Students Drive Change in Wellness, Access

 /  Dec. 14, 2020, 10:46 a.m.

campus quad

Want hope for a better, more accessible, more welcoming UChicago experience? Look no further than your peers. While the university’s administration makes the splashiest headlines for its large-scale student wellness projects—and its continual shortcomings—countless students meanwhile strive tirelessly and without recognition to ensure a campus environment that is open to all. Just a small sampling of UChicago organizations devoted to improving students’ mental and physical health includes Phoenix Survivors Alliance, the Emergency Fund, Student Government’s (SG) Health and Wellness Committee, Emergency Medical Services, Lean on Me, and the Organization of Students with Disabilities. The Gate sat down with two of them—Active Minds and Students for Disability Justice (SDJ)—to understand the particular struggles UChicago undergrads and the Hyde Park community face, how these groups are working to address them, and how a year as turbulent as 2020 has shaped wellness issues at large. 

Active Minds is a mental health education and advocacy RSO. Current co-president Daily Desenberg told The Gate that the group “aims to spark dialogue about mental health to reduce the stigma, because it's so often just not talked about or glossed over.”

In addition to its educational efforts, Active Minds uses its advisors in Student Counseling Services (SCS), Health Promotion and Wellness, and Student Disability Services (SDS) to communicate student concerns to the university’s administration. 

SDJ, meanwhile, is a disability justice group dedicated to improving the accessibility of education and everyday life for disabled students at UChicago and in the surrounding community. The RSO defines disability broadly, SDJ Justice co-chair Kristen Busch explained to The Gate: “We include everything from mental health and psychiatric disabilities to physical disabilities, like people who are blind or have limited mobility.” 

Students with disabilities often confront problems with school that make their experiences uniquely difficult, and UChicago is no exception. If, for example, a student needs extra time for a test, or needs to take time off of school for a surgery, she needs an accommodation letter from SDS. Busch explained that the process can be slow, and not all students have health insurance that covers expensive psychiatric evaluations (USHIP does not cover all such evaluations). Plus, the campus poses daily struggles to students with lessened mobility. The university has made progress expanding building accessibility in recent years, but the difficulty of getting from the dorm to class and back again will always remain. 

Perhaps toughest of all, however, is the stigma surrounding mental health and disability. For disabled students, a classmate, professor, or university employee ignoring or invalidating their disability can be incredibly disheartening—and all too common.

Even UChicago institutions designed to be informed on issues of disability can fall short of that claim. Busch pointed to the university’s faculty-led accessibility board, which in the past has lacked substantive representation from the disabled community. Their meetings boiled down to “a ton of able-bodied people sitting there talking about disability,” she remarked, “which is [very] problematic.” In her conversations with administration, she has perceived a general lack of awareness that disabled students’ issues on campus are real or pressing matters. 

Unchecked, that unawareness can leave disabled students feeling that the school does not even want them. As an incoming first-year, recent graduate Brittney Dorton (A.B. ’20) acquired a significant physical disability just days before planning to arrive on campus for O-week. The College told her not to come, saying they could not guarantee her sufficient access to housing, classes, and transportation. Actions like this create “a circular feedback loop”, Busch said, “where you don't have students with disabilities who push for access and equality at the university.” Fortunately, Dorton was able to attend UChicago after taking a gap year. Though nearly every aspect of her campus experience was a challenge in comparison to her peers, she managed to be a driver of change the university sorely needed. As a fourth year, Dorton was Student Government’s vice president of Administration and chairman of a newly-formed Student Accessibility and Disability Advocacy Committee (SADAC). Her number one priority for campus accessibility: awareness. 

Active Minds and SDJ are hard at work educating the community on disability and mental health. Jointly, they host a yearly Seeing Through Stigma week, which features panels, performances, and a coffeehouse that all focus on mental health, disability, and their intersection. Both groups hold smaller conversations and bring in speakers throughout the year as well.

On top of this, Active Minds is pushing to include a mandatory mental health session in the Orientation Week schedule that would help destigmatize the subject and make students aware of the university’s mental health resources. “Every [Active Minds] member that has come in [to meetings] has always said that that was what their Orientation Week experience was lacking,” Desenberg said. “It’s a huge . . . thing that students should know about coming in.”

