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Accessibility at AU: A Conversation with Darya Iranmanesh

Following a series of stories they posted on Instagram regarding accessibility at American University, I reached out to Darya Iranmanesh for an interview about her experiences at AU as a disabled student and as a student who is heavily involved with disability activism. Darya works in multiple positions in which she advocates for disability rights and justice. Her work is incredibly important to American University because of the various ways in which disabled students are put at a disadvantage in our community.

Hannah Richards: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today, would you like to first introduce yourself?

Darya Iranmanesh: My name is Darya Iranmanesh, I use she/they pronouns, I’m a freshman right now so class of 2025, and I’m a public health major. I’m an Accessibility Deputy for AU College Democrats, Director for Accessibility for It’s On Us at American, an opinion columnist who specifically covers a lot of issues related to disability rights for The Eagle and I also am the coordinator for special projects for ally education for the AU Disabled Students Union, and some other activities as well. I was also elected Vice Presidents of Diversity and Inclusion for our residence hall but unfortunately couldn’t take it on because I was occupying too many positions. I do a lot of work around inclusion, diversity and equity- accessibility specifically. 

HR: It sounds like you’re really busy, how do you find time to take care of yourself, decompress, and practice self-care?

DI: It gets hard, you have moments of burnout, so when I have those it’s difficult. For example, I was sick this week and I missed a lot of classes. So if attendance is required for a class it’s hard to fix that. I also go home a lot on the weekends and try to take the weekends for myself. Essentially what I do is try to fit in fun activities, but also the work I am doing—a lot of it is really interesting. Some of it is actual work, but some of it’s actually really interesting. I also like my academics, my major and classes are both really interesting. I also really like to read, especially listening to audiobooks, so I usually go through two audiobooks a week and that keeps me busy.

HR: So, I actually found out about you and the work you do through Instagram. Earlier in the semester you posted a series of Instagram stories detailing difficulties that you were experiencing with accommodations through AU—would you mind speaking to that, sharing what you went through? 

DI: Yeah, so in the beginning of the semester, there were two incidents that I can think of. The first one happened when I was going upstairs to my dorm, just to put some stuff away. I was about to leave campus to go hang out with my family, and I brought my boyfriend with me because I couldn’t carry all my stuff with my cane. The front desk wouldn’t let him come up because he didn’t have an AU ID, so I grabbed my cane and stuff and went upstairs. It wasn’t easy, I dropped stuff and actually cracked my phone. It took me about thirty minutes to match clothes and find what I needed in my dorm- this was originally supposed to be like a five minute trip. So that was incredibly frustrating.

The second time this happened was a lot worse, in my opinion. My aid, Julia, had been approved by ASAC [the Academic Support and Access Center] to come up to my dorm. Essentially what happened was that the One Card office was closed, so Julia hadn’t been able to activate her One Card to allow her up to my room. So she explained it to the people at the front desk and showed them the email, telling them she needed to get up there because I had Convocation, and wanted to go with my residence hall. They gave her a hard time and it took twenty minutes of arguing. By the time she came upstairs everybody had left for Convocation. So I went at a later time, but it was frustrating because they took so much time to question her that they completely ruined my entire day and plans. Especially since the people who work the desk are AU students, it’s frustrating to me that they didn’t have some sort of sense of understanding. It shouldn’t be an argument. I understand there’s a pandemic out there and we want to keep our community safe but that also includes taking into account our disabled community.

I also don’t think aids should have to be approved because that’s a necessity of mine, not an approved accommodation—a necessity. I could go on about ASAC, but it’s like I don’t need to prove anything to you about me being disabled. Your job is just to support us, not asking us for pages and pages of documentation, and taking months to review that information. I just sent an email about an accommodation for priority registration after a meeting I had about a month ago and I still haven’t heard back. 

Another example was from the other night, when there was a fire alarm, and I was standing by the elevator because I actually needed the elevator. The elevator opened behind me, and some kids just shoved me out of the way. I didn’t say anything because I’m not the most confrontational person. And they kept pushing me, just to take the elevator when they could’ve taken the stairs. It’s just that at AU we act like we’re these pioneers of getting rid of all these “isms” [racism, classism, sexism, ableism, etc], but in my opinion that’s so [unbelievable]. Responsibility needs to be taken for these kinds of actions coming from students and staff. We act like AU is the most liberal place because we are trying, but we’re not there yet and pretending like we are and sending false messages to people is misleading.

I came here because I felt like I was going to feel this sense of inclusion, like I was home. And I do from some students. But I also don’t. This isn’t what I imagined AU to be, so it’s a little frustrating. 

HR: That sounds really frustrating. There are definitely a lot of misconceptions about the inclusivity at AU, they claim to be at the forefront of everything related to diversity and inclusion but don’t always follow through. In the AU community, where have you found the most support?

DI: Within the AU community specifically I find the support to be kind of scattered on this campus. I find support from some staff members, for example Dr. Aho, they teach disability studies and a bunch of American studies courses and they’ve been super supportive even though I’ve never been in their classes before, way more supportive than anyone at ASAC has been. 

