By Stephanie Rizzo, Rollins College
Many students experience a culture shock when they transition from high school to college, but some experiences are more challenging than others. Take Elizabeth Smith, a communication studies and music double major at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College. The former homeschooler has a neurologic condition that significantly impacts her heart, making it difficult to stand and walk for extended periods, so she uses a wheelchair on days when she’s going to be out and about.
“Being homeschooled meant my environment was already adapted to me, regarding my stamina with getting around the house, so I didn’t have to use a mobility aid,” she said. “Going to college marked the first time in my life where I was using a wheelchair daily.”
Suddenly, Smith found herself encountering physical barriers she hadn’t anticipated. A loose brick in the road, for instance, can pose a major problem for people navigating the world in a wheelchair. Rollins’ Office of Accessibility Services oversees efforts to create an all-around accessible campus, even offering personalized accommodations for disabled students, but for Smith, the problem was much more personal. She felt socially out of sync with her peers.
“From my perspective, people were treating me differently because I was in a wheelchair,” she said. “I don’t think they were intentionally trying to be hurtful, but rather that they didn’t quite know how to approach the topic of my disability or my needs.”
Facing Down Challenges
This phenomenon, known in communication studies as communication apprehension, is well-documented, said Rollins communication professor Sarah Parsloe, who worked with Smith on a research project this past summer through Rollins’ Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program.
“Communication apprehension often occurs in situations where people are trying to accommodate differences,” Parsloe said. “This applies to all sorts of cultural differences, such as encountering someone who speaks a different language, or, in Elizabeth’s case, someone who is a member of the disability community. Most people mean well, but they don’t know exactly how to approach these topics. As a result, people can essentially over-accommodate or shut down communication altogether for fear of saying the wrong thing.”
Smith’s biggest challenge was the question of identity. While at home during her teen years, she avoided claiming her disability identity. Once at Rollins, she had to face this aspect of herself, utilizing a mobility aid and navigating the social and physical challenges.
Due to this overwhelming identity shift, Smith returned to campus in the fall of her second year pushing herself not to use a mobility aid. But “abandoning” this aspect of her identity came with a price as her health declined. Then in spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home.
“Everything went virtual, and suddenly, I was at home again,” Smith recalled. “All of my infrastructure challenges vanished. I no longer had to worry about finding accessible parking or sticking out due to my wheelchair. I found that people in my classes were more willing to talk to me, and my stamina improved because I wasn’t trying to navigate campus or hide my disability.”
While the shift to virtual learning was valuable for Smith, she realized it was a temporary measure. She began to imagine what it might mean to advocate for disability rights once in-person learning resumed.
Liberal Arts in Action
Smith’s newfound energy meant she had more bandwidth for things like student organizations and opportunities outside the classroom. She joined the Student Government Association (SGA) and earned a virtual fellowship through the Global Livingston Institute, where she worked to improve public health outreach in Rwanda and Uganda. She also started thinking critically about her own identity, exploring what it means to be a disability advocate. What if she shifted her focus away from trying to hide part of her identity and leaned into her own experiences as a catalyst for change?
Enter the research project that Smith conducted with Parsloe, who realized that Smith’s story, while deeply personal, perfectly illustrated the need for more options when it came to upping accessibility standards in higher education. The pair got to work examining how the shift to virtual learning affected students with different abilities and how issues of accessibility are changing as the pandemic is changing.
Smith had already worked to pass SGA legislation related to accessibility as an Accessibility Senator during her junior year. She saw a summer research project as an opportunity to gather more data that could be used to inform additional changes. On top of funding granted through the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program, Smith and Parsloe received a grant from the Rollins Diversity Council.
The Researcher as Subject
In Summer 2021, Parsloe and Smith officially launched their research project, titled “COVID as a Catalyst: Shifting Experiences of Disability and (Mis)Fitting in the College Classroom.” They interviewed 16 students with physical, mental and learning-based disabilities to better understand how issues of accessibility changed with and through the pandemic. Among the experiences recorded in the data were Smith’s own.
“I was able to approach this project as an autoethnographic researcher, which means including my own personal reflections in our research,” Smith said. “I learned so much by listening to other students who also had disabilities. I felt more in tune with that community, and I started to see my own identity differently.”
Smith and Parsloe’s research showed that students with disabilities commonly engage in something called masking, where they try to appear as nondisabled as possible. The tendency to appear “normal” often stems from environmental challenges and internalized ableism. Though the pandemic was traumatic in many ways, it also had some unexpected positive effects in the way it normalized accommodations like virtual learning.
Smith and Parsloe presented their findings at a poster-board session for Rollins’ Board of Trustees and at the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language & Gender (OSCLG) 2021 virtual conference. They intend to share their research at another upcoming conference and are planning to publish their work in an academic journal.
Since concluding their research, Parsloe and Smith have continued working together to address systemic issues of ableism in higher education and advocate for more inclusive policies. Smith has been a guest speaker and facilitator in Parsloe’s Rollins College Conference (RCC) course, Disability and Social Change, where they worked with first-year students to plan the first-ever Rollins Disability Empowerment Week, held during the week of March 7, 2022.
“The whole idea is to expose students to the idea of ableism—to get them to understand the ways in which ableism is embedded in our society, where it comes from, how it circulates in the language we use, and how it shows up in our actions,” Parsloe said.
Change is incremental, but Smith is in it for the long haul and credits Rollins for the freedom and opportunity to discover her passion. She’s much more confident in her ability to speak on behalf of herself and her peers. She’s worked closely with Bethann Durlin, Rollins’ director of accessibility services, and has started brainstorming ways to create more inclusive spaces for students with disabilities at Rollins.
And it’s working. Smith, Parsloe and Durlin recently campaigned to reinstate handicap parking that had been shut down due to construction, and Rollins College worked with its contractors to make sure those spaces were safe and available. Some of the proposed changes include a disability ally training program, earmarking funds for infrastructure changes, and launching yearly Disability Empowerment Week programming.
Smith has continued to expand her involvement at Rollins as she returned to campus her senior year, serving as the Student Life Chair for SGA, president of the Pre-Law Society, and a social media ambassador for Rollins’ Office of Marketing. She is a member of the inaugural class of Hamilton Holt School students pursuing an accelerated master’s of public health degree. This summer, she’ll continue to build her experience when she undertakes her master’s practicum with The Lifeboat Project, an organization dedicated to combatting human trafficking.
“Being involved in the conversation has helped a lot,” Smith said. “I feel supported, empowered, and that people are listening.”
This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Rollins College website.