Angelina* (‘26) can’t eat most of the food served in Penn’s dining halls. She’s allergic to many of the “Big Nine” food allergens, as well as several other foods. Exposure to any one of these allergens can elicit a range of reactions—running the gamut from mild dermal symptoms to a response as severe as anaphylactic shock.
To accommodate Angelina’s allergies, Penn placed her in a single apartment in Harnwell College House—away from first–year housing such as the Quad or Hill College House. Because of her food allergies, the food in Penn’s dining halls poses a risk of cross–contamination, even if Angelina isn’t directly allergic to the dish. Angelina uses the apartment’s kitchen to cook her own meals and doesn’t have a dining plan, which is normally required for all first– and second–year students.
Angelina is also allergic to some common toiletry and bath products. As such, she is required to have a private bathroom, an accommodation not available in most first–year dorms, but is more commonplace in upperclassmen housing.
Angelina is one of many students at Penn who receive disability–related accommodations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), postsecondary institutions are required to make all programs equally accessible to disabled and non–disabled students alike. This includes architectural access, provision of aides, provision of materials in accessible formats (such as braille or closed captioning), and modification of procedures and policies, including testing protocols. Many institutions have an office or an organization that manages such accommodations—for Penn, this is Disability Services.
Some accommodations that Disability Services offers are more well–known than others, like extended time on assessments. Beyond extended time, and even academic accommodations more generally, there are a breadth of other accommodations that universities and educational institutions must provide. Housing– and dining–related accommodations, like Angelina’s, are two such examples.
In her experience, most people have been respectful and accepting after finding out about Angelina’s unconventional housing arrangement. However, the nature of her accommodation requires her to open up about her allergies after other students wonder why she lives in Harnwell as a first year.
“It sort of forces me to differentiate myself in an environment where I wouldn’t necessarily want to be differentiated,” she says. “As a first year, you’re trying to fit in socially. So it’s always a little bit difficult to have to identify yourself in spite of the fact that you might not want to do that.”
She notes that this social hurdle has been the most difficult to overcome while adjusting to life at the University. While most first–year students are surrounded by their fellow classmates, Harnwell primarily houses upperclassmen. Angelina realizes that the social adjustment might have been a bit easier had she been living in a first–year or four–year college house, but these dorms don’t have the single apartment layout.
“It’s definitely been a little bit challenging to adjust socially to the first–year environment, just because I’m not in the first–year environment,” Angelina says.
As she mentions, there are obstacles and difficulties that come with accommodations, whether it be socially, academically, or institutionally. Despite these challenges, however, receiving accommodations has benefits apart from the accommodation itself.
Angelina feels affirmed by the recognition of her need for accommodations by Penn, because allergies are sometimes excluded from conversations around disability.
“Allergies are often swept under the rug as a trivial matter. Oftentimes, people don’t take them seriously,” she says.
In terms of requesting accommodations, Angelina recalls that she “found it to be a very smooth process,” though she does feel that a large amount of documentation was required.
Because of the multifaceted nature of Angelina’s accommodation, detailed paperwork was required for each aspect, which was slightly tedious, though she understands why it’s necessary.
“I would say that the attitude toward the accommodation process [has] been one where you always have to over–explain yourself. You have to over–justify why you need certain accommodations,” Angelina explains. “I understand that [Disability Services], of course, when providing a big accommodation such as a single apartment, needs proper documentation and proper reasoning for every single component.”
For Sabirah Mahmud (C ‘25), the process of obtaining and submitting the necessary documentation has been the primary obstacle preventing her from applying for accommodations or registering with Disability Services.
In order to receive accommodations from the University, students initiate the process by submitting a self–identification form and appropriate documentation supporting their request, which is done online through the Disability Services webpage. After their request has been reviewed, students meet with a Disability Services staff member to describe their needs in more detail and work out the specific accommodation that Penn will provide. The required paperwork includes letters from health care providers, test results, and other information demonstrating not only the existence of a disability, but also the subsequent need for an accommodation.
Due to this often extensive process, there are students who may qualify for accommodations but are not registered with Disability Services, making it difficult to get University–approved academic and living arrangements.
Sabirah has chronic migraines and an undiagnosed disability that causes pain in her hands—especially when writing. She also lives with severe depression, among other mental disorders. Her chronic migraines cause problems with screen time and often leave her vomiting or unable to get out of bed, which makes attending class particularly difficult.
In addition to her disabilities, there are other factors that have made it harder for Sabirah to obtain official accommodations.
“I’m a FGLI student, and I don’t really have much support from my parents. I’m very independent, and in terms of getting registered [with Disability Services], I’ve been completely on my own,” Sabirah says. “Especially considering the fact that I have a job, campus involvements, and class, I genuinely don’t have time to be going to appointments and hashing [it] out with doctors and getting all this paperwork done.”
Still, her academic and pre–major advisors continue to urge her to register with Disability Services so that she can receive official support from the University.
Without formal accommodations, Sabirah speaks to each of her professors on a class–by–class basis to explain the situation. She says that some are very understanding and willing to accommodate her attendance and limitations without a diagnosis, while others insist she provide documentation.
