5/10/2021 Kim O'Brien

In Their Own Words: Students With Disabilities Share Perspectives

How is Franklin and Marshall College supporting students with disabilities? Four students share their experiences.

Franklin and Marshall College senior Conor Larison entered college wary of laboratory classes due to a visual disability. 

His experience with the F&M Department of Physics changed that. 

“I ended up becoming a STEM major despite not really liking labs. A professor who can accommodate – and really turn around a preconceived notion you have going in as a disabled student – can really change somebody's course,” he said.  

Three peers joined Larison in a panel focused on navigating college life with chronic illnesses and/or disabilities. The conversation was part of a larger series called “In Their Own Words,” designed to bring awareness of unique student experiences to faculty and professional staff. 

Event moderators included Alison Hobbs, director of student accessibility services, and Shari Goldberg, assistant professor of English and faculty adviser to the Deaf and Disabled Student Union. 

Read a recap of abridged student responses below.

  • In this 2019 photo, Conor Larison '21 (left) and Faisal Alam '19 complete physics summer research. In this 2019 photo, Conor Larison '21 (left) and Faisal Alam '19 complete physics summer research. Image Credit: Deb Grove

F&M: What do you consider when choosing or starting a class? 

Kate Lautenbach, sophomore: I look at how other people’s experiences were with the professor. I also look at their syllabus just to see their rules. I can get a general vibe from the syllabus to see how strict they'll be or how accommodating they'll be.

Conor Larison, senior: One obvious thing that I always think about is how the class may generally conflict with my disability. Just for context – and I share this with everybody – I have a visual disability that results in complete colorblindness and low visual acuity. So, I generally am very afraid of art classes, especially color composition-based art classes. I've also had a general fear of lab classes since I was young. 

I would also say those aren't necessarily things that I couldn't do with an accommodating professor. My brother, who has the same disability as myself, is an amazing artist. I ended up becoming a STEM major despite not really liking labs. A professor who can accommodate – and really turn around a preconceived notion you have going in as a disabled student – can really change somebody's course. 

  • "It makes it a lot easier to learn knowing that this a safe space for me to be in," said Nicole Olarsch '21. "It makes it a lot easier to learn knowing that this a safe space for me to be in," said Nicole Olarsch '21.

F&M: How have professors relayed a welcoming or difficult environment for you to learn?

Lydia Shaw, junior: I am lucky to have had professors who are completely understanding of my accommodations. I have a chronic illness that requires some accommodations that can be inhibitive to my participation in the course. I might not be able to come to class or I might have to come to class late or leave class early. All of my professors have been willing to have that conversation with me. 

Nicole Olarsch, senior: When I present my accommodations to a professor and I give them the opportunity to ask questions, that can be positive, but has also led to some instances of “What do you need this accommodation for?” I would not like to be asked what my disability or chronic health condition is that requires such an accommodation.

Larison: I’ve had a mixed bag, which I think every disabled student has had in their academic career. The Department of Physics was extremely welcoming... Just really having empathy is the biggest thing from a professor's side to realize.

  • "Students should come in knowing that there's this community. They shouldn't be afraid or isolated, and shouldn't be averse to coming," said Lydia Shaw ’22. "Students should come in knowing that there's this community. They shouldn't be afraid or isolated, and shouldn't be averse to coming," said Lydia Shaw ’22.

F&M: Are there aspects of the college culture that are particularly challenging?

Shaw: Part of our culture of academic rigor and engagement, while it is healthy to encourage students to achieve to their fullest extent, [reaches] a certain point when students with disabilities and chronic illnesses have a hard time being included. There is only so much that I can do per day. 

Larison: It’s just such a small campus… everybody really wants to interact. But for a student with a disability, if you wave at me and you're not three feet in front of me – even if you're my mom – I won't be able to tell who you are. Just try to have that cognizant in the back of your mind, so you don't put somebody in an uncomfortable situation for something that they can't control. 

F&M: Would you say that students on campus are accepting of students with disabilities?

Shaw: There are going to be good experiences and bad experiences. I have some friends who are very understanding. If I'm not feeling well, they’ll do anything that they can to help me feel better. I've also had some experiences with peers who just don't understand or don't have information pertaining to even what a chronic illness or disability is.

Larison: It’s hard to tell if this is an F&M thing or just a human race thing, but it's always some really good positives and some negatives. It's really about empathy. I've gotten this my entire life: “You have these accommodations, you're getting treated special.” But I don't want to encourage people to not tell people about their accommodations if they want to. 

  • "Speaking about the campus in general, I would like more of an education about how to act around service dogs or mobility aids," said Kate Lautenbach '23. "Speaking about the campus in general, I would like more of an education about how to act around service dogs or mobility aids," said Kate Lautenbach '23.

F&M: What would you wish to share with oncoming students?

Larison: I think every disabled and chronically ill person is really used to self-advocating, especially by the time they get to college. I did a lot of self-advocating. I did a lot of things through my department, because I had the privilege of being part of such a wonderful department. If I had issues with one professor, we could deal with it internally. 

But, even just for a sense of community, keeping in touch with the Office of Student Accessibility Services is an amazing resource. The DDS [Deaf and Disabled Student Union] wasn't around when I first came. I've been really inspired by them. Go to those events. It’s nice to hear somebody else talk about issues that you've experienced, that they've also experienced. It can be very cathartic. 

Shaw: The sense of community is really important to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, just because conditions can be really isolating – especially if you see people around you who are able-bodied and you are not. 

I think that building conversation, but also building community, is definitely something that is really important.  Students should come in knowing that there's this community. They shouldn't be afraid or isolated, and shouldn't be averse to coming. Know that this student group [DDS] exists. 

F&M: What would make F&M more equitable for students with disabilities?

Olarsch: If we were to just change the campus climate to focus less on productivity at all costs, and more on well-being for students. Professors, especially during COVID, are saying, “Prioritize your mental health.” That’s really hard, especially for seniors. This is what we know. We're used to going

Lautenbach: Speaking about the campus in general, I would like more of an education around how to act around service dogs or mobility aids. People give me weird looks when I walk around with my service dog. There are two spectrums: People either are super careful and act like I'm about to break, or people try to step on him. I dream of some form of education so people don't try to run up and pet him all the time or try to pet him while I’m in class. 

He’s cute and people want to pet the dog, so I can see why it's hard. I just wish there was more education around that.

"A professor who can accommodate – and really turn around a preconceived notion you have going in as a disabled student – can really change somebody's course."
Conor Larison '21
Conor Larison '21

Student panelists recommend the following campus resources: 

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