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January 12, 2011 - Image 12

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2011-01-12

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Rnee Echols is completely blind. She has
a seeing-eye dog to navigate the University's
campus. She's also a GSI. Her stories of
struggle with the current administrative
system are extensive. In her first semesters
pB as an English GSI in 2007, Echols verbally
asked her department supervisor for an aide
to assist her with students the classroom, but her,
request was ignored.

dents must complete their coursework in 10
semesters or fewer.
Kolbe said there are many logistical issues that
also affect her experience as a GSI. Since there is
no flashing light in her office in Haven Hall, she
never knows when thefire alarm is sounding.
"It's not like Haven Hall hasn't burned down
before. It has," Kolbe said.
She said the department tried to remedy this
situation by having the fire captains come and get
her in case of a fire. However, the building's fire
captains leave their office at Sp.m., and most GSIs
work past regular office hours.
Mandatory meetings, like the sexual harass-
ment workshops, are difficult for Kolbe to attend
because accommodations are usually not provid-
"There should be a central person that you go
to. There should be an office for employees with
disabilities instead of me having to send out 50
e-mails to coordinate a meeting I only have to
attend once," she said.
The biggest problem Kolbe faces is that admin-
istrators and professors don't exactly understand
her disability. Sometimes their discomfort with
her situation is palpable, or they forget Kolbe has
complete hearing loss because she doesn't have a
"deaf accent."
"Sometimes other students, even in my cohort,
have been a little uncomfortable because a disabil-
ity is kind of new to people," Kolbe explained.
Kolbe has had professors hold personalmeet-
ings with her to test the extent of her hearing loss.
One professor actually covered her mouth and
spoke to see if Kolbe could hear. Because of Kolbe's
deafness, she couldn't hear and found the "test"
extremely insulting.
But Kolbe has learned to deal with reactions to
her disability in the teaching and learning arena in
her own way. Kolbe picks up expressions and body
language to gauge how loud or soft she is talking,
or even if her voice is too shrill.
Focusing on the issue
Laura Wernick, a former GSI, is pursuing her
post-doctorate education. Her disability is invis-
Wernick has Attention Deficit Disorder and a
learning disability that make it hard to be recog-

nized as-a student and professional in need of spe-
cific accommodations.
She said the University fails to consider gradu-
ate students with disabilities as employees or pro-
"We are doing academic work here, and the
issues are actually institutional," Wernick said.
"I think it's important to take a step back and see
this as more systemic within the larger issue of
The stigma regarding people with learning dis-
abilities is potent, Wernick says.
Wernick feels thather disability is often ignored
or perceived as an excuse not to work. She said
often people don't understand that students with
invisible disabilities also need accommodations.
In her pursuit for a faculty position after her
graduate student program, Wernick has had a
hard time trying to inform people that having
a learning disability sometimes prevents adults
from practicing traditional methods of teaching.
Because people with disabilities are considered an
expensive burden, an academic career is hard to
pursue when accommodations are necessary.
"The struggle then becomes how you advocate
for what you need without then creating a reputa-
tion at the University as somebody who is a bur-
den," Wernick said.
Wernick finds ways to work around her disabili-
ty; she scans her textbooks to her computer so that
it can read them aloud to her. During her gradu-
ate studies at the University, her textbooks were
scanned halfway into the semester only after con-
stant inquiries. This prevented her from receiving
a learning experience equal to other students.
Because of her disability, Wernick had to grap-
ple with the issue of teaching a class when she has
a hard time writing on the board in front of the
class. Her learning disability results ina difficulty
thinking and writing at the same time. When she
wrote on the board, most of her words were mis-
spelled. Wernick also could not teach and be a stu-
dent at the same time, which made it take much
longer to complete her program.
Wernick said institutional factors prevent peo-
ple from coping with their situations.
"I don't think the system is set up at all for
people with disabilities. That interface isn't neces-
sarily an easy interface, it is not a typical student

