Marc Lazar recently joined Caltech in the newly created position of accessibility services specialist within Caltech Accessibility Services for Students (CASS). In this role, Lazar is the primary support person for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities and is charged with ensuring equitable access to the full experience of being a part of the Caltech community. Through an interactive process with each student, Lazar works to explore and then facilitate the accommodations needed to provide access to the classroom, both in person and virtual, as well as the lab, housing, and other activities, such as rotation. Lazar has worked with individuals with disabilities in a variety of settings, including colleges (UCLA and Moorpark College), high schools, the community, and the workplace, and has particularly deep experience and expertise working with the autism community.
Why is it important to have someone in your role at a place like Caltech?
Accessibility is a crucial issue in schools, including on college campuses. I think it's really important to have somebody whose role is dedicated to focusing on accessibility, not just the physical accessibility of buildings but also giving students the access to fully participate in everything that the college experience has to offer. It's a big equity issue for me. And it's something that really hasn't been a huge priority in higher education until the last 20 years or so. We're still in the process of fully realizing this vision that the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990] put forward that all individuals regardless of disability or ability should be able to fully access and have the same or equitable experiences throughout life.
What are some misconceptions about disability?
I think for a lot of people, when you talk about disabilities, the first thing that comes to mind is somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who's visually impaired or deaf. It's only more recently that people have begun to realize that invisible disabilities such as psychological and developmental and other less visible health disabilities actually impact a greater number of individuals.
What are some of the issues you want to address early on?
I think number one is really outreach, just increasing the visibility of CASS and accessibility throughout the Caltech community, and helping students feel more comfortable reaching out for help before they're in a crisis situation. Stigma, especially around psychological disabilities, has been a big challenge for many students I've worked with over the years.
Being at an elite institution like Caltech can be an obstacle for students seeking help or doing anything that could potentially "out" them as having a disability. At the same time, there is a growing disability community that is finding support and strength in one another. And that's starting to emerge throughout academia. I think it would be wonderful to tap into that and connect students and the whole Caltech community with the larger disability rights and support community.
What would you say to a student with an "invisible" disability such as ADHD who is hesitant to disclose it?
One of the things I want students to know is that their disability status is their personal information, and they get to choose who to share that with. So, registering with CASS doesn't mean that others will know about their status. It's not going to show up on their transcripts or student records. A student can be approved for accommodations but can choose which instructors are notified about them and which accommodations they want to use in each particular class. We never disclose with faculty or staff any details about a student's disability without their consent, except for in an emergency situation.
In terms of physical accessibility on campus, what are some challenges that you see?
I know that there are some older buildings on campus, so some things need to be retrofitted. My impression is that it's not feasible to tackle everything at once. It's more about addressing issues as the need arises. I'm interested in exploring how we can make it easier for students to reach out to us when an accessibility issue comes up for them so that we can address it as quickly as possible. And, hopefully, going forward, they can be more included in the planning phases for new facilities so things are fully accessible from the get-go.
When people think of accessibility issues, they often think, "OK, does this have a ramp? Does this have a door that can be easily opened?" But there are a lot of nuances. People who experience navigating the world with a disability every day are going to notice things that I don't. For example, there might be an area where things get narrow in a hallway, and I might not necessarily notice that as an issue. But they might say, "Hey, if it's a crowded time of day, this may be difficult to navigate my wheelchair through." So it really comes down to the students and giving them a voice, letting them know that they are being heard and that their insights and input is highly valued.
What are some accessibility issues related to teaching?
I think instructors are still learning how to make educational content more fully accessible. I'd like to help assure educators that there are a lot of simple fixes that can be done within email, within Word documents, within PDFs, whether it's using alt text for images, running the built-in accessibility-checker tool, or using a single easy-to-read font. These little changes can go a long way.
What about the special challenges of adjusting to learning online?
I think online learning has been especially hard for some students with disabilities. And for students who have mental health challenges, it can be harder to access clinical support. There are students who may have established relationships with providers in Pasadena, and now they've moved back home so they're no longer in state, and their provider here might not be licensed to provide services in the student's state. So, we find that some students are having gaps in services that they really need.
Another thing that I've noticed with online learning is that students who have executive functioning challenges, which can often be found with attention deficit disorders and autism, more of them have been struggling in this environment. I think that has to do with having a little bit less structure, having to really manage your time in an online environment, and not having places where you have to show up at certain times. A lot of students with executive functioning challenges rely on routines and sometimes external reminders to really do their best. Being able to sustain attention for long periods of time staring at a screen is hard for everyone, but I think when you have challenges related to focus and attention, that can be especially difficult.
What drew you to Caltech?
One of the things that I'm so excited about is the close-knit nature of the campus and the community. I'm getting to know so many people, and it feels really easy to reach out to staff and faculty to discuss how we can collaborate together to best support students.
I'm learning about all the incredible resources here, and I feel really good knowing that if there's something I can't help a student with directly, I'll often be able to refer them to a campus partner to get the needed support.
I've always known Caltech to have an incredible reputation and some of the brightest students and faculty anywhere. I'm thrilled to be a part of this community striving for excellence and to work directly with those who are making discoveries about the universe and themselves.