In addition to that, I’ve felt support from the students who have responded to my stories on Instagram and students who say “hi” in the hallways. I have a few friends, I’m not the most social person and don’t hang out with people every single day. Adjusting to residence hall life has been different because I’m introverted, and a lot of people on my floor are extroverted and friends with each other. But I am familiar with people in my hall, the people I say hi to and the people who say hi to me, the people from the Disabled Students Union, the people from AU Dems, the people from my organizations and also the people I have classes with that open their eyes and hearts a little bit to get to know other people. In addition to that, I had some friends from home that ended up attending AU. Being able to connect with them was really helpful because I was able to build a community. I also have a lot of different aids, and some of them are really amazing people that are nice to hang out with even if they weren’t working. That also comes into play at AU, there are so many different factors but I’ve found a lot of support in campus activities, people who are actually willing to be inclusive, and people in my classes. 

HR: There are some people who do live up to the AU ideals of inclusivity and they really bring the community together. In terms of the system itself, what kind of accommodations would you like to see at AU regarding disabled students?

DI: ASAC is the definition of a corrupt system. It’s not doing anything and the only good part of it is the academic coaching side of things and that has nothing to do with disability accommodations. My thoughts on ASAC are that the people who are running it, the people who are working in it right now… we have some staff members that are not even responsive at all. And there are people who oversee ASAC who seem to have some interest but don’t really do anything, I haven’t seen much action taken. What I would love to see is ASAC dismantled and run by disabled people for the people or allies who are actually serious about what they’re doing. Some of these people are great but whoever is overseeing them isn’t doing the best job. We need to bridge the gap between staff and students, we also need to get funding for getting accommodations, but also students should be in charge of.

 For example, if ASAC were run by a student panel or if the students got to hire new staff I think that’d be reasonable because it’s not fair that some random person just gets to pick these people and hope they’re qualified. Saying you’re having ‘behind the scenes meetings’ isn’t active change. There are things such as not having to prove a disability—if you apply for accomodations you should just have to apply, maybe talk to somebody about it, maybe just like one piece of documentation. But they shouldn’t be able to come back and say that it’s not enough and they’re not going to accommodate them. It also shouldn’t take months and months. I was talking about it with Dean Waters, [the Dean of Undergraduate Education and Vice Provost for Academic Student Services], and she agreed that they’re understaffed. And that’s unfortunate, and I agree but I think there are plenty of people, especially students, who would volunteer to do this kind of work. We need people who are actually on top of it because like I said, you shouldn’t be having to submit so much documentation to get a personal request met. When I call my doctor’s office, I don’t need to provide all of this documentation, I just tell them what’s happening and ask for the prescription. And they give it to me. So that’s kind of how disability accommodations should be. They should be offered to people and if you need them you should be able to have them. That doesn’t mean you should give it to people who don’t need them, which I understand is why the process is longer. But we shouldn’t give the people who need them a hard time. For people who look for accommodations through ASAC it takes forever. 

I would like to see a whole new system. In an ideal world the people at ASAC wouldn’t have those positions anymore, and we’d be kind of letting students figure it out, sort of like revolutionary accessibility, that’s something that’s really important to me. 

HR: Interestingly enough there are organizations or programs on campus that do involve students in the hiring process, I myself have participated in interviewing candidates for positions at the Health Promotion and Advocacy Center and for the Associate Dean of Students. It provides an opportunity for the candidate to get a student perspective on what they’re getting into and the students provide their own feedback on the candidate. It seems like ASAC could benefit from some sort of system like this. 

DI: Exactly, I think the students should have a say and we want people who are going to be advocating for us. When I think of my biggest advocates on campus, what I should be thinking of is ASAC and what I’m thinking of is not ASAC. It’s random students that I meet that are really passionate about making things equitable. It’s all of these people that I’ve connected with, it’s nobody at ASAC that I’m thinking of when I’m thinking of my advocates. 

HR: Is there anything else that you would like to add? Or rather, if you could deliver a message to the “powers that be” at American University, what would it be?

DI: We need to have more student input at ASAC, we need to have people who are actually committed to creating a really welcoming environment. We need to focus more on disability rights. In my opinion, if I could send out a message to someone like Sylvia Burwell… I’d say that AU is a great place, but you can’t be writing ‘challenge accepted’ and ‘changemakers’ everywhere and be having all of these issues. And you should be able to respond to all of these issues and listen to your students and that might result in getting rid of ASAC and building it up from the beginning again so we can have disability accommodations that are actually inclusive to all students, because this is a great school but it’s only great for able-bodied people. That’s not fair, that’s not right. And that’s how the rest of society is as well. So my thought is that we need to focus on funding, more resources, more attention. And I wish people would acknowledge their shortcomings and address what they’ll do to change it instead of just sweeping it under the rug. 

I’m not going to stop my advocacy, if it means giving ASAC bad press I’m not going to stop doing that because this needs to change. If I’m going to be here at AU, I want to make sure that something is done by the end of my four years. I’m not going to leave and let other people suffer what I went through and what other students may have gone through. It really frustrates me because we need to see real change because the disabled community deserves so much more. This is an issue that so many institutions deal with and the ADA just doesn’t cover enough. So disability rights are so important and this is not the end, this is only the beginning. We’re not there yet. But we’re going to get there, and I’m one of those people who is willing to fight to get to where we need to be for disabled people to be included. 

Hannah is a junior at American University. She's studying political science with a focus on race and gender in politics. She loves writing and baking, and can typically be found with a large iced coffee and a pair of knitting needles.
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