A big reason I decided to attend UMass Boston, instead of any of the other universities I got accepted into, was due to the fact that this university seemed to be big on diversity. My goal was to be a journalist. I didn’t want to be surrounded by people who all shared the same thoughts and experiences. I am also a disabled student, so I wanted to ensure that I would be welcomed where I attended. Most importantly, I wanted to make sure that my necessary accommodations could be met. I have, unfortunately, been disappointed in this area.
Ableism is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as being “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities” (1). While attending open houses at the university, I learned a lot about the numbers and available resources for student help. I learned about the school’s focus on diversity while there. I learned about the Ross Center, which is supposed to provide help to disabled students. I was excited by the thought of this working out well. Instead, I’ve experienced either ableism or the inability to accommodate in every semester that I’ve been here, and occasionally both in the same semester, from both students and staff.
The biggest issue of my first semester was other students. UMass Boston has a tobacco ban on campus, which has been in effect since January of 2016—over a year prior to my attendance at the university. Despite the fact that tobacco and nicotine products are not allowed on campus property, I was faced with smokers on a daily basis. I could not enter certain buildings without having to run by students smoking cigarettes. Sometimes they even did so right in front of one of the tobacco ban or “no smoking” signs.
My main health problem is that I have a cell disease called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, which causes the mast cells in my body to be hyperactive. Those mast cells release histamines in my body, which is what causes physical reactions. The outcome of this is me being allergic to most things. I have 76 known food allergies, and multiple other allergies to flowers, fragrances, chemicals, smoke, etc. My symptoms vary from hives, dizziness, loss of vision, brain fog, passing out, vomiting, blood pressure drops, weakness, inability to stand, and anaphylaxis.
Cigarette smoke is one that can trigger an anaphylactic reaction—a life threatening scenario where my throat will swell up. This is why I favored a school that held a no tobacco policy. Just during my second week of classes at UMass Boston, I had two anaphylactic reactions, multiple ER visits, and went through five EpiPens.
I thought it could only improve from there. I switched to online courses during my next semester, however, that required me to have to drop out of the Honors College program. I was told that they could not realistically accommodate my inability to safely take courses on campus, since the Honors courses were all on campus. I was disappointed, but took it in stride.
Over time, more little issues popped up. I’ve had a girl push me to the side in order to walk into the handicap bathroom stall I had been attempting to wheel myself into, during a bad day when I was utilizing my wheelchair. People have made negative comments about my filtration mask on occasion, which I need to minimize the possibility of having a dangerous reaction to a student’s perfume or hairspray. My advisor at the time was not open to helping me try to figure out a way of getting my degree while also maintaining my physical safety. I had to drop my Political Science minor, since it—like the Honors College—did not have online options. It was little things, which added to my frustration over time.
Then came the bigger issues.
I was told by a member of staff that one of my accommodations was “unfair” to other students, as if my disability were a privilege, in regard to a job where I had been allowed to largely work from home for the past year prior to the conversation. I was given the option of doing double the work and forcing myself to go into an office which had not provided accommodations for me, if I wanted to keep my job and be paid. I was also told by the same member of staff that I would have been fired—due to my physical restrictions and disability—if I were anyone else. On top of that, I was refused payment for several weeks of work that I had done. This is largely inappropriate and likely goes against discrimination laws.
I also faced issues at the university when one of the clubs on campus refused to refund the money I had spent on a ticket to the 2019 Spring Ball. When I had bought my ticket, I had asked about flowers and was told that I needn’t worry about them, since people were leaning towards artificial decor. I found out a few days prior to the event that the ball was actually using real flowers in the centerpieces—baby’s breath, roses and sunflowers. Despite the fact that I have extreme reactions to at least two of those flowers, I was not allowed to get the money back which I had wasted on a ticket.
Perhaps these things seem like small issues. There will always be bullies in life. There will always be rule-breakers. That does not mean that these things are okay though.
UMass Boston’s website states that they “value and provide a learning environment that nurtures respect for differences, excites curiosity, and embodies civility,” and which “encourages our broadly diverse campus community to thrive and succeed” (1). The university is not succeeding in this goal and mission if they do not meet the needs of people with varied abilities on campus. It is not meeting this goal if disabled students, like myself, are being told that it’s “unfair” for them to be provided means for them to stay involved by staff on campus.
I have enjoyed my courses here at UMass Boston. In many ways, I really love this university. Most of the professors and students have been wonderful. I have kept quiet on a lot of these things due to this fact, and from wanting to try to fit in without causing further issues. Staying quiet never solved anything, though. The fact is that there are areas where change is needed.