Sabirah emphasizes that there’s room for improvement in the Penn student body’s attitude toward disabled individuals. Sabirah notes that she’s had multiple negative experiences with classmates and friends when discussing disability and mental health. For example, one of Sabirah’s classmates dismissed the pain in her hands by saying that arthritis is eventually inevitable for everyone.
“I wish people were a little more understanding,” Sabirah says. “It’s just difficult to have that mental energy to continue when someone’s constantly telling you nothing’s wrong.”
There are innumerable other accommodations that students at Penn can receive for a myriad of reasons. The American Psychological Association outlines what a student may request based on their disability.
For example, students with low vision can be offered seating near the front of the class or enlarged font size and contrast enhancement on printed materials. Blind students may request adaptive equipment, such as talking calculators. Students with hearing loss are entitled to a sign language interpreter or visual aids to supplement spoken instruction. Chronic illness may permit students to request flexible attendance requirements for their courses. These are just a few of the many examples that are considered “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA.
The Disabled Coalition, a student–run organization at Penn, recently published a flyer detailing several types of accommodations that a student may receive, as well as a list of some of the conditions that may qualify. Some of the listed accommodations include stop–the–clock breaks during assessments, use of a computer during handwritten assessments, and access to medication during class.
Disability Services also offers assistive technology, which it defines as “any device, software, or hardware that helps people with disabilities work around challenges so they can learn, communicate and simply function better.” Access to assistive technology is provided through the accommodations system.
Amrou Ibrahim is the associate director for assistive technology at the Weingarten Center. Some examples of assistive technology offered by Penn includes screen reading, screen magnifying, text–to–speech, and speech–to–text softwares, as well as electronic magnifiers, smartpens, refreshable braille displays, and assistive listening systems.
As associate director, Ibrahim’s responsibilities are two–fold. “My two roles [are] providing the assistive technology and making course material accessible,” he says.
For example, not only does he provide students with screen–reading software, but he also reformats course materials to be compatible. Screen readers read out the screen’s contents from left to right, so college textbooks often aren’t suited for the software. With diagrams interspersed throughout the page, and definitions of vocabulary words printed in the margin, the raw audio output from the software can be incoherent. Ibrahim manually changes the reading order and adds image descriptions to course materials, making the audio translation more comprehensible. Screen readers are most often used by students with low vision or blind students.
For those with limited mobility in their hands or arms, Dragon is an example of an assistive technology software that allows control of a computer using voice commands. Kindles and E Ink tablets are also available through Disability Services. These devices, which do not have LCD displays, are useful in cases of concussion, traumatic brain injury, or light sensitivity, as they can reduce screen time while allowing access to digital content.
Disability Services also loans iPads which have assistive software downloaded onto them. For students that would like to own assistive devices, they can apply for Assistive Technology funding.
“[Assistive technology] helps students be more independent,” Ibrahim says. “[It gives them] tools to be able to get through their readings and access course materials.”
Penn also provides a plethora of campus–specific, structural accommodations. For students with mobility–related disabilities, they can use Penn Accessible Transit, a bus transportation system that operates on and around campus. Access information about Penn’s on–campus buildings can be found on PennAccess.
While Penn offers a multitude of structural accommodations and services, the experience of disabled students emphasizes that such efforts have their fair share of flaws. Disabled students have spoken to The Daily Pennsylvanian several times in the past about the issues in Penn’s accessibility and accommodation systems.
Kruti Desai (C ‘23) previously told the DP about her experience with Penn Accessible Transit, which she uses due to a physical disability. According to Kruti, the vehicles often run late—even if she schedules rides the night before.
Furthermore, Penn Accessible Transit operates in conjunction with PennRides, which opens transportation to the entire Penn community on evenings and weekends. This can make it difficult for individuals with accessible transit needs to receive timely rides to their destinations during these hours.
For students registered with Disability Services, the ADA stipulates that the University, and all other postsecondary institutions, must provide a diversity of “reasonable” accommodations based on individual need. Two students, even those with the same disability, may not utilize the same accommodations.
“Disability is not a monolith,” says writer and disability rights advocate Amanda Leduc. “Every disabled person's experience in the world is different, and the way that we all navigate the world is likewise varied and complex.”
However, legal protections for students with disabilities only reach so far. No major disability rights legislation has been passed since the ADA, which was enacted over 30 years ago.
At Penn, the requirement for extensive documentation in order to receive accommodations still presents a major obstacle for students in need of these services across campus. Not only does obtaining the necessary paperwork require time and effort, but it also assumes access to a health care provider. Ableism and stigma raise another challenge for the University’s disabled population—illustrating the need for a more inclusive culture and understanding of the unique experiences of each disabled student at Penn.
University–provided accommodations are only one of many overlaps between disability and higher education. Accommodations themselves encompass a broad range, some of them discussed here, but the scope extending beyond what can fit on the page.
The interconnection between accommodations and disability is multifaceted: Every student that receives accommodations from Penn may not identify as disabled, and every student with a disability at Penn may not receive accommodations. Accommodations are multidimensional—as is disability. And every disabled person’s relationship with accommodations is varied and complex.