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Insight: The journalist’s body

The Cronkite School’s failure to enforce the incorporation of SAILS accommodations makes the program inaccessible for students with disabilities


Insight: The journalist’s body

The Cronkite School’s failure to enforce the incorporation of SAILS accommodations makes the program inaccessible for students with disabilities

I’m not a journalist anymore.

I may be writing this, and it may get published, but that’s not what makes a journalist. At least according to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. To Cronkite, the “perfect” journalist has a healthy heart, mobile legs and a neurotypical mind. The “perfect” journalist doesn’t need a service animal, or crutches, or a pacemaker, or the hospital, or sleep or even a tampon.

Cronkite’s journalist is the symbol of physical and mental perfection. And unfortunately, I don’t make the cut.

I’ll admit something personal here: I’m not exactly well. With autism, heart conditions, heavy periods, bipolar disorder and a recent monthslong stay in the hospital, I’m certainly not the picture of ideal health. But I’ve always had a sharp mind. I’ve been writing since I was six years old. I’ve been published over 50 times, and I’ve served as editor-in-chief of two award-winning publications.

When the time came to apply to college, I knew exactly where I would go. I had the experience, I had the GPA, and I had the scholarships. I knew what I wanted, and I knew the Cronkite School could help me get there as a top-ranked journalism school.

I thought I had everything I needed to succeed there. I just didn’t know I needed a different body.

What is an invisible disability?

Everyone gets sick sometimes. Maybe we miss a class, a club meeting or a deadline — it happens. But we get better. Our headache clears, our nausea disappears, and in a week, we return to our regular routine. It’s the miracle of the human body. Everyone’s bodies are designed to repair themselves after pain and illness, right? 

Unfortunately, mine doesn’t do that. Heart and neurological issues don’t really heal like a common cold, but it seems people want me to get better after a week. What do you do when a “get well soon” card is only wishful thinking?

In some ways, I guess I could be considered lucky. My disability is invisible, so I can choose who I reveal my illness to. My very existence doesn’t call attention to my disability like it does for someone whose disability is visible. I’m not forced to have complicated conversations about my disability during a job interview, first date or some other one-time event. I get to ignore that aspect of my identity — for a little while.

But I can’t avoid my symptoms forever. Eventually, I miss too many classes, appointments or plans I made with friends. People start wanting answers. Everybody gets sick sometimes, that’s easy to accept.

But what do you do with somebody who is sick all of the time?

Necessary accommodations

That’s the core question ASU faculty face when teaching students like me.

A student with disabilities may have accommodations to miss class, but how many missed classes is too many? Maybe a student needs a deadline extension because of their disability, but is that fair to everyone else? After all, who wouldn’t want an extra day for assignments?

Could a student with disabilities be using their accommodations to take advantage of their professors?

No, they’re not. That’s the short and long answer. And to even suggest that a student with disabilities is abusing their accommodations for the everyday challenges they face is offensive. Everyone with disabilities has good and bad days. Some days I function just fine, but others, I wake up completely unable to move. Life for us is unpredictable, and this unpredictability frightens people.

This fear may not be explicit — nobody has ever said to my face that I’m abusing my accommodations. But it manifests in the exasperation in faculty’s eyes, their curt emails, the subtle resentment that builds whenever you ask them for help. 

Some people naturally assume the worst in others, it seems, and without concrete, physical evidence of our disabilities, they jump to the conclusion that our struggles don’t even exist.

I might not look like I have disabilities, but since when do people appear the way they’re stereotyped to look?

Would an ethical journalist assume a source’s sexuality, gender or race based on appearance? No. It’s completely against journalistic ethics, and the Cronkite School knows it — since last fall, all undergraduate Cronkite students are now required to take Diversity and Civility at Cronkite, a course dedicated to raising awareness and promoting acceptance for marginalized groups at the school and in the media.

Yet, I found the course fails to supply any in-depth information on how the media industry — and the Cronkite School — may better accommodate those with invisible disabilities. I know firsthand from taking this class only one year ago, when I was part of the first cohort required to take the course.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act are two key federal laws aimed at reducing discrimination against students with disabilities in academic spaces. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by any entity receiving federal financial assistance while Title II prohibits such discrimination by state and local governments. These two laws make it illegal for a public university, like ASU, to discriminate against people with disabilities.

ASU may point to its Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services — which, according to its website, is “the central campus resource for students with disabilities to ensure access to their education and help increase awareness in the university community” — as a way to tout its accessible accommodations for students with disabilities, but SAILS has yet to help me. In my experience at the Cronkite School and ASU in general, the incorporation of approved SAILS accommodations in courses by faculty members is poorly enforced.

