Snow days and disability: Administrative ableism in Smith’s winter storms

Lena Wilson ’16
Contributing Writer

As a disabled person and member of the Smith College Disability Alliance, I have ceased to be shocked by the problems with accessibility at this school. As a senior on the precipice of graduation, I’ve learned to let ableist micro- (and macro-) aggressions wash over me. In many ways, I have been robbed of the privilege of anger. I feel disempowered to react openly when professors blatantly ignore requests for trigger warnings in class, or when professors ask us to watch videos without captions, or even when the concept of “insanity” gets thrown around as a rhetorical device. I am admittedly complicit in this school’s culture of ableist silence. However, I want to break that silence now to talk about one particular issue which came to mind a few weeks ago: snow days.

Most people do not realize that snow days are an accessibility issue. Many of us who are not mobility impaired or physically disabled may not even really understand why snow days happen in the first place; we are just happy for an excuse to stay in bed and miss class. However, a student’s ability to attend class should warrant the most consideration when deciding whether or not to declare a snow day. Though there are reasons unrelated to disability that might result in a snow day such as an inability to drive into town, the college rarely seems to call snow days out of a concern for the student body. When the administration fails to declare a snow day when it is snowing hard enough to make the walkways, ramps and stairs perpetually unplowable, they are willingly creating a campus that is outright dangerous for students, particularly those with mobility-related disabilities.

Wheelchairs and power chairs do not cooperate in the snow. Canes do not serve their purpose if they are slipping out from under you. Falling down, for some, carries perilous consequences. All of the above would be true anywhere, never mind Smith’s abundance of hills and winding paths. A wheelchair-using student who lives on Elm Street and has a class in Ford Hall, for instance, would be completely unable to get to class safely on their own. Yes, the access van exists, but on snowy days it can be unreliable at best. These problems prevent the disabled of students from engaging with classes, forcing them into a game of academic catch-up in which they never asked to participate.

I want to make clear that I am not criticizing the hardworking Smith College staff, particularly those involved in the Office of Disability Services and Facilities Management. This is an administrative issue. On days when it is impossible to keep the walkways (including all ramps and stairs!) consistently clear, it is irresponsible to ask students to attend class. Failure to appropriately declare snow days quite literally bars disabled students’ access to education. I want better from Smith. I want to stop being disappointed. I will keep being loud.

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