The incident inspired her to become an active
member in the University's Graduate Employee
Organization - a labor union that has lobbied for
GSI rights since 1976. Echols is now the lead nego-
tiator for the organization and is an extremely
active member in contract bargaining processes
with the University.
Teaching a room full of undergraduate students
can be a daunting responsibility for a graduate stu-
dent, but that task can become evenmore ofachal-
lenge for a GSI with a disability.
Currently, GSIs with disabilities don't know to
address issues concerning their disability with the
University administration. This is a problem that
has come on the radar within the last two or three
years and has led to a partnership of disabled GSIs
and GEO.
Echols, who attends the bargaining meeting
with University representatives every week, said
there has been a more concerted effort in the last
few years to figure out what problems disabled
GSIs are facing.
"This is something organized labor has not
taken on before," Echols said. "To understand job
accommodations as a right is a fairly new concept."
Echols said because the GEO is such a strong
union, it has been using its power to focus on social
justice issues, not just financial parity issues.
Echols calls GEO's disability concerns "ground-
breaking" and "historic" because no other union is
tacklingsuch topics.
GEO President Rob Gillezeau also expressed
pride in the organization's actions.
"In a lot of unions, it wouldn't come to the fore-
front of their bargaining platform just because it
doesn't affect most people," Gillezeau said. "But
GEO is different from a lot of union locals ... dis-
ability access has been at the top or very near to
the top of our priority issues.
"When I taught, I understood exactly what to
do when a student had a disability, I knew the pro-
cess. If I had a disability, I would have no idea what

to do."
GEO's main concern is equal treatment for
people of all identities, especially those with dis-
abilities. Other issues include providing female
GSIs with a longer paid leave of absence during
and after pregnancy. Receiving adequate child-
care subsidies is a constant struggle for GSIs, as
the University is always concerned about the cost
of these accommodations.
Another issue GEO hopes to resolve is graduate
student research assistants' eligibility for union
membership. If they were eligible to join, GEO
would double its representation by gaining twice
as many members.
Looking for solutions
Echols's first attempt to verbally contact her
departmental supervisor left her with unsatisfac-
tory answers on how to address her need of an
aide to assist her in the classroom. The University
told her that her accommodation would simply be
too costly and such an addition would undermine
her authority in the classroom. The situation left
Echols feeling frustrated and disrespected.
In the required 100-level English classes, GSIs
must design their own course; they don't rely on
a professor's lecture for teaching material. In
Echols's freshman English classes, students were
disorderly - they blatantly passed notes, left dur-
ing class, used their cell phones openly and even
napped at their desk.
Her experience teaching English 124 and 125
was disheartening. Echols didn't know how she
could adequately teach when her students had no
respect for her and her disability.
Her second attempt for an aide consisted of
drafting a formal letter to the University with help
from the GEO, and after weeks with no reply, the
University said she should talk to other instructors
with vision impairment to see how they handled
their situation. This obstacle eventually forced

Echols to leave lower-level English classes and
begin assisting as a GSI for Great Books, which
had a reputation for having more disciplined stu-
In order to grade exams, Echols needs her stu-
dents' Blue Books to be read aloud to her. Profes-
sors often offer to read the exams to her, but when
professors don't offer, Echols is forced to ask her
fellow GSIs for help.
"I'm stuck in this awkward situation where I
have to ask the other GSIs to read me exams, and
that's just more work for them," Echols said.
She believes the University should make an
effort to actively recruit and consider employees
with disabilities. But first, the University needs to
make its current disabled employees feel welcome.
"What we are asking is that the University puts
such processes into place so that employees with
disabilities are able to ask for and get the accom-
modations they need," Echols said. "We are sure
that our proposals are coming up with some good
solutions to the problem, and we hope that the
University seriously considers them."
Hearing the problem
Athena Kolbe is a third-year joint political sci-
ence and School of Social Work GSI, who is cur-
rently teaching Political Science 160.
Kolbe has a hearing impairment. She can read
lips, but feels limited when teaching in a group set-
ting because she can't read multiple people when
they're talking at the same time. She requires the
assistance of a CART, or a Communication Access
Real-Time Translation. A CART is a person who,
similar to a court stenographer, transcribes words
into sounds by typing live dialogue. Kolbe's CART
interprets the mood of the room and how her class
is receiving her teaching. The CART also lets
Kolbe know if her voice volume is too loud or too
soft for her students.
Kolbe said that though instructors with hear-

