By Alex Tsai
On Tuesday, members of Stanford’s disability community and their allies gathered in Tresidder Memorial Union to demand disability equity during Student Affairs office hours being held there.
During the demonstration, Bryce Tuttle ’20 and Frank Mondelli P.h.D. ’21 — co-directors of disability advocacy on the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) executive cabinet — presented a petition with over 1,200 signatures from the Stanford community requesting University endorsement for a permanent disability community center.
The petition was signed by undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and alumni in the week since it was made public on Oct. 9.
“I do not know of any other petition on campus that got this much support this quickly,” said Tuttle, who is also the former president of the disability advocacy organization Power2ACT. “We are so overwhelmed by the support of the community. That’s why we know people care about this issue.”
Last spring, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole convened the Advisory Group on Centers of Community and Belonging for Students. The committee advises her on the approval process for new community centers. The protest was held during the Advisory Group’s office hours, which take place in the Residential Education (ResEd) offices.
Assistant Dean of ResEd Diontrey Thompson, who also directs the Advisory Group on Centers of Community and Belonging for Students, led a group discussion during the office hours.
“The [committee] doesn’t have a say in who gets a center, but we [have] the privilege of identifying a process for how they move forward through our systems,” Thompson said at the beginning of the discussion.
About 25 students gathered during the office hours to show VPSA the demand for a community center.
“We’re here to show that we deserve this space,” Tuttle said to the crowd. “The disability community for too long has been ignored at Stanford and treated as an academic issue, [an] accommodations issue or an accessibility issue. And we’re here to say that … it’s an identity that needs to be supported and needs to be affirmed.”
Tuttle added that due to the negative stigmas surrounding disability, many members of the disability community are reluctant to self-identify publicly. Tuttle said that a permanent community center would give allies and members of the community a safe space in which they can seek solidarity without the pressure to self-identify.
While Tuttle and Mondelli’s petition is recent, advocacy for a designated space on campus for the disability community has been ongoing for more than a decade. In 2015, the disability community got a temporary center in Meyer Library before the library was torn down.
In fall 2017, former president of Power2ACT Zina Jawadi ’18 spearheaded the opening of the Abilities Hub, a temporary space for the disability community located in the Bridging Education, Ambition and Meaningful Work (BEAM) and Office of Accessible Education (OAE) building. It provides students with and without disabilities a community space in which to study, socialize and host events.
However, the Abilities Hub has not met community expectations for a shared space on campus. It does not have official University endorsement and is instead sponsored by Power2ACT, which is student-run.
As of now, the disability community has reservation privileges, but not permanent access, to the Abilities Hub. According to Tuttle, the two rooms comprising the Abilities Hub may only be booked provided that the reservations do not conflict with BEAM events.
Tuttle shared that several clubs in the disability community — including Power2ACT, Sense Connect (an affinity group for the hearing impaired community) and Kids with Dreams (an organization that connects Stanford volunteers with children with special needs)— have been unable to schedule weekly meeting times due to such conflicts.
Last April, Jan Barker-Alexander, Chair of Community Centers and Interim Assistant Vice Provost for Student Affairs, told The Daily that community centers are offices with professional staff members.
“There’s a difference between a club, an organization and a professional office,” Barker-Alexander said. “Community centers are professional offices.”
By this definition, and according to Tuttle, the Abilities Hub lacks formal designation as a community center since they do not have a full-time staff member or a permanent meeting space. The petition outlined the motives behind advocating for those priorities.
First, official University support and designation as a community center would ensure that students with disabilities feel respected on campus and indicate that Stanford recognizes disability as an identity. Second, a paid administrative staff member at the Abilities Hub would alleviate the burden of scheduling, staffing and providing programming for a community space from the Power2ACT student group. Finally, designating a permanent space would increase the accessibility of the community center and eliminate conflicts with BEAM events.
“I believe in the spirit of inclusion,” said Janet Coleman-Belin ’19, former co-president of Kids with Dreams.
Coleman-Belin is also a teaching assistant for CHEMENG 90Q: Dare to Care, a class that focuses on engineering and design for people with disabilities, and a Resident Assistant for the all-freshman dorm Rinconada in Wilbur Hall. She shared her frustration that there was no mention of disability as an identity during her RA training, saying she has found it “tricky” to guide residents who identify as having a disability to a community center on campus.
“I would love to be able to look at my residents and say, ‘Here’s a space that you can go to. It is your center. It is your home,’” Coleman-Belin said.
Hilary Sun B.S. ’18 M.S. ’19 reiterated the importance of having a physical center that is a place for allies, not just for people with disabilities. Because Sun has an invisible disability and did not identify as having a disability until this past summer, she never registered with OAE for special accommodations as an undergraduate, nor did she explore that aspect of her identity.
Instead, “The A³C [Asian-American Activities Center] was where I went for a safe space,” Sun said. “I knew, for example, that they integrated CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] into the community centers. So I went there to talk to a CAPS counselor specifically about me as an Asian-American and the mental health issues I was going through.”
At the A³C, Sun was able to explore her Asian-American heritage. Similarly, Araceli Garcia ’20 said that she found a sense of belonging at Casa Zapata and El Centro Chicano y Latino, two physical locations on campus that allowed her to explore her racial and cultural identity.
At office hours, Thompson reassured students that the VPSA office’s primary goal is to support the needs of students.
“Please do know that we do care and that you are the core of our work,” Thompson said. “I’m going to ask you to trust the process.”
Mondelli is optimistic that the advocacy for a permanent disability community center will serve as a model for the criteria that determine who deserves a community center.
“The fact that these office hours exist is a good thing; it’s welcoming,” Mondelli said. “I’m hopeful that we can cultivate a practical working relationship [with the VPSA office].”
Tuttle reaffirmed the need for University endorsement.
“Creating a community center is the first way to get rid of shame around this identity,” Tuttle said. “The way the University can show they care is by showing they care about community, not just our impairments.”
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly noted Frank Mondelli’s expected graduation date. Mondelli’s expected graduation date is ’21, not ’19. The previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Bryce Tuttle is the current president of Power2ACT; he is a former president. The article has also been corrected to reflect Zina Jawadi’s ’18 efforts in launching the Abilities Hub. The Daily regrets these errors.
Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.