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Feb 13 2017
by Stacy Andryshak

The College Student's Guide to Activism: Disability Rights

By Stacy Andryshak - Feb 13 2017
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"Today's protests, like those in the '60s, are memorable because they have been effective in pushing for change and sparking dialogue as well as polarization." — Robert Cohen, professor at NYU

Activism is a necessary facet of democracy and launches important discussions about equal rights. Faced with an incredibly controversial new President, students must stick to their beliefs and set an example of advocacy for the rest of America. On college campuses, it is incredibly easy to organize an event and get the word out to other students. Events that take place at universities have the power to set a precedent for activists of all ages.


Activism Works

An article in The Los Angeles Times explained exactly why today's wave of college activism has proven so effective, with the use of the opening quote from NYU history professor, Robert Cohen. Cited in the Times' article were instances like that of Claremont McKenna College, where students protested their dean's offensive comment towards a Latina student and subsequently caused the dean to leave the college. Another example was at Occidental College, where the school's president acknowledged reform requests that protesters had created, and was willing to consider their suggestions — like the creation of a black studies major and installment of diversity training. Although the targets of these protests are the forms of inequality that affect the students' lives, the message resonates with the incidents of such inequality throughout America. As the article stated:

"Campuses are microcosms of society . . . and are often comparable in terms of representation and opportunity. So there is a similar fight for more representation, acceptance and inclusion."

The future of disability rights has been discussed lately more than ever -— mostly because people are noticing that these rights are rarely acknowledged over today's political outlets. Now, sparking dialogue and pushing for change is the proper next step. To increase disability awareness and rights on campuses — including more discussions about disability and better accessibility — college students of all kinds need to fight for this representation.  

Disability In Today's America 

Like at the beginning of any presidency, there has been widespread contemplation about how civil rights are going to change under the Trump administration. However, when discussing this issue, a common first thought is about LGBT+, women's or immigrant's rights. These are all wildly important causes to advocate for, yet disability rights are rarely acknowledged on political outlets. In fact, Disability Speaks was able to compile all instances of Donald Trump referring to disability on Twitter (a main source of his public communications) in this article. Trump often lumps disability together with concepts like unemployment and food stamps, while also claiming he has done the disabled community massive favors.

Trump did not, in fact, discuss his plan for expanding opportunity for people with disabilities during his speech in Sarasota, or at any point during the primary and general election campaigns. However, he did become known for mocking a New York Times reporter with a disability, something that was recently criticized by Meryl Streep during a speech at the Golden Globes. The Washington Post explains:

"In late 2015, Trump went after reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a physical disability that affects the flexibility and movement of his arms. Trump said at a rally in South Carolina, 'You’ve got to see this guy,' and then jerked his arms spastically. Later Trump said he did not know Kovaleski had a disability and wasn’t trying to mock him. Kovaleski noted that Trump had met him repeatedly."

On top of all of the negative discussion in politics, the worst case scenario for people with disabilities would come from a decision to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). On January 20th, President Trump signed an executive order that sets the stage to do just that. When it comes to vital disability rights law, the ACA is right up there with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In her article, "What Will the Trump Administration Mean for People With Disabilities?" Julia Bascom explains:

"[Before the Affordable Care Act], no insurers would meaningfully cover us, so many disabled Americans historically had to live in poverty in order to qualify for Medicaid. By banning discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, the ACA made it possible for millions of Americans with disabilities to enroll in commercial insurance, afford needed medical care, move and change jobs." 

While we're at it, let's also not overlook our new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who claimed during her Senate confirmation hearing that children with disabilities don't necessarily deserve equal protection in schools. She was talking about K-12 education here, although I'm sure her stance doesn't just magically change regarding higher education. 

Even on his first day in office, President Trump removed The Obama White House website page labeled, “Contact the Disability Issues Outreach Team." Now, the page cannot be found. There also used to be a website fact sheet about expanding opportunities for people with disabilities, which is gone now too. We should be worried that this is reflective of Trump's viewpoints on disability moving forward, which seems to be if you don't see it yourself, you don't have to deal with it. Luckily, activists have already taken to the Women's March and social media to make disability rights a deservedly unavoidable discussion. 