ing impairments have cultivated a close-knit com-
munity on campus, instructions are not laid out
clearly for GSIs who need constant aid in order to
After her third year, the University finally
understands that Kolbe needs accommodations
every time she.teaches a class. When she started,
it was different.
"At the beginning of the fall semester, I had no
idea who was going to be my interpreter. I had
no idea if I was even going to have an interpreter
when I showed up for class," Kolbe said.
Kolbe also did not know who would pay for her
CART, which roused anxiety about disclosure of
her disability.
"In my funding package, when I first got my let-
ter of offer from the University, I was really afraid
of being open with my department about the
extent of the accommodations I needed because I
was scared they were just going to give me a grad-
ing position," Kolbe said. "And it's really important
if you want to go into academia, if you want to be
a professor, you have experience teaching classes.
She added that accommodating a GSI with a
disability can be expensive and departments may
be more reluctant to help if they are concerned
about their budget.
The power of the University to refuse accom-
modations is a major concern for GSIs with a dis-
"Because we are in this weird position of being
students and employees, it leads to a situation
where a lot of us are afraid to be open about what
we need," Kolbe said.
For Kolbe, everything takes much longer with
a disability. The material covered in a one-hour
lecture can easily turn into four hours of lecture.
This not only affects Kolbe as an employee, but
also as a student in the learning environment. It's
also the reason for a push in the GEO contract that
would exempt students with disabilities from the
10-term rule, which currently states graduate stu-

Finding a
GEO renews its contract
with the University every few
years. According to GEO Presi-
dent Rob Gillezeau, the last con-
tract was negotiatedthreeyears
ago, and the bargaining mostly
regarded wages. Now, graduate
students and research assis-
tants are tackling bigger issues,
like parental rights and disabil-
ity accommodations.
The contract details GSI
rights and what they need as
an employee of the University.
Every Wednesday, the GEO
meets with University officials
and a lawyer to make compro-
mises for the needs of GSIs and
issues concerning their identi-
ties. In the meetings, parent-
ing issues, health care, flexible
time schedules, salary, among
other things, are discussed and
Marie Puccio, GEO solidarity
and political action committee
chair, said all professors should
make aneffort togivetheirGSIs
work that aligns with the arti-
cles of their contract.
"That's the behavior I expect
and appreciate from profes-
sors because as both graduate
employees and graduate stu-
dents, there are a lot of demands on our time, and it is
important to make sure ourwork is kept to what our
contract stipulates," Puccio said.
So far, Puccio believes discussions about disabili-
ties have been received positively, but once money
becomes a factor, negotiationsbecome more difficult.
The newly-proposed contract consists of changes
to the GSI rights and procedures that would grant
those with disabilities more respect, more rights and
an avenue to an efficient procedure to obtain aid.
The contract would detail instructions on how to
grant aid for disabled GSIs. Puccio said the process for
accommodating GSIs with disabilities is ad hoc and
not transparent.
"We believe that the University also believes that
we should work together to improve the accommoda-
tions process and to make sure graduate employees
have everything they need to do their job," Puccio
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said negoti-
ations with GEO regarding the proposals for disabil-
ity issues are "inappropriate" to talk about at this time
because officials are stillbargaining.
Fitzgerald said the bargaining team is study-
ing carefully what the new proposal entails and he
doesn't know how the University is receiving the
GEO's proposals for changes to articles regarding
disabilities. Fitzgerald said that by March 1, when the
contract is renewed, the amendments the University
has made to the changes suggested in the contract
would be disclosed.
"Certainly from a university's perspective, we
understand that is an important issue to GEO, and we
are at that point now where the negotiating team is
working carefully to study that proposal and under-
stand it," Fitzgerald said.
Romesh Saigal, an industrial engineering profes-

sor who is on the University's negotiating team, said
that commenting on the contract at this time would
be insensitive.
"We have been talking across the table, so me talk-
ing offof the hat would be averyunfair thingtoboth
parties," Saigal added.
The other five members of the University bargain-
ing team who meet with GEO weekly did not return
calls for comment.
Stuart Segal, director of Services for Students with
Disabilities, said SSD can help graduate students with
disabilities, but GSIs need to contact officials from
the Office of Institutional Equity or their individual
departments if they need assistance.
According to Segal, the University needs to lay out
a more visible and comprehensive way for employees
to obtain accommodations for their individual dis-
"I think there is a process in place, and I think there
are ways that process can become more efficient and
more well-known,"hesaid. "Ithinkthatdepartments
and schools aren't aware of the process."
New hope
A newly-drafted disability article was recently
introduced in the bargaining committee and will
be placed in the revised GEO contract that expires
in the beginning of March. It proposes specific
changes to the way graduate student employees
with disabilities are treated in an educational envi-
The article outlines a plan that would establish
a central fund, which would provide funds for
resources for disabled GSIs and prevent individual
departments from spending money in their bud-
See GSI, Page 8B

ABOVE: Graduate Employee Organization President Rob Gillezeau TOP RIGHT: Renee Echols

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