The Office of Disability Services (ODS) was established 16 years ago with the primary mission of serving students with disabilities. ODS quickly became a point of contact for anyone in our campus community who had questions about access. Over the years, ODS’ work has grown, and there have been many changes across campus in accommodating students and improving access within the physical, as well as the digital, spaces of campus. Yet unless a student is involved in this work, it may be difficult to recognize the many efforts and initiatives that have taken place and are ongoing to improve the experience of students with disabilities and increase access for our entire community.
Princeton is one of the most rigorous and challenging institutions in the world for all students, but disability adds another layer of challenge. Disabilities affect students’ ability to navigate academics, traverse campus, and participate in extracurricular activities, while also requiring many to engage in treatment and care for their disability. It is therefore essential that we create an environment where students with disabilities can thrive too. ODS has had a profound impact on Princeton — and we hope to continue this progress in the future.
The Office of Disability Services provides students with all types of disabilities — including mental health, cognitive, physical, sensory, medical, and even temporary — with a staff of administrators to support them. ODS staff have the challenging job of providing access for students with disabilities within the specific landscape of a Princeton education. ODS staff also welcome students to come and discuss things they are struggling with even if they don’t have a diagnosed disability. Staff will recommend resources outside of accommodations, such as different helpful technologies, and may further provide direction on how to get testing or other treatments. Anyone who visits the office will find friendly staff and a jar full of M&M’s.
ODS also recognized that students with disabilities did not have a space or voice on campus as other marginalized populations did. In 2017, the AccessAbility Center was launched to provide a universally accessible gathering space and programming to advance awareness of disability, ability, and difference. Student fellows drive programming to increase understanding of disability, advocate for access, promote stress relief, and generally advance awareness of how disability brings richness to the diversity of our campus.
Over the years, ODS has advocated for new and different accommodations as society and student life have changed. When ODS was established, very few students with mental health disabilities requested accommodations. Currently, students with mental health disabilities are the largest sector of students receiving accommodations, along with those who have learning disabilities and ADHD. ODS has approved accommodations that specifically support students with mental health disabilities and aims to consider all accommodations students request.
As construction on campus has expanded, it has impacted the entire campus community, but especially those who have physical or sensory disabilities. ODS has collaborated with facilities administrators to monitor changes to walkways and routes and provided timely updates in accessible formats for students who are blind or have mobility disabilities.
The new dormitories have been designed with improved access including elevators, rooms that meet the accommodation needs of students, and different configurations for bathrooms. Constituents across many units on campus spent months at the design stage of Hobson College discussing how to create a space that is inclusive and accessible for our diverse student body.
Physical access has been a priority even outside the construction of new buildings — ODS has supported administrators working to improve transportation and navigation. A great deal of discussion has resulted in a revised transportation system, including a fleet of new electric buses that enable an individual using a wheelchair to independently secure themselves inside the bus. Transportation and Parking also launched a supplementary Tiger Access shuttle to support people on campus with mobility concerns by providing curb-to-curb rides around campus. This has been an incredible support for students who use wheelchairs or have medical conditions that make it difficult to walk long distances. The University has also improved wayfinding on campus by installing maps and nudge signs, which give directions to accessible routes. There is also a digital wayfinding program in development, which will enable point-to-point navigation that can be filtered to create an accessible route. Because improving physical access on a historic campus located on a hill is an ongoing process, the University recently hired a director for campus accessibility to lead future efforts to increase physical access.
Accessibility in digital spaces can often be overlooked by people who do not have disabilities, but it is imperative for people with vision and hearing disabilities, as well as those with many other disabilities such as ADHD and epilepsy. The University recognizes our community and the general public must have appropriate access to our websites, and staff have spent untold hours remediating over 50 of the University’s most prominent and public-facing websites to be accessible and compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA standards. Students who have vision disabilities also require fully remediated course materials to be able to read, so ODS partners with Firestone Library staff to locate course materials and remediate them so that these students are able to access their course materials in a timely manner.
ODS has done (and will continue to do) a great deal to support disabled students, but there is also a role for administrators, faculty, and students who, regardless of their ability, care deeply about making our campus accessible. The AccessAbility Center recently launched a program to create “Allies for Access.” To establish a foundational understanding of disability, prospective allies must take a training course after which they receive certification as one of Princeton’s Allies for Access. ODS surveyed campus constituents with disabilities in Fall 2022 to determine what allies on Princeton’s campus should know, and recommendations from the survey were incorporated into the training program. If you would like to become one of our Allies for Access, email email@example.com to sign up for our training on May 2.
Improving access, services, and resources for students and others with disabilities on our campus is an ongoing endeavor. With the support of allies on campus, students advocating for access, and administrators making improvements with intentionality, I hope that we can continue to be welcoming to people with different abilities on our campus.
Liz Erickson has been Princeton’s director of disability services since 2016. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.