ASU’s Student Services Manual states that “approved (SAILS) accommodations are determined on an individual student and course-by-course basis with priority given to a student’s preferred accommodation.” But in my experience, I’ve received little prioritization. 

“It’s SAILS that determines whether the accommodation is a reasonable one,” said Sarah Bolmarcich, an associate teaching professor at the School of International Letters and Cultures who has worked to promote awareness of people with disabilities at ASU. “What faculty can do is say, ‘This doesn’t suit my course. We’re going to have to work out an alternative.’”

Throughout my time at ASU — both inside and outside the Cronkite School — not all my professors have been sympathetic to my situation. Some faculty members have deducted points for my absences despite my SAILS accommodations, blaming me for failing to consistently attend class. The Cronkite School in particular maintains an absence policy stating that “Students must attend all classes for their full duration” even though other colleges at ASU do allow absences.

No matter how I explained my disability to these faculty members, even though I legally only have to disclose my disability to SAILS to receive accommodations — not my professors — they still would not believe me.

But how do I prove an invisible disability? How can I be more consistent with such inconsistent health?

The answer is I can’t. For starters, it’s called an invisible disability for a reason. You simply cannot see it. Secondly, consistency just isn’t physically possible for me. That’s one of the defining aspects of life for people with disabilities.

‘Why are you not looking at me?’

In my experience, people generally feel comfortable dismissing the medical concerns of those they cannot physically see hurting, and that includes many faculty members. One of the most disappointing things I’ve noticed is this issue pervades regardless of whether a student’s disability is visible or invisible. It seems some Cronkite professors simply don’t care either way, even going so far as to deny opportunities to students with disabilities that those without disabilities may enjoy.

“I’ve had professors that, (when) I have been just as good as other students, ... they’re like, ... ‘You can’t do this internship because it’s too many days of the week or it takes too much effort,’” said Madi Wolff, a Cronkite junior studying journalism who uses a wheelchair. “And I’m like, ‘I can. That’s exactly what I do. I’m the best at that. Why are you not looking at me?’”

Personally, I’ve been denied accommodations, and an ASU counselor even recommended that I drop out of the Cronkite School after hearing my concerns, explaining that it may be my best option amid the challenges I was experiencing there.

So I did.

I didn’t want to switch my major from journalism — I was thriving at Cronkite. I was able to create content for both of ASU Student Media’s organizations, I was realizing my passion for audio and video production, and I even had a 4.0 GPA. But all of that wasn’t enough.

Try as they might, this counselor couldn’t give me any advice other than to leave Cronkite entirely, as they said its curriculum is not designed to accommodate my disabilities, which would only leave me to continue to struggle in silence. A journalist, according to every Cronkite faculty member I’ve spoken to, never misses a day. In theory, this logic may make sense — if a journalist is consistently absent, they may not always be available to cover breaking news. After all, journalists can’t control when and where news breaks.

But people with disabilities know their limitations. It’s a fundamental part of our existence. I didn’t attend the Cronkite School to cover breaking news — I’m well aware that I’m not a top candidate for the breakneck life of reporting live.

But I don’t report live; I write satire for magazines. I applied for Cronkite with satire, I wrote satire during my time at the school, and I never said I would do anything different. I’m not built for a nine-to-five job, I know that. What I am built for is sitting in my room and writing — which I thought I could do. Cronkite told me differently.

The school’s blanket policy promotes only one style of journalism — the traditional around-the-clock live reporter — which is highly ableist against any student with health concerns, even something as routine as menstruation.

READ MORE: Insight: My body doesn't fit the Cronkite standard

In the subtleties

Most of the harm that comes to students with disabilities at ASU stems from subtle actions — imperceptible on the outside, but glaringly obvious from an insider view. Professors reluctantly accepting accommodations after a quick up-and-down glance at your seemingly non-disabled body, the frustration in their voices, the constant reminders that you’re missing assignments or lessons without providing any help with catching up. It’s discouraging, and it makes me reluctant to even use my SAILS accommodations.

“I had a professor where the class was just not set up to where I could get to anything,” Wolff said. “I was like, ‘Can we maybe just move this table forward a little bit, just so I have a little walkway?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh no, that messes up the flow of the class.’ So I’m like, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll just sit in this corner.’”

We’re clearly not alone in our frustrations. From 2009-2016, only 37% of college students with disabilities disclosed their disability to their school, according to surveys by the National Center of Education Statistics.

