A student criticizes the accessibility of Broadway Residence Hall, calling the ramps hazardous, especially when icy. Sergio Cervantes/PSU Vanguard

PSU falls short on addressing accessibility concerns

DRC is chronically underfunded and understaffed

The Disability Resource Center (DRC) at Portland State ensures that the university is inclusive and accessible to students with disabilities by providing a variety of accommodations and services to those with particular needs. Yet, students with disabilities and staff at PSU express major grievances about the inefficacy of the DRC, citing understaffing and underfunding of the center, as well as pervasive ableism throughout university infrastructure. 


Many students with disabilities at PSU encounter significant challenges in accessing the resources and support that they need to thrive in an academic environment. For example, students face delays and barriers to course accommodations offered through the DRC.


DRC accommodations 


For a student to apply for accommodations, they must register an online account through the DRC, fill out an application detailing their disabilities and their request for accommodations, and then schedule an appointment with an access counselor at the DRC to assess their eligibility.


If approved, every term thereafter, students will submit a request through the DRC online system for each of their classes. This will alert their instructor about the student’s accommodations. Students are also responsible for communicating with their instructors about their specific needs.


Examples of accommodations include ASL interpreting; peer note-taking; alternatives to presentations; extended time on tests; flexible attendance, in which students are not penalized for missing a certain amount of class, determined on a case-by-case basis; video captioning and/or real-time captioning, which allows students to read what is being said during in-person classes, virtual classes or in audiovisual materials; and deadline extensions, which allows students a two- to three-day extension for submitting work.


Ironically, many students report facing significant barriers in actually securing accommodations, one of which is the tedious—and sometimes declined—application. “I feel like they [the DRC] require a lot of proof that I need help, instead of just being understanding,” said PSU student Jay Lewallen. 


“I had to fill out a bunch of [forms], like, so many forms, and then I had to contact my doctor,” Lewallen said. “They had to contact my doctor. It felt like it was a pretty tedious process for something so simple.”


In order to receive accommodations, students must have a medical diagnosis. PSU student Lex Faller explained how, while they had been granted an accommodation for captions and transcriptions at Portland Community College, they were denied the accommodation at PSU because they lacked a formal diagnosis of auditory processing disorder.


“On their frontward-facing stuff, they say that they will do [the diagnosis process] through Student Health and Counseling [aka SHAC],” Faller said. In Jan. 2023, Faller requested a diagnosis through SHAC, but never received a response. “I still haven’t heard anything,” they said. “And I’ve asked the DRC about it and they said they still can’t do anything unless I get a diagnosis.”


PSU student Jessica Vilaysanh had a similar experience. In 2021, Vilaysanh requested accommodations from the DRC at PSU using a diagnosis that was from 2020. While Western Washington University’s DRC did accept the documentation, PSU’s DRC denied the documentation because it was too old.


“So I had to go out to my doctor,” Vilaysanh said. “I typically didn’t see my doctor very often because it was [COVID-19], so everything was booked all the fucking time. By the time I got the accommodations I needed, it was a little too late for my GPA to be super cool, because it took them like a term. It was just so tedious.”


Even if a student has a formal diagnosis and is granted accommodations through the DRC, students report that professors are sometimes unable or unwilling to provide accommodations. Additionally, PSU does not require professors to provide accommodations if they alter the fundamental nature of a program, activity or course outcome.


Students can reach out to the professor as soon as they register for the class to determine if the course can accommodate them or not. However, this does not always yield results. “I’ve tried being like, ‘Hey, professors, can you email me the syllabus a bit early, so I can see if this class is good for me, because I’m disabled?’” Vilaysanh said. “And they’re like, ‘I haven’t even written the syllabus yet.’ So it’s like, what the fuck do I do?”


“It’s very frustrating from my standpoint having to drop classes, because I couldn’t take tests the way I need to take tests,” said PSU student Via Marie Nichols. “Or getting penalized for missing classes when I’m having an active crisis that the DRC has been informed about and has on record that I need help with, and it’s just not getting taken care of.”


“I have had one class that I had to last-minute drop, because [they made it clear that] we’re not going to do anything to help you here,” Faller said. “And they [the professor] sent me this lovely letter, which is apparently the form that Portland State gives to professors… [which says to the professor] you only have to agree to accommodations if they don’t alter the way that your course is set up.”


