With the aid of a black cane, junior business major Naji Nizam moved steadily toward President Samuel L. Stanley Jr.’s office. On his way into the building, one of the handicap-accessible doors leading inside started to close on top of him while he headed through the entrance.
“This is exactly what we’re talking about,” Nizam, who was born with a rare neuromuscular condition, said.
For Nizam, navigating academic life comes with an extra set of challenges. He moves more slowly than his able-bodied peers and has slipped on ice getting back to his car in a handicapped parking spot more than once. There have been occasions, particularly in poor weather, where Nizam has decided it’s easier to avoid class entirely rather than park in the back of a lot or use a ride service he considers humiliating.
Nizam, along with around 80 other students and campus activists, gathered on Wednesday afternoon for a march to demand better accommodations for students with disabilities.
The march was organized by the Disability Rights Coalition (DRC), an impromptu alliance of campus activists led by Nizam and former Peer Mental Health Alliance (PMHA) president and Stony Brook alumna Allilsa Fernandez and co-sponsored by the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU).
“No matter the form of disability, Stony Brook is coming up short in providing students with proper accommodations to pursue their education and interests,” current PMHA president and junior psychology Alexandra Sindo said at the start of the march. “Students are missing classes, ending up homeless, going hungry, losing scholarships or coming out of Stony Brook University feeling worse than they already do. We cannot in good conscience allow this to continue.”
Stony Brook’s accessibility issues violate both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its own policies, Fernandez said.
“Under Stony Brook’s own policies, P517, which is under ADA law section 504, states that it must be said in all brochures, clearly, that there’s accommodations,” Fernandez said. “Currently, if you look at all major events, including ceremonies, we do not have that written. How can people with disabilities attend these major events if they don’t know where to turn?”
Megaphone in hand, Fernandez led those gathered in a series of chants, including “Stony Brook, respect the ADA,” and “the students, united, will never be defeated.”
As the demonstration died down, two of the march’s organizers, Nizam and Stony Brook alumna and CUNY master’s of public health student Jacqueline Albin, made their way into the Administration Building to try and speak directly with President Stanley.
Albin was present to represent the DRC’s students with mental health issues. She was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the end of high school. Two months into her undergraduate career at Stony Brook, after being placed on medical leave and taken to the hospital, the school sent her a letter she said exacerbated her troubles.
“While I was still in the hospital, I received a letter from the university saying I had violated the code of conduct, to have somebody remove everything from my dorm within 48 hours. I was not allowed on campus, not allowed to set foot on campus and I was suspended from all classes.”
While she was ultimately able to return to Stony Brook, Albin felt some of her classmates feared disclosing their struggles with mental illness after hearing stories similar to her’s, and the campus’s ADA committee has failed to properly accommodate students with invisible disorders.
“People hear stories, ‘Oh, if you seek help you’ll get kicked out of school,’ … When we tried to bring up all the mental health policies and interim suspension problems, they kept saying this is not what the ADA committee is for, even though the committee is for all disabilities and mental health disabilities are under the ADA.”
When Albin and Nizam arrived at the entrance to President Stanley’s office, they were met by five university police officers. The officers explained they were unsure how many students would try to enter the office and prepared to face a mass of protesters clogging the halls similar to the March for Humanities two years prior.
After a few moments, Assistant Dean of Students Jeffrey Barnett came to speak with Nizam about the issues he wanted to discuss. He was joined by Interim Chief Diversity Officer and Assistant Dean for Multicultural Affairs Jarvis Watson shortly afterward, who then spoke with Albin.
The pair left the hallway around 20 minutes later, both agreeing the experience went well.
“It was a three-hour trip to get here but I’d do it [again] in a heartbeat,” Albin said.
Nizam walked away feeling the DRC was able to make substantial progress through the demonstration, and Barnett and Watson would be valuable allies for their cause.
“You can tell right off the bat when someone genuinely cares and when they’re giving you lip service,” Nizam said. “What I took away from my discussion with Jeff Barnett and Dr. Watson, they seem genuinely concerned in the issues we’re demonstrating about.”
Correction, 12:51 P.M.: An earlier version of this article misspelled Naji Nizam’s last name as “Nazim.” It has now been corrected to “Nizam.”