Credit: Courtesy of Reina Knowles

Communications senior MW Kaplan attended Week of Welcome (WOW) in 2019, one year before WOW went virtual due to COVID-19. They said they are a multi-disabled person, meaning they have several disabilities that inhibit their daily functions. They have systemic illnesses that are considered to be medical disabilities, as well as mental and neurodevelopmental disabilities. 

“The biggest issues that I have fluctuate and change, kind of depending on flare-ups and what I’m doing,” Kaplan said.

Their WOW group started the week with a campus walking tour. Walking for long periods of time, especially in the heat, can lead to flare-ups for Kaplan. Due to the toll the tour took on Kaplan’s body, they were unable to participate in nearly all of the rest of the week’s activities, leaving them feeling isolated and left out.

“I remember doing like one or two other things after that,” Kaplan said. “It was too demanding, essentially.”

Cal Poly’s WOW has won awards for being one of the top college orientation programs. It allows for students to meet peers in their living communities, helps them to develop connections with the campus community and shows off all the best activities in SLO.

Yet, for disabled students, WOW is an entirely different and a much more isolating experience, according to Kaplan.

Because of their negative experience, Kaplan signed up to be a WOW Leader this year with the goal of creating a welcoming and accessible environment for the students in their group. Their co-leader, nutrition junior Reina Knowles, had the same intention in mind. 

Kaplan and Knowles are both members of the Disability Alliance, a student-run club dedicated to promoting accessibility and disability culture on Cal Poly’s campus. Knowles’ WOW was virtual due to COVID-19, but she said the long hours still impacted her disability.

“It was really uncomfortable, and really exhausting,” Knowles said. “People were getting migraines from having to look at their screens all day.”

The New Student and Transition Programs addresses disability during WOW in several ways, according to coordinator Chad Zoller.

“This includes working with the DRC for interpreters and translators, having alternative events where necessary and ensuring programming videos are closed captioned,” Zoller wrote in an email to Mustang News.

One of the main things Knowles and Kaplan chose to focus on was reducing the hours of WOW. 

Zoller wrote that the reason they encourage WOW leaders to keep their groups until late at night is to keep them from engaging in other “negative behaviors.” Many of WOW’s activities run until midnight.

“Things that were really early and things that were really late, we essentially made optional,” Kaplan said. “You’re supposed to keep them until like midnight, but they started getting tired around 8 p.m.”

It can be difficult to plan activities ahead of time since WOW leaders don’t know their group members until the first day of WOW. Knowles and Kaplan said they mitigated this by coming up with a large list of potential activities. Then, on the first day, they provided their group with a form they could fill out to indicate any accessibility needs or dietary restrictions they had. They also provided a spot for them to include any activities they were really hoping to do.

With that information, they planned their week according to the needs and wants of their group members.

The New Student and Transition Programs trains WOW leaders on using accessible routes, preparing alternate events and in general how to interact with people who have visible or invisible disabilities, according to Zoller. However, Kaplan said the training regarding disability was far from adequate.

“There were only two mentions of disability. One was in the appropriate language talk, and that was like, ‘Don’t use these, like ableist words,’” Kaplan said. “Then there was also a sort of optional training. It was just a really short video from the United Nations on what a disability is.”

Kaplan emailed the New Student and Transition Programs to make suggestions to improve their training regarding disability. Together with a staff member, they created a PowerPoint for WOW training that was more all-encompassing, according to Kaplan.

“One of the things I added was a sort of chart with examples of disabilities students might have and what you would need to do in response to them,” Kaplan said.

The New Student and Transition Programs is working on and improving the way in which they address accessibility, and this year they encouraged WOW leaders to give a form to their group members asking about accessibility needs, according to Knowles. However, she said this leaves out WOW leaders themselves.

“There is this gross assumption that WOW leaders themselves do not have disabilities, which then in turn serves to create a kind of subconscious narrative that people with disabilities are not going to be in leadership at Cal Poly,” Knowles said.

Knowles uses a wheelchair, and she said she informed New Student and Transition Programs of this and that she would need accessible routes to be able to lead her group properly. Despite this, she found herself feeling isolated on the very first day when they were scheduled to meet with their group members for the first time.

“The groupings were done on a field of grass. My wheelchair cannot go through a field of grass,” Knowles said. “So from the beginning, [I] as a leader was excluded from leading my own group.”

Overall, Knowles and Kaplan said their goal to create an accessible WOW experience for their group was a success. Not only did they keep all of their original group members throughout the week, but they had several students ask to join their group, according to Knowles.

Anthropology and geography freshman Naeryl Ronquillo was a member of Knowles’s and Kaplan’s group, and she said she really enjoyed her WOW experience. She said that she had been excited but also slightly nervous about WOW after she’d learned that they were supposed to be out doing activities until late at night.

“I had found out the day before that your WOW leaders are supposed to keep you out of your dorm pretty late into the night, which kind of worried me because I get tired really easily,” Ronquillo said.

Ronquillo is not disabled, but she said that many of the measures her WOW leaders took to promote accessibility made her feel welcomed and cared for. An example she gave is that Kaplan and Knowles brought ear plugs for their group members to utilize during the Big Fall Welcome, an event that takes place in Spanos Stadium with all of the WOW groups in attendance. Due to the scale and location of the event, it can be quite loud, which can impact students with sensory sensitivities, according to Kaplan. 

“It was really nice that our WOW leaders showed that they cared enough about us to think about things like that,” Ronquillo said. 

She said that at times, she did wish she was able to do more physical activities, such as kayaking, but that the lack of those activities didn’t make her WOW experience any less enjoyable.

“I think my WOW leaders did a really great job trying to be inclusive of everybody, disabled and non-disabled, and I have a lot of positive notes,” Ronquillo said. “I’m just very happy with my experience.”