UW Today

October 19, 2011

Celebrating Disability History Month — and a new center coming

A parade of speakers will talk about the history of disability issues at the UW at a special event from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, in the Walker Ames Room, Kane Hall. The event is part of Washington State Disability History Month.

The UW will celebrate Washington State Disability History Month with a gathering from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, in the Walker-Ames Room of Kane Hall.

And while the gathering celebrates how far weve come, a committee is working behind the scenes to ensure the kind of positive changes that can be celebrated at such gatherings in the future. Chief among those changes is a new Disabilities Center to be opened in Mary Gates Hall in the fall of 2012.

The UW Committee on Disability Issues was created by Sheila Edwards Lange, the vice president and vice provost for minority affairs and diversity; and Eric Godfrey, vice president and vice provost for student life, and given the task of identifying issues of concern for people with disabilities and making recommendations for improving the climate for them.

Now in its second year of deliberations, the committee has been having conversations “for quite a while now” about creating a center for those with disabilities, Committee Co-chair Ellen Taylor said.

“If you think about the Ethnic Cultural Center, the Q Center, etc., one of the things that is so important for any group that has been marginalized is to have space to create a sense of community,” she said. “It can be a place to study together, to plan meetings, to hang out together.”

Working with Lange and Godfrey, the group found what they think is the perfect space on the ground floor of Mary Gates Hall, where students with mobility issues wont need an elevator or a ramp to gain access. Disability Resources for Students (DRS), the University office that works to support students with disabilities, will be moving to the space, and there will be a separate area to be used as a gathering place.

DRS is currently located on the elevator-dependent fourth floor of Schmitz Hall, which is itself a bit off the beaten track from central campus.

“It will be lovely to move,” said DRS Director Dyane Haynes, who is also a member of the committee. “In addition to the space being more accessible, its right next door to the Access Resource Center that houses the adaptive technology that many of our students use. Its also close to the advisers offices, and we work very closely with advisers.”

“So many of the impacts of disability are socially related,” said Erica Sekins, committee co-chair and a graduate student in Public Affairs. “So it will be wonderful to create a space where folks can mitigate the effects of their impairments by creating community.”

An architect is currently being chosen for the project.

Beyond the center, the committee is also working to change the lens through which disabilities are viewed on campus.

“What were talking about is moving from a medical model which sees disability as a deficit and the person with the disability as the one who needs to have an accommodation to solve the problem, to a social model where we view the problem as a poorly designed environment which creates an access barrier,” Haynes said.

“We often design buildings, programs, classes, etc. for the slice of people in the center of the bell curve. This leaves people who fall on either side of the bell curve out. For students with disabilities, this requires them to request accommodations to have equal access. Using universal design principles as our guide, we can do a better job designing our environments to be more inclusive, minimizing the need for retroactive accommodation. This movement towards the social model and universal design is happening nationally and were somewhat on the front end of it.”

“So for example, suppose Im a professor and there are some materials Id like students to be able to access electronically,” Taylor said. “If I can create those materials in a way that they are accessible for anyone, then no student in the classroom would need special accommodations in order to access those materials.”

For example, text might be prepared so that it can be read by a screen reader, allowing those with visual impairments to access it.

Students with disabilities arent the only ones who can benefit from such changes. Haynes once worked with an instructor who was reluctant to allow a student to record his lectures, but finally agreed to allow such recordings by special permission, if the students involved agreed to sign a form promising not to share the recordings. When he announced the policy, he found that students for whom English is a second language wanted to take advantage of it too.

Members of the committee recognize that these kinds of changes will require collaboration with the faculty, who may or may not be aware of the needs or how to address them. DRS works with about 1,000 students every year and the number keeps growing, Haynes said. However, having held her job for 17 years, shes seen a lot of changes.

“When I first started here, Id get calls from professors on a regular basis saying ‘This student has handed me a letter from your office saying they have a learning disability. We need to talk, because I dont understand how a student with a learning disability can be here in college. Now those calls dont come in here anymore.”

Haynes believes there have been enough students with disabilities in all disciplines who are doing very well, and with that exposure over time, many of the myths that people have about the abilities of people with disabilities have been eradicated.

Some of the UWs history with issues having to do with disability will be outlined at the event. Kelsey Byers, the president of Disability Advocacy Student Alliance, said the original president of that organization — which started about 10 years ago — will be there to talk about its founding. The event is being organized by Ann Luetzow, director of the ASUW Student Disability Commission.

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Dennis Lang, associate director of the UW Disability Studies Program, who will talk about the evolution of Disability Studies at the University of Washington (The Disability Studies Program offers a minor, and a major is offered through Individualized Studies.)
  • Lance Forshay, ASL and deaf studies program coordinator, who will discuss the history of ASL & Deaf Studies at the UW
  • Eric Godfrey, current vice president and vice provost for student life, who will discuss the progress of disability issues at the University of Washington
  • Charity Ranger, original president of the Disability Advocacy Student Alliance, who will discuss the founding and purpose of the student group

Of course, there will be refreshments at the festivities.

As President Michael Young said in his message to the UW community about Disability History Month, the event gives everyone a chance to join in “our commitment to equality of opportunity and access for persons with disabilities and to celebrate the historic contributions of the disability community.”