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Student panel on disability calls for empathy, not sympathy

December 6, 2019

The College celebrated International Day for Persons with Disabilities this week with programming that included the DisAbled Students Association (DASA) tabling in David Saul Smith Union, a “lunch and learn” with the Accessibility Task Force and a student panel on disability at Bowdoin.

“The primary goal of the programming for International Day of Persons with Disabilities was to raise awareness about disabilities at Bowdoin and encourage discussion about inclusivity and accessibility for people with disabilities,” Director of Student Accessibility Lesley Levy wrote in an email to the Orient.

The events, which were scheduled throughout the day on Tuesday, were organized by the Student Accessibility Office, DASA and the Accessibility Task Force.

The student panel featured six students who had disabilities ranging from dyslexia to chronic pain. Despite markedly different experiences with disability, the panelists all stressed the importance of showing empathy as opposed to sympathy or frustration. Panelists explained that empathy allows students with disabilities to take the lead in discussions about accessibility.

The students noted that as minorities on campus, it is often their responsibility to advocate for themselves and call attention to inaccessibility.

“I’m not here to fix Bowdoin’s problems,” said panelist Thais Carillo ’23. “I’m here to be a student.”

Levy identified three main themes she hoped students who attended the programming for International Day of Persons with Disabilities took away. First, students, faculty and staff living with disabilities are integral members of the Bowdoin community who deserve to be included. Second, people should not assume that a person with a disability is incapable, fragile, lives a lesser life or wants to be “cured.” Lastly, it is the Bowdoin community’s responsibility to make the College more accessible to those with disabilities.

“We need to get the entire school to be more proactive instead of reactive,” said Benjamin Wu ’18, one of the panel’s moderators, in an interview with the Orient. “Professors should have access to accessible materials and teaching tools before a blind student comes to campus so that the student doesn’t have to pave their own way and spend so much time and energy just trying to go to class.”

The Student Accessibility Office supports students with disabilities, impairments and access needs. This year, it has extended its reach and infrastructure.

“The Student Accessibility Office had other priorities in its first two years, including opening the Test Center and implementing a new software system to manage student accommodations and faculty notification letters,” Levy explained. “Now that those are up and running, the Office can devote more time and resources to other needs, including awareness and education.”

Prior to its creation there was a smaller Americans with Disabilities Act committee that considered ways to improve the accessibility of Bowdoin’s facilities.

The Accessibility Task Force, chaired by Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matthew Orlando, is broader in scope and assesses accessibility at Bowdoin. Now in its third year, the task force features working groups in areas such as accessibility awareness, assistive technology, curricular accessibility, facilities and web accessibility.


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One comment:

  1. Confused Bear says:

    How are “empathy” and “sympathy” defined in this article?

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