Get Involved

Today, college students have more than enough reasons to push for more on-campus discussion, accessibility and resources for those with disabilities. According to BestCollege's resources for students with disabilities, under Section 504, "organizations that receive federal funding. . .are legally obligated to provide disabled students with equal benefits, services and opportunities."

Qualified individuals are defined as, "those with a physical or mental condition that substantially restricts one or more major life activities." The Department of Education lists examples of these types of impairments, such as neurological conditions, sense organ impairments, musculoskeletal impairments, emotional or mental illnesses, respiratory conditions, digestive ailments, learning disabilities, organic brain syndromes and more. 

Smithsonian National Museum of American History 

If you realize that your university would be inaccessible to people with the impairments above, campus disability resource centers should be your first stop when lobbying for change. However, letting any member of your college's administration know about injustices to students with disabilities is key in initiating reform. Take a look around campus the next time you're out. If you notice a lack of wheelchair accessible entrances, no elevators in buildings, no interpreters at campus events or no in-class mention of available learning accommodations for tests, let your administration know. You can do this by calling, writing, arranging a meeting, creating a petition or protesting. Join a club that can help you get these things started, either on-campus or a national organization. They will provide you with resources and people of similar goals to help you make your voice heard to University officials. 

On-Campus Organizations

To get involved at your college, look into some on-campus organizations. These are your best bet as a resource for change around your university specifically. If you can't find any focusing on disability rights around your campus: start one! The existing organizations below are great examples off of which you can model yours.

Boston College's Disability Awareness Committee 

A great example of a much-needed campus organization fighting for disability rights is the Disability Awareness Committee of Boston College (DAC-BC)

Maryan, who co-runs the Facebook page for DAC-BC, told Fresh U, 

"BC is especially behind the curve for disability rights. They do not have an ADA or Section 504 coordinator with their student disability services. They spent 1.6 billion in new renovations in the last few years, but have removed wheelchair access across the campus... the atmosphere is actually hostile and repressive towards discussion or activism for disability rights."

Their petition, with over 24,000 signatures, urges others to recognize their cause and help reform their administration. The club feels the need to pressure university administrators to follow the ADA and Section 504 guidelines and to expose abuse and discrimination. This, they hope, will also demonstrate the standards of disability rights they would like upheld on a federal level. 

"With the new Presidency, the need to join together to assert our rights for equal access and inclusion is profoundly more important. Our group of supporters on campus and in our community is growing. In 2017, we are not going to be victims of a system that focuses more on ratings for grants, and exclusion of persons with disabilities with power to derail degrees in retaliation for speaking up. The education of our rights and positive push for access improvements on our campus and other campuses by students, Alum and the college community will more than likely grow as we move through this new climate of change."

University of Chicago's Students for Disability Justice

Likewise, according to their Facebook page, UChicago's Students for Disability Justice, "is a campaign dedicated to addressing issues of accessibility and ableism at the University of Chicago." They were noted in the Chicago Maroon in 2015 for their chalk protests against University accessibility and student to disability counselor ratio, gaining the attention of their director of public affairs. 

Syracuse University's Disability Student Union

@DisabilityStudentUnion

Another great organization, Syracuse University's Disability Student Union, is a student-led disability cultural organization comprised of students with disabilities and their allies. They hold events like Disabilifunk (an annual entertainment night featuring performances by students, snacks and karaoke), a disability forum and socials in order to increase the sense of community on campus. 

National Organizations

Besides on-campus organizations, there are many national organizations that cover other facets of disability rights. Starting a chapter of one of these at your university, or just becoming a member individually, can expand your activism outreach past just the confines of your campus. 

Active Minds

Although many people only think of visible, physical impairments as disabilities, mental illness is just as debilitating to everyday activities. Not only should mental illness be formally acknowledged a disability, but many people with physical disabilities have mental health issues as well. The Active Minds organization works through campus chapters to promote positive mental and emotional health for college students, and to end the stigma of mental illness on campus. The organization also has a fellowship that funds students' mental health projects. 

