Cornhuskin’ is a time-honored tradition at Meredith College. Through practiced skits, enthusiastic hog-calling, and synchronized(?) dancing, the main event and week of festivities leading up to it are meant to promote class camaraderie and school unity. Each element would seem to add another opportunity for connection. For disabled students, it’s one more thing to ask about and understand. We learn the same thing every time: Corn’s biggest, worst-kept secret is inaccessibility.
As a response to questions from disabled students, the phrase “you just have to experience it” is incredibly frustrating. Our questions are often meant to identify access barriers that could prevent us from attending or participating in Corn. To receive an answer other than “you just have to experience it” we are often required to disclose our disabilities. This is a barrier to inclusion because many students, like those with anxiety or invisible disabilities, will not feel comfortable telling someone they have a disability for fear they might not be believed.
The potential for disbelief is not the only reason that self-disclosure can be ineffective for facilitating access. As students who have been disabled for years and required accommodations in academic settings for nearly as long, we know that asking departments like the Office of Student Leadership and Service (SLS) about the accessibility of spaces and events is often ineffective because many individuals don’t consistently recognize barriers to access. It’s easy to see stairs as inaccessible, but less obvious are sensory barriers such as excessively loud music and bright, often flashing lights and the attitudinal barriers that let them persist.
Consider the use of strobe lights at Corn. This can change annually depending on the discretion of Corn Co-Chairs, so SLS may not have consistent, readily available information about the use of the lights during the main event. This effectively means that students who need to avoid strobe lights (e.g., individuals with photosensitive epilepsy) may be forced to opt out each year. Because of the culture of secrecy surrounding Corn, students also may not realize they need to ask about strobe lights or seek out accommodations for them. Instead of SLS banning the use of strobe lights during performances and communicating that ban to the student body, they risk preserving “fair play” in competition by failing to distinguish between giving someone an edge and not giving someone else a seizure.
What guidance exists to include disabled students is outlined in a section of the 2022 Cornhuskin’ Manual for promoting accessibility. Among other recommendations, inviting disabled students to join the planning committee, communicating in multiple formats (e.g., not limiting announcements to just email or Instagram) and establishing a point of contact for accommodations is solid advice; it would be helpful if it was implemented along with other measures like transparency and a consistent tone from the top. Unfortunately, we haven’t noticed all of these elements present in Corn email updates for the Class of ‘23. An accommodation form was made, but no image descriptions were provided for t-shirts and no clear point-of-contact was established for communicating accommodation needs. Additionally, the manual listed Angels for Disability Advocacy (ADA) as a good starting place to bring disabled students onto the planning committee. We can confirm as officers in ADA that we were not contacted by students for this purpose. Neither SLS or MRA checked with us before listing ADA as a resource in their manual.
More concerning than the actions of class leadership that rely on volunteer student labor, SLS has had opportunities to follow their own recommendations and not done so. The wristband reservation form, for example, did not offer a space for listing accommodation needs. No other forms or mentions of accessibility have been sent out by SLS for this purpose. Promotional materials have not contained an accessibility statement on Instagram or in emails, despite the guide stating that these should be added to “everything.” SLS did not establish a clear, designated individual from their office to address accessibility concerns. These oversights set a poor example for student leadership who look to SLS for guidance.
Regardless, any and all recommendations made in the Cornhuskin’ manual offer limited benefit if they are not accompanied by transparency. Providing the option to list accommodation needs on forms is important, but if this is not paired with detailed event descriptions, what good is it? If event details aren’t clear to students, it is unreasonable to expect them to anticipate what they need for an event they don’t fully understand. It’s like winning a free vacation to an undisclosed location for an unspecified length of time and using only that information to decide what to pack or if you would even like to go. Similarly, a student may respond requesting wheelchair access in the appropriate section of a form, but if the person processing the accommodation request doesn’t know that wheelchair access includes more than a ramp, then that student’s self-disclosure did not help and the offer to accommodate was as performative as it was well-intentioned.
Further complications occur for those whose needs are contrary to parts of Corn that many assume to be vital. Physical access barriers, like stairs, may not be viewed as essential to the Cornhuskin’ experience, but concert-level noise, bright, flashing lights, and cold weather often are. This means that though physically disabled students may be unaccommodated based on the constraints of an environment that SLS chose to use (i.e., the amphitheater), students needing sensory considerations will be unaccommodated based on flawed understandings of the nature of Cornhuskin’. As of now, Cornhuskin’ is only dependent on access barriers to facilitate an authentic experience because its origins never considered disabled students as worthy of inclusion.
Failures in transparency and a full commitment to accessibility by event organizers limit opportunities for disabled students to connect with their class. The success of accessibility recommendations for Corn depends on SLS honoring them and providing students with the resources to follow them. Detailed descriptions of each Corn-related activity should be written and available to students prior to the event, and attempts to promote surprise and excitement should be carefully balanced against the needs of disabled students. Many confuse upholding tradition with upholding discrimination. The use of the amphitheater for Corn should be discontinued, even if it means further limiting the attendance of guests and alums. Most importantly, no one should think that this article is a complete representation of the issues we see with the way that Corn is conducted.
Addendum by Rebecca: Just as accessibility includes more than taking a ramp, it also includes not implicitly stating that disabled students aren’t welcome. On November 1, 2022, the walk to the Tunnel Reveal and President’s Raid managed to take two wheelchair-inaccessible paths. The first instance occurred by cutting through the curb-ridden parking lot opposite the CHESS Building, and the second occurred when student leaders went over a long stretch of grass with no curb cut. This was noticed by one individual who continued on and called out as they left for me to use another route, which my friend ran down and confirmed was not accessible. We had to circle all the way back from the gym to the top of CHESS, and back down through the Commuter Lot. Had I not been with friends who knew the way, I would not have known where to go since this was my first time visiting the tunnel. This inconsideration on the part of event organizers presented such a delay that it caused my friends and I to miss the President’s Raid.
By Rebecca Simmons, Contributing Writer, and Kai Tilley, Contributor