While students are expected to communicate with professors about their accommodations, they are frustrated by a lack of consistency when it comes to negotiating these needs. “Most of them [professors] are compliant, I would say…” Vilaysanh said. “At PSU, it’s wishy-washy as fuck. You gotta thug it out. If your professor wants to comply, that’s up to them.”


While some faculty are less accommodating than others, even the most anti-ableist, well-intentioned professors are stretched thin within the confines of an institution that fails to support them in fully addressing each student’s unique needs.


“I have had conversations with professors who have said that they aren’t getting enough support—or even close to enough support—to be able to execute the accommodations,” Faller said, regarding remote attendance accommodations.


“There’s been several quarters where I’m registered for the standard 12 credit hours,” Faller said. “I get in, and then they’re like, ‘I can’t do your accommodation,’ but it’s too late for me to switch to a different class. And so I’m kind of just up a creek. Honestly, the DRC system with PSU, it’s incredibly inefficient.”


Some accommodations are more difficult or time-consuming for professors to manage than others, such as accommodations for closed-captioning and subtitles. “There’s a turnaround time,” said Melissa Thompson, professor of sociology at PSU. “You [the professor] have to submit them to the DRC… Basically, they [the DRC] need them, like, two weeks before it’s actually required in class, because they need time to do the captioning.”


“It makes sense,” Thompson said. “I totally get it, and I wish I could do that for everything, but as a human being, it’s hard to be two weeks ahead.” 


Professors are expected to provide all accommodations as well as communicate with each student individually about their needs. Thompson explained that professors can be notified of accommodation needs at any point in the term, which can be a challenge to juggle.


“Especially when students will get [accommodations] halfway through the quarter, it can sometimes be hard to keep track of,” Thompson said. “So, I try to reach out, but I don’t always succeed… I haven’t felt like it’s always necessary to reach out, if I’m just going to give [the accommodations] anyway.”


Thompson detailed how the accommodations process works from a professor’s perspective, explaining that the Thursday or Friday before the first week of classes, professors will receive an email from the DRC with a list of their enrolled students and their respective accommodations.


“I generally just provide all the accommodations on my list that I’m supposed to,” Thompson said. “If I’m not sure about the right way to offer that accommodation, or if I feel like I need to confirm and check with students sometimes, I’ll reach out [to the student].”


However, students describe how this scenario doesn’t always play out so neatly in other classrooms. “With the automated letters [detailing student accommodations] for remote classes, the professor signs off, they agree to it, but until I set up a meeting with them, and then specifically I’m like ‘Hey, I need these accommodations, you already approved them,’ they won’t do it,” Faller said. “And I’ve been in several classes where I have to continuously remind them [the professor] to do it throughout the term.”


Lewallen echoed this sentiment. “I have flexible attendance accommodations, because I have a chronic illness that sometimes makes it hard for me to go to class,” they said. “So they [the DRC] say they tell my professors, but I don’t think they actually tell my professors, because my professors never actually know that I have accommodations.”


Not only are there communication issues impeding access to accommodations, but students are also frustrated by the fact that the DRC doesn’t send out automated accommodation emails until one to two work days before classes start. By that point, if a professor is unwilling or unable to provide an accommodation, it can be difficult to find equivalent courses still open for enrollment.


Underfunding of the DRC


Universities across the country are experiencing “a spike in students registering with disability services to receive accommodations,” according to an article published by Inside Higher Ed. At PSU, this seems to be the case as well.


“I’ve been at PSU for more than 20 years,” Thompson said. “[Based on] my own personal experience—just in the students in my class—there’s been a huge increase in the number of students with DRC accommodations. So obviously if the DRC isn’t staffed hugely, more in terms of more people, they’re going to be dealing with the same amount of people [staffing the DRC] dealing with way more accommodations. So I think that’s been a little difficult for them to try to be informing us and reaching out and being clear about directives and expectations.”


Many agree that understaffing, and inadequate funding of the DRC, are major factors that contribute to accessibility issues at PSU. “The university just doesn’t really prioritize funding the DRC a lot of the time,” said Hanna Kane, a student engagement intern at the DRC.


“There’s a lot of things that we just aren’t completely able to do, because there’s not enough people and there’s way too many students,” Kane said. “So certain things are more, I guess, aspirational. We’re just doing the best we can with very limited staffing right now.” 


Many students reported experiencing long wait times during the accommodation application process, as well as far-out and limited availability for appointments with DRC staff and counselors. This is particularly true leading up to the start of fall term.