Of course, mental health and disability issues are not limited to UChicago’s campus. In the surrounding community, disabled students often face challenges beyond their respective disabilities. The state of Illinois recently found Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to be in violation of numerous special education laws. CPS denied disabled students transportation for arbitrary reasons, used overly complicated paperwork, and failed to get students with mental health issues into therapeutic schools during crises, among other shortcomings. CPS is now compensating the over ten thousand students to which it denied service, but the action comes years after the violations. 

To help address these inequalities, SDJ tutors disabled CPS students in the Hyde Park area. The tutoring can be academic, but SDJ volunteers also provide a huge support to teachers simply by interacting with students. Building connections with them is greatly beneficial to everyone involved, Busch explained. 

Back on campus, Active Minds and SDJ are also pushing for change through the university’s administration. However, both groups have found frustration in their time with UChicago’s SCS and SDS offices. Desenberg discussed how, as a smaller RSO, she feels the university’s administration does not consider their ideas too seriously: “We have connections with the administration, but they don't always listen to us.” She appreciated the time SCS and SDS took to sit down with Active Minds, but felt they never incorporated Active Mind’s ideas into their plans to any meaningful degree. 

Fortunately, Active Minds is freshly optimistic about their ability to influence the administration thanks to the SG Health and Wellness Committee’s newly-formed Health Empowering Alliance of RSOs Together, or HEART Alliance. HEART unifies student-run mental and physical health resources on campus, including UChicago Emergency Medical Services, Organization of Students with Disabilities, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, SDJ, and Active Minds. Desenberg hopes the alliance will give smaller organizations like Active Minds more of a voice with SCS and SDS. “It’s definitely been helpful having a community that is safe and [where we’re] all striving towards the same thing,” she said. Having a direct connection to Student Government is also a big plus, she explained. 

Ultimately, wellness initiatives at UChicago might be important now more than ever. In a normal year, students deal with mental health challenges related to surviving sexual assault, eating disorders, or just feeling socially isolated. But the COVID-19 pandemic has added a whole new layer of uncertainty, and the tragic killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—and the continued national reckoning with systemic racism—weigh heavy on students’ minds. “We had an overwhelming number of people reach out to us about the strain that these issues were putting on them,” Desenberg told The Gate. 

Educational outreach will certainly be more complicated moving into the new school year as both Active Minds and SDJ plan to move their efforts online. Desenberg told The Gate that Active Minds will “start to make more use of [its] social media platforms because it’s such an easy and useful way to reach a large number of people.” Still, concerns about reaching incoming first-years loom. At least with regards to the administration, Desenberg is confident contact will remain the same. 

But there are also unexpected positives that have come with the new online norms. For CPS tutoring, Busch told the Gate that “if anything . . . [SDJ is] reaching more [students] because [its] volunteers . . . are more easily able to remotely connect with them.” Even if setting kids and their parents up with a computer takes a little extra time on the front end, many special-needs students are getting more of the individual instruction they need. 

At UChicago, students with disabilities are experiencing highly-individualized benefits or drawbacks to online classes. Busch mentioned students with ADHD or those who struggle to focus on a screen for hours at a time have found the new situation tough. Meanwhile, remote learning presents major benefits to students with physical disabilities, who no longer need to figure out how they will get to class each day. 

Moving forward, Busch hopes UChicago actually keeps some online infrastructure around for good. “Having a class recorded remotely is a huge benefit to a lot of students,” she said. “Why can't that be offered after COVID?” Indeed, both Active Minds and SDJ remain hopeful that the challenges of today ultimately make students and the university more aware of the mental health and access issues on campus. Change is welcome, Busch explained, because “we've got a long way to go before UChicago's accessible for everyone.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred Students for Disability Justice as "Axis." They have since changed their name and the piece has been corrected to reflect that change. 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Chase Gardner

Chase Gardner is a fourth-year Environmental and Urban Studies major and Statistics minor. On campus, Chase helps research climate change's impacts on agriculture and runs for the varsity Cross Country and Track teams. In free moments, he enjoys reading, walking, crosswords, and playing the guitar.


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