Members and allies of the disability community gathered on the White Plaza stage Friday to rally for a permanent disability community center on campus.
The rally, hosted by student advocacy group Disability Equity Now, served as the culmination of the second annual Disabilities Awareness Week, a series of events organized by the Stanford Disability Coalition in order to raise awareness of and advocate for the disability community.
Although the rally emphasized recent efforts to get University support for a permanent disability community center — including a petition released by Disability Equity Now that has amassed over 1,200 signatures — speakers also discussed the stigmatization of disability and a need for more disability-centric academia.
According to Stanford Disability Coalition director Richie Sapp ’13, 12 percent of Stanford students are registered with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE), the University body responsible for offering “a variety of accommodations for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities,” according to its website.
Bryce Tuttle ’20 and Frank Mondelli Ph.D. ’21, co-directors of Disability Advocacy on the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) executive board, opened the rally by asking attendees to join them in solidarity with the campus disability community.
“We are here today not just to ask for a community center but to tell the Stanford administration that the name of our community is not a dirty word,” Tuttle said.
Other speakers at the rally represented Power2ACT, the Undergraduate Senate, the Asian American Students Association (AASA) and the Stanford Asian American Activist Committee (SAAC). They read statements of solidarity with the disability community center movement on behalf of their respective organizations.
Some speakers also shared their personal experiences with disability. Co-president of disability advocacy organization Power2ACT Brickelle Bro ’19, who is also a Paralympic swimmer and double amputee, spoke about how a community center for the disabled would have prevented the isolation she felt in her frosh year.
“I felt lonely and scared, and it wasn’t because I didn’t have friends,” Bro said. “It was the feeling that I’m the only one. I like to feel that I fit in, and it was a bit of not seeing people like me that made me think, ‘Do I fit in at Stanford?’”
After sharing his experience watching his father navigate paralysis, Undergraduate Senator Josh Nkoy ’21 called on the University administration to support the students demanding a campus disability community center.
“I want to tell you that I am sick and tired of the tacit approval of ableism that this administration assumes each day [as] they ignore this community’s calls for a community center — each day that they fail to support our disability community’s studies program,” Nkoy said.
At the end of the rally, Mondelli invited audience members to share their own experiences with disability.
Graduate Student Council co-chair Rosie Nelson, who has a non-visible disability, spoke about the need for a center where she could meet other disabled students and discuss strategies for working through complex situations.
“One of the big challenges as a grad student is that in a lot of the departments there is stigma against some disabilities, which can be very challenging to navigate and having that social pool would have been really helpful,” Nelson said.
Disability Equity Now member Rachel Wallstrom ’20, who also identifies with the disability community, agreed that the resources of a community center would have greatly contributed to her frosh year and would have allowed her to better explore her identity.
“The disability community center would be very different than the current disability operations at Stanford,” Wallstrom said before the rally began. “The OAE is obviously very important, but [it] can’t capture the identity aspects of disability, what that means and how to capture that.”
In an interview with The Daily, Mondelli pointed out that many people stayed around after the rally concluded to mingle and talk with each other. He stressed the importance of engaging in open-minded dialogue.
“[The rally] serves as an incubator for this social, personal, ideological safeness that can create the sort of environment we want going forward,” Mondelli said.
Tuttle said he hopes that the rally will encourage people to continue learning about the relationship between ableism, disability advocacy and equity.
“For this event we wanted to conclude on a strong note — a note of action, of advocacy and [continuing] our fight for a community center,” Tuttle said.
Although last year’s Disabilities Awareness Week events were organized by the ASSU, this year the Stanford Disability Coalition and affiliated student groups took responsibility for programming. Tuttle connected this shift to a growing emphasis on the community aspect of disability advocacy.
The Awareness Week began last Friday, with a “Future of Disability at Stanford” event at the Bridging Education, Ambition and Meaningful Work (BEAM) Career Services building. Following this kick-off event, the Stanford Disability Coalition and associated student groups hosted opportunities throughout the week for participants to learn more about the disability community.
Events included a basketball game for the disability volunteer organization Kids With Dreams, an American Sign Language workshop and a talk with professor Lindsey Dolich Felt, a founder of the Stanford Disability Initiative (SDI) and a current lecturer for PWR 1LF: “The New Normal: Disability Rhetoric.”
On Wednesday afternoon, student groups representing the Stanford Disability Coalition tabled in White Plaza.
Kids with Dreams president Julia Wang ’19 spoke to The Daily about her involvement with the organization, a campus group which allows volunteers to work with children with disabilities both on and off campus. In addition to creating an anthology of writing by children with disabilities, the organization also runs “buddy programs,” which pair Stanford student mentors with children with disabilities.
“October is [National] Disability Awareness Month, and so we want to bring not only awareness about our organizations and the work we’re doing with the disability community, but we’re also advocating for a center and space for the disability community,” Wang said.
In terms of long-term planning for disability advocacy, the Stanford Disability Initiative is working on a Stanford disability website and pushing for the University to offer a disability studies major or minor.
Mondelli said a disability studies major would make disability a greater part of campus conversation. However, he added that there is a campus-wide lack of awareness about disability history.
“Right now, building this kind of robust institutional memory is definitely a priority for us,” Mondelli wrote in an email to The Daily after the rally.
There is currently only one introduction to disability studies course offered at Stanford, SOC 186: “Introduction to Disability Studies and Disability Rights.” Last year the Disability Initiative led a successful campaign to save the course after it temporarily lost funding.
“If Stanford as an institution demonstrates that they care about disability equity and all that, they should care about disability studies as a really rich and rewarding academic area,” Sapp said.