This fall, Stanford will launch a pilot initiative for a disability community space in response to decades of student advocacy — even as advocates say the plan falls short of creating a permanent disability center and fails to ensure long-term funding or staffing for the site.
Advocates and Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) executive cabinet members say they are hopeful that the new pilot initiative will create a permanent disability community space, but they remain concerned about the lack of clarity on funding and the evaluation of the initiative following meetings with University administrators.
Students and administrators are collaborating on an implementation committee for the pilot initiative. The committee is tasked with identifying a physical space, hiring part-time staff members and addressing other logistical concerns leading up to the launch of the pilot space in the fall. Members include students — ASSU Director of Communications Cricket Bidleman ’21 M.A. ’22, Tilly Griffiths ’22 and second-year sociology Ph.D. candidate Cat Sanchez ’19 — and administrators, including Associate Vice Provost Emelyn dela Peña.
Establishing a permanent community center should be a University priority, advocates on the committee said.
According to Bidleman, 19% of students on campus are registered with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). Bidleman said it is concerning that there is no space for students with disabilities to find “a fulfilling community experience,” despite the fact that they represent nearly one-fifth of the student population.
She said a community center would provide a space to discuss experiences with others and consolidate resources.
ASSU President Vianna Vo ’21 added that recent advocacy surrounding Antonio Milane ’25 and his fight for a scribe further highlighted the need for a disability community space. She said several students face similar issues, and a disability community space could help remove the burden from individual students to advocate on their own by providing an environment where they can seek resources and support from community members.
History of on-campus advocacy for a disability community center
This debate is not new: Advocates have been calling for a University-sponsored on-campus disability center since the 1990s.
To address this issue, the ASSU launched the Abilities Hub for the Disability Community (A-Hub) initiative in October 2017 to foster “engagement of the disability community on campus.”
The A-Hub was developed as a “temporary space working towards a long-term solution: an established community center with a full-time director.” According to advocates, the original A-Hub initiative failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities due to difficulties with scheduling meetings in a shared space and lack of administrative support.
In response, students created an interim disability center last winter. Sanchez said that the interim center highlighted the need for a formal community space with staff members because managing a robust community space solely with student volunteers was not feasible and placed an unfair burden on students with disabilities.
Students presented an official proposal for a permanent disability community center in May and received a response from the Student Resources Committee in August stating that the University would not provide a community center designation at that time, but that it was willing to initiate an A-Hub pilot program. The pilot initiative is not an extension of the previous A-Hub program and student advocates are currently working on developing a different name.
While the pilot was initially intended to last one year, limitations imposed by virtual learning led to a pause until it was feasible to launch a physical space. The implementation committee is on track to start staffing the disability community space, initiate programming and handle logistics in spring, Sanchez said.
She added that the committee is identifying locations for the space. Assuming the University’s decision to resume in-person classes in the fall holds, advocates are cautiously optimistic that a physical pilot can be launched in the fall.
While advocates said they made progress on the inclusion of “disability” in the space’s name, recent meetings between advocates and administration have left concerns about permanent funding and receiving a community center designation.
A concern raised by advocates is the University’s unwillingness to use “community center” or even “center” in the name.
Vo said terming the pilot a “space” raises concerns about the permanence of the initiative and equivalence in recognizing disability as an identity.
Sanchez said that she acknowledges the possibility that a “community space” or different model would serve the needs of the disability community. However, she said the lack of details about the differences in resource allocation and permanence between community centers, centers and spaces is raising concerns for advocates.
“I want the University to say: Yes, we are going to give you a space. And funding might be tight sometimes, but we will give you funding, because this is something that you deserve and that you’ve been advocating for a very long time,” Bidleman said. “I know it may be difficult, but it’s not unreasonable.”
Dela Peña explained that the purpose of the Student Resources Committee was not to create community centers but rather to explore student needs and ways to meet them with University resources. As such, the Student Resources Committee focuses on “the responsible stewardship of University resources to meet student needs” and “is not specifically designed to establish new community centers,” dela Peña wrote in a Feb. 4 email to Vo.
Dela Peña attributed the lack of formal rubric and assessment procedure to this emphasis on assessing student needs against the University’s resources rather than assessing proposals for community center designation.
A third concern for advocates is the lack of long-term funding. In her email to Vo, dela Peña wrote that the University was only able to provide “one-time funds” for the pilot because she decided to delay hiring an executive assistant.
Currently, the committee is working toward securing funding for a part-time staff member for two years according to student members of the implementation committee. However, the current funding “is not guaranteed permanent continuous funding, it is getting it off the ground, initial startup funding,” Sanchez said.
While the University cannot guarantee funding at the conclusion of the pilot program, dela Peña wrote that she can commit “to work with our budget and finance team as well as with our development liaisons to find the needed funding should we decide to continue the program.”
Vo and Sanchez both stressed the importance of creating transparent and accessible processes for future student communities to follow. They hope that the work of the implementation committee will help create a University-sponsored pathway to establishing community centers and spaces, as well as a sustainable source of funding for other communities.
Sanchez said she was also hoping for a more accelerated process to receive a staff member or graduate fellow. “It’s hard for students with disabilities who are facing more barriers to getting an education, to their daily lives, to have the capacity to hold a center together by themselves,” Sanchez said.
She added that she feels the current process is “essentially asking the people most in need to do the most work which isn’t really equitable.”
While Vo said she does not realistically anticipate that they will receive a community center designation before she graduates, she hopes the pilot initiative will provide a foundation for future advocates to work toward a community center designation.
“I do think this will be just the first step in many,” Vo said.