Active Minds’ student-led chapters educate their peers about mental health and help create safe, supportive environments for students with mental illness. The Interim Director of Programs at Active Minds, Laura Horne, told Fresh U: 

"Chapters promote positive mental health and educate about the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders on campus; raise funds for critical mental health education and resources through Active Minds, Inc.; advocate for policy and institutional change; encourage students to reach out for help when needed; and refer students in distress to counseling services. Our Transform Your Campus toolkit and technical assistance supports students to work with administrators in implementing campus-wide changes that help create safer, more supportive environments for students with mental illness. This can include adding crisis helplines to student ID cards, integrating mental health education into student orientation, and impacting leave of absence policies."

Many students who join the organization have personal experience with mental illness, know a someone who is impacted, are studying a related field, or are passionate about social justice.

In response to how Active Minds will play a part in college students' fight for disability rights during a new presidency, Horne said: 

"College students seem to have a strong interest in being informed and taking an active role in decision-making on their campus and community. Active Minds students, in particular, have started taking their awareness efforts to the next level and advocating for long-term, sustainable changes to support student mental health. Nationally, the disability rights community has gotten some recent attention, and I hope that continues."

Get involved by reading the Active Minds blog, starting or joining a chapter at your school, volunteering, hosting a speaker from the organization, donating or fundraising. 

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) looks to advance the principles of the disability rights movement with regard to autism. ASAN believes that the goal of autism advocacy should mean access, rights and opportunities for people with Autism equal to all other citizens. In response to President Trump's plans for the Affordable Care Act, ASAN has spoken out about their desire to defend the ACA. Support their cause by starting or joining a chapter near you, becoming a member of the organization, volunteering, sharing your story or donating!

The National Association of Law Students with Disabilities (NALSWD)

According to their website, NALSWD is comprised of law students "dedicated to disability advocacy and the achievement of equal access, inclusion, diversity and non-discrimination in legal education and in the legal profession." They want to expand opportunities for law students with disabilities by offering them resources and career connections. Get involved by becoming a member or donating to the cause!

Think College

Think College opens doors for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. They mostly share resources and publications about disability and higher education options. Think College's website states that they "support evidence-based and student-centered research and practice by generating and sharing knowledge, guiding institutional change, informing public policy and engaging with students, professionals and families." This is a great resource to refer to whether you want to read up on disability policy or just get clear fast facts. They also offer webinars on postsecondary education for those with intellectual disability. 

Disability Rights, Education, Activism and Mentoring (DREAM)

Finally, if you're interested in disability and higher education, DREAM publishes a comprehensive and up-to-date weekly newsletter. They also have monthly online mentoring sessions, hold a "Disabled and Proud" conference every other year, and are run by a board with students from across the country. They have chapters across America and keep records of college student groups, organizations and conferences related to disability — many more than are mentioned on this list. DREAM is part of the National Center for College Students with Disabilities and another great source of current information. 

Start Acting Now

This guide should be all you need to understand how to go about taking action for disability rights across your campus and throughout your city. Don't wait. President Trump has already been criticized for the effects that healthcare reforms he plans on making could have on the way people with disabilities navigate society. It is important that we push for reform as well, with the goal of increasing awareness and protecting disability rights. Read up, take notice of what you could be doing to help the community and team up with an organization that will let you make it happen. Students are the future, and it is the action we take today that will shape everyone's quality of life later on. Start acting now. 

Read the rest of Fresh U's series on college activism below: 

Lead Image Credit: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right via Flickr Creative Commons

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Stacy Andryshak - Northeastern University

Stacy is a freshman pursuing a combined major in Communication Studies and Media & Screen Studies at Northeastern University. In high school, she spent most of her free time acting in dramas and musicals. She enjoys obscure vegan restaurants, British soap operas, and her pet rabbit. Find her on: Instagram @stacy.a / Twitter @standryn

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