about accommodations and share their experiences surrounding accessibility and inclusion.
In the fall 2021 semester, Li organized several in-person gatherings in her room or in Campus Club so that members could get to know each other better. As one of the founding members, she expressed how appreciative she is for this community.
“It seems so small, but just the fact that you have people to rant to when you have a flare, or when the housing accommodations cycle pops up again, just the fact that people are there to listen to you who get it, it really changes things. I think emotionally, it's meant a lot to me that it started to exist,” she said.
While Konopka has enjoyed being part of DisCo, she also hopes that the club expands in the future and can plan more in-person activities.
“I think it's really nice to have that community. I feel like it needs to be more advertised more because it's sort of underground,” she continued.
Even with the accessibility barriers present on the Street, disabled students have formed their own communities and made impacts that they hope will last for years to come. Beyond the importance of the social ties of these communities for students like Li and Konopka, the groups’ efforts have extended into campus advocacy as well, with some concrete results.
The future of disability on campus
In recent years, DisCo and the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) disability task force have engaged in sustained organizing to improve disability representation on campus. (Full disclosure: This reporter founded the USG disability task force in fall 2020 and co-led it with Lee).
The task force has spearheaded a variety of initiatives related to accessibility and inclusion, such as a training for eating club officers on making their clubs more accessible and an introduction to disability services module in summer programming for incoming first-years.
Beyond projects strictly related to disability information and education, the task force has also been collaborating with other members of USG to make disability a more central part of broader USG programming. As a result of this collaboration, the recent USG survey included several questions about the disabled student experience.
“I think we've been able to work with other USG members to normalize the conversation around accommodations and disability and accessibility such that when they launch USG-wide projects, like a school-wide survey, we're able to be a part of that conversation, that disability isn't left behind,” Lee said.
Faughnan and Lee have both participated in conversations with University administration and representatives from University Health Services (UHS) and Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) about the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affects disabled students.
In one of these recent conversations, Faughnan brought up her concerns about the recent change to the masking and testing policies.
“I don't know how much it is always doing,” she said about her participation in these meetings. “But I think I'm very grateful to still be able to have that voice and be able to say that, even if it's just going out into the ether.”
Elman believes there has been an increase in awareness of the needs of disabled students in the past few years, especially in light of the pandemic.
“People [are] thinking a bit more about invisible disabilities and specifically immunocompromised people. The pandemic has made it [so] there's more visibility,” she said. “It's still nowhere near where it needs to be, but I have seen that change and it has been nice.”
Current disabled and chronically ill students hope that their activism will help students in the future.
“It's a matter of just having the strength and the bravery to advocate for themselves,” Lee said. “As scary as that can be, I think knowing that people are in their corner and that people have done what they're doing can be a great source of solace, as it was for me.”
Naomi Hess is a news editor emerita who focuses on University policy and alumni affairs. She can be reached on Twitter at @NaomiHess17.