“By the time school starts, [the DRC is] inundated with requests,” said Tricia Dowis, a leader for one of the DRC-hosted affinity groups. “That would be one thing—give the DRC more funding because they are severely underfunded. That is number one. Number two would be to make the accommodations process easier for those who need it, which again goes hand-in-hand with funding the DRC.”


While the DRC as an entity lacks the funding needed to be more effective, students recognize that the center staff themselves are not to blame. “I do feel like the people who are directly staffing the DRC care about students with disabilities, but they’re not paid enough or they don’t have enough staff to actually help us, or enforce our accommodations or what we need,” Nichols said.


“I have nothing against the DRC staff,” Vilaysanh said. “They’ve been helpful. It’s just, like, I can’t get to them. So it’s like a matter of accessibility… I feel like the university has a lot of resources, but they all fund them poorly. So they don’t even matter. It just looks good on paper.”


Inaccessible infrastructure at PSU


At PSU, students with disabilities point to many infrastructural flaws that prevent them from fully engaging in their education. One issue is that the physical landscape at PSU is difficult to navigate for wheelchair users.


“I’m a mobility-aid user,” Faller said. “I use a wheelchair most of the time, a manual wheelchair, and the few times that I am on campus that’s a joke. It is a joke to try to get around the campus in a wheelchair.”


“[Some ramps are] graded so high that I can’t get up them,” Faller said. “The sidewalks are uneven and there’s huge curb cuts. The first time I took my wheelchair to campus, I damaged my wheelchair, which is a very expensive thing to have happened. It’s scary when you’re alone in a mobility aid that you rely on just trying to get around your campus, and your device gets damaged.”


“Living on campus is very inaccessible,” Vilaysanh said. “I lived in Broadway [Residence Hall] for two years… Those ramps are a joke. Everybody jokes about those ramps, especially if they’re icy. Good fucking luck. Go down those ramps at your own risk.”


At PSU, wheelchair users also frequently encounter recurring elevator breakdowns. “I’ve lived in a couple different residence halls, and the elevators are constantly breaking,” Lewallen said. “And they take forever to get someone back out to fix it… That just kind of makes it to where people can’t exist. They can’t go to class.”


Even once inside the classroom, students point out that some rooms are less accessible than others. In Cramer Hall, for example, many auditorium-style classrooms are without ramps, flanked by stairs and filled with tiny chair-desk combos completely unusable for many mobility aid users. 


These rooms often contain specifically designated chairs and desks for students with disabilities, but they are isolated from the rest of the class—either at the very back of the auditorium or in front of everyone. 


Moreover, many students with disabilities have limited availability to attend campus in-person. The lack of remote attendance options available at PSU events and programming is another barrier to participation for these students.


For example, PSU held a recent strategic planning session with President Ann Cudd. Faller explained how they reached out to the event organizers requesting an option for Zoom participation, but their request was ultimately refused.


“I was under the impression that we did figure out how to have meaningful remote discussions during the early months of the pandemic,” Faller said. “And while I understand it, I think that it says a lot about whose voices you want to hear at these strategic planning sessions.”


“I don’t feel like I get to be an active participant of the Portland State student body because of that extreme pressure to return to normal that’s leaving students who can’t necessarily do that behind,” Faller said.


Affinity groups


Faller is not only a student but also an affinity group leader at PSU. Affinity groups are student-led groups hosted by the DRC. Currently, there are three different groups, one focused on advocacy, another oriented towards neurodiverse students and a third geared towards socializing. 


According to the DRC website, “the groups center and create space for disabled students to learn from and build community together.” The groups meet weekly, with in-person and virtual options. More specific information can be found on the DRC website.


“We want this to be an extension of [the] DRC,” Dowis said. “Because a lot of us have talked about our journeys to even getting accommodations or even just accepting that we have a disability, because there’s a lot of stigma still involved with ADHD [and] with autism… There’s still a stigma around disability period.”


“We take the issues and we’re trying to organize to improve conditions for disabled students at large at Portland State…” Faller said about the advocacy group. “Being a disabled student at Portland State and at any college is very isolating.”


“Students are kind of told that they shouldn’t disclose their disability in public or talk about their disability in public,” Faller said. “Trying to counteract that in order to create a broader community is super important.”


Faller explained how, while the advocacy group is a safe space for discussing and sharing self-advocacy tips, the group ultimately seeks to influence systemic change. “Something structurally needs to improve at Portland State,” Faller said.