According to a recent estimate, more than 250 students at Caltech receive some form of disability accommodation – academic, housing, dietary, or otherwise. The job of granting, bookkeeping, and administering these accommodations used to be handled by the Deans’ Office until the Caltech Accessibility Services for Students (CASS) office was established c. Summer 2018. Its former director, Marc Lazar, worked there from November 2018 through December 2022 before giving his 30 days’ notice, leaving the deans scrambling to find someone else to single-handedly manage the responsibilities of the office.
“The institute is fully committed to the CASS office,” Dean Lesley Nye reassured us in an interview. “We posted the job listing as soon as we knew Marc was leaving.”
For the entirety of the Winter 2023 term, they were only able to find an interim consultant to maintain the CASS email. This resulted in significant delays in several students’ accommodations throughout the term. A sophomore in Dabney Hovse recounted to us having to wait almost 3 weeks for the temp to try and find out what documentation was needed for a specific accommodation (one which would have been really nice to have for those first three weeks…), and that time frame included occasional follow-ups from the student.
The new permanent director, Sean Cutting, didn’t start until Spring Break 2023. Dean Nye insisted that 3 months is a pretty short turnaround time for hiring in academia – “This is just what happens when a professional leaves.”
First and foremost, Sean is a huge Star Wars and Harry Potter nerd. He is a husband and a father to his 8 month old son. He is passionate about helping people with disabilities integrate more smoothly into society.
“I think higher education is the great equalizer. It affords people with disabilities an opportunity and allows society as a whole to progress,” Sean told us on Friday. “It [higher education] is no longer optional.”
Sean has five years of experience in disability services in higher education. After getting his B.S. in Rehabilitation Services and M.S. in Counseling from Cal State LA, he interned at the Disabled Student Programs and Services office at Pasadena City College, before joining the Office of Accessibility Education at UMass Amherst in 2021.
With the estimated 12% of the combined undergrad and grad student body registered with CASS, revamping and streamlining accessibility policies has been no easy feat for our new Caltech staff member. When Sean arrived at Caltech, he recalled, there was very little organization of records and no clearly established precedent for what was considered a “necessary” accommodation. This seems to have been the case going back several years; for example, we spoke to a senior in Page House who, during a meeting with CASS in her sophomore year, was plainly asked if she “really needed that accommodation.”
Sean chalks this up to a systematic assumption that the disabled community is much smaller than it really is. Only recently has the Student Affairs department “realized” that running the CASS office might be more than a one-person job. Indeed, perhaps hand-sorting an unorganized combination of paper and electronic documents for the ~300 members of the Caltech community with registered disabilities MIGHT be a little much for a single employee to keep up with. Gee, if they’re not careful, that could even lead to a deep sentiment of mistrust, frustration, and confusion among students whose accommodations had requirements that seemed to have a lack of transparency and communication, were needlessly excessive, and took several months to verify.
Fortunately, Sean excitedly told us, he is determined to correct these pitfalls and streamline the workflow of the CASS office. He hopes that creating concrete and visible policies will help to increase faculty and student confidence in CASS recommendations and prevent academic accommodations from being exploitative of either party.
Sean is also working on setting up better data management systems and generalizing accessibility policies in hopes that a more straightforward path to obtaining diagnoses or provider recommendations can be implemented within the next year. The goal is to make initiating new accommodations, updating existing services, or scheduling psych evals all accessible from a single portal on access.caltech.
Often, students put off obtaining beneficial accommodations due to the high price of psychiatric or medical appointments, screening and tests, and the amount of time and effort it takes to get necessary appointments. However, Sean emphasizes that if you have a disability, then you qualify. Period. Documentation is indeed required for some accommodations to be granted, but if you don’t have any, or if you’re not sure, Sean still encourages you to set up a meeting with him to find out your options.
All it takes to establish an accommodation is reasonable justification – for example, if you’re taking a prescription medication related to your issue, then the label on the bottle is enough documentation for at least a temporary accommodation without having to acquire diagnostics or doctor’s letters. Sean is also working with Lee Coleman at the Student Wellness Services to push for campus providers to be able to screen students and recommend them for necessary accommodations, which would be a much more cost effective and accessible plan than having to source outside providers.
How to get started
Sean told us that the best way to get started with an accommodation request is to fill out the relevant PDF forms on the CASS website (cass.caltech.edu) and then send them to him by email (email@example.com).
If you have any questions about CASS policies or want to schedule a meeting with Sean Cutting, the best way to reach him is by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can also directly sign up for a 30-minute meeting with him using his Calendly link (https://calendly.com/scutting-1/30min).
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Sean, and welcome to Caltech!