In a study published last year, researchers graded 50 top undergraduate institutions’ inclusion and accessibility for students with disabilities on an A to F scale. Of those 50 schools, just three universities received an A rating while 60%, or 30 schools, received a D or F grade.

These statistics paint a picture of a very grim reality: Students with disabilities don’t feel comfortable in higher education. Despite the ASU Library housing some leading texts on academic ableism, no meaningful steps have been taken to resolve this issue at the University.

On Oct. 19, the University rang in its first ASU Accessibility Awareness Day with a conference hosted by faculty members who specialize in accessible education for students with disabilities. At the event, these experts outlined ways to make the University — and higher education in general — a more accessible and inclusive place for students with disabilities.

The conference reeked of irony. This event proved one thing to me: The University is failing to take advantage of the wealth of resources and experts available to it to improve accessibility for students with disabilities. The conference lasted for over eight hours, and a slew of solutions to the exact issues this story is about were presented. Yet, here I am, writing this story anyway.

I told a Cronkite professor of mine last year that I had changed my major from journalism, mostly due to my health conditions and the counselor’s suggestion that I switch out of the school. Instead of showing concern, pleading that I remain in the program or making the slightest attempt to address this issue, she exclaimed, “Thank God.”

Even though Bolmarcich does not work at Cronkite, she was aware of the struggles students with disabilities face at the journalism school as a member of the University Senate, an elected governing body consisting of ASU faculty.

“My committee last year, Student-Faculty Policy, was actually looking at this question — problems with implementing student accommodations by faculty (throughout ASU),” Bolmarcich said. “In fact, they’re still looking at it.”

When even faculty outside the journalism school recognize how challenging it is for students with disabilities to remain at Cronkite, isn’t that a sign it’s time to change? 

I reached out to the University regarding whether or not faculty receive SAILS-specific training, and I was provided via email with a list of resources SAILS offers to train faculty members on teaching students with disabilities and accessibility.

However, the only service on the list that SAILS is required to provide for faculty members is giving them a notification when one of their students receives SAILS accommodations, alongside an information sheet about SAILS and how accommodations work.

The other resources on the list are optional on either an individual or departmental level — faculty may call SAILS with questions and have discussions with its staff, and departments may request that SAILS hold a training session. The University also offers two optional training series for faculty to learn about supporting students with disabilities: AccessZone and Lunch and Learn.

Educating universally

I’m not asking the Cronkite School to water down its curriculum or expectations — I admire the school’s commitment to fostering the next generation of journalists. But I am asking Cronkite to make its program accessible for talented students who just happen to have disabilities. Right now, Cronkite is missing out on the incredibly skilled would-be journalists who are unable to meet its sky-high standards due to circumstances beyond their control.

Sure, it would take a massive overhaul of the Cronkite School to fix such a deeply ingrained issue. But not all is lost. If we can raise our voices loud enough to finally be heard, these changes will happen.

Part of the solution is for Cronkite to better implement the principles of the Universal Design for Learning, a framework designed by education research organization CAST that’s becoming increasingly widespread in the classroom. It’s also mentioned in SAILS’ information sheet sent to faculty alongside notifications when their students' receive accommodations.

As defined by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, UDL is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”

UDL uses a three-pronged approach to foster an accessible educational environment for students of all backgrounds. First, it mandates that curricula include multiple means of engagement for students, such as group projects and solo work, so that lessons are stimulating and interesting for all types of learners.

The second component of UDL is incorporating multiple means of representation, meaning that information should be presented in different ways to reach as many students as possible. For example, I have sensory issues because of my autism. This means I get overstimulated easily, so it’s often difficult for me to digest information auditorily. Teachers can reduce this overstimulation even just by providing a written version of the information for me.

UDL’s final principle is providing students with multiple avenues to act and express themselves. Students interact with a learning environment in different ways depending on their abilities, backgrounds and experiences. For example, a student may struggle with writing but not speaking or vice versa. UDL gives an equal opportunity for each student to be an active learner.

While I have taken a few Cronkite classes that have strongly incorporated UDL’s three principles, they don’t carry across the entire school. This means some classes are not built to be accessible for all students, creating a system of exclusion against students with disabilities in the very courses they’re required to take.

If Cronkite really expects such an impossible standard of “perfection,” then it is complicit in developing only one type of journalist — one with the journalist’s body. 

Edited by Angelina Steel, Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.

This story is part of The Immunity Issue, which was released on Nov. 29, 2023. See the entire publication here.

Editor's notes: The opinions presented in this column are the author's and do not imply any endorsement from State Press Magazine or its editors.

This article was updated from the print version to reflect the comment provided by the University.

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