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All About Access: Disability Event Expands Critical Conversations

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Person standing with microphone in front of a lectern.
Disability justice advocate Lydia X.Z. Brown gave the keynote address in Butler Board Room. Credit: Jeffrey Watts.

Last week at American University, a one-day symposium on disability, access, and teaching brought together students, faculty, staff, and administrators. It was a chance for the disability community to expand discussions around accessibility and disability theory, and to educate others less familiar with these important conversations.

Event organizers included: Tanja Aho, professorial lecturer in American Studies; Perry Zurn, assistant philosophy professor; Monica Morin, senior administrative assistant of the Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies Collaborative; and Marissa Zuckerman, a graduate student and research associate at the Institute on Disability and Public Policy.

In the introductory remarks, Aho noted it was essential to make an event about accessibility completely accessible. A collaborative effort equipped Butler Board Room with live captioning, sign-language interpreters, written transcripts, a sensory-friendly space, and other supportive features.

“I have learned almost all of my access-hacks from other disabled colleagues and friends, and in that spirit we offer today as a space in which we are attempting to model access,” Aho said.

Disability justice means centering the perspectives of those most negatively impacted, Aho explained, and many sessions were led by or included disabled faculty, students, and staff. “We are here to learn together, from each other, and through our differences," noted Aho.


Kick Up Your Feet and Relax

Disability justice advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown gave the keynote speech in the morning, weaving together their experiences from teaching and organizing. One point Brown made clear to the audience: Sit however you like.

“We are taught from a very young age that there’s only one acceptable and appropriate way to occupy space. And we internalize that from the moment we are born, until the moment that we die,” they said.

Society expects individuals to look attentive and engaged—feet flat to the floor, shoulders back and straight, neck up—but Brown contends this is nonsense.

“I do not believe in this hegemonic representation of what bodies and minds must do in order to be allowed to quite literally occupy or take up space,” they said.

People should give themselves permission, Brown added, “to simply be and to exist in the ways that our bodies need.”


Accessible Culture

A former Tufts University adjunct, Brown incorporated this approach in the classroom. They allowed students to sit on the floor and lounge, take breaks during classes, and extend assignment deadlines.

“My lateness, absence, and incomplete policy was simply that if you need more time, you tell me how much time you think you need, and you get it. You never have to explain. You never have to provide documentation,” Brown noted.

Miranda Pennington, an AU instructor who teaches a disability-themed writing course, asked if this flexible policy ever becomes a personal burden. “Those open-ended extensions are great, but does that at some point create a pileup for you of 500 things to grade?” Pennington asked.

Brown stressed negotiation and transparency, conveying to students that handing in papers late also means receiving grades later.

Brown emphasized that disability justice is about creating a culture around accessibility. “Access culture reminds us that accessibility is never about a checklist or a set of regulations and whether or not we sufficiently comply with them,” they noted. “We embed access into the culture so that it is not merely a question of, ‘Can we all participate? Can we all engage?’ But, ‘Are we welcome? Are we wanted? Are we desired to be present in this space?’”


Many Perspectives

Other panels included a workshop on “Disability Rights Law Clinic and the Disability Law Society,” with participants from the American University Washington College of Law. There was an update on the ongoing Inclusive Bathrooms Project at AU; a closing roundtable on “Disability at AU” offered space for feedback and ideas to be shared with the AU community.

The event also featured a variety of student perspectives. Madelaine Reis, a political communications master’s candidate, participated on a panel, and she presented an informative Disability 101: A Workshop for Educators.

Reis compared the social model and the medical model approaches to disabilities. The social model promotes independence, inclusion, and self-determination, while the medical model promotes institutionalization, exclusion, and dependence. During her discussion on the “social model in action,” Reis included this example:

“You are a disabled person who can’t use stairs and wants to get into a building with a step at the entrance. The social model recognizes that this is a problem with the building, not the person, and would suggest adding a ramp to the entrance.”

Reis also talked about terminologies. Generally in the disability community, she said, people find terms like “handicap” or “special needs” offensive. But there are areas of disagreement: Older individuals often use “people with disabilities,” but younger people prefer “disabled person” and embrace this as part of their identity.

She also recommended avoiding “inspiration porn.” For instance, the Jerry Lewis telethon for muscular dystrophy popularized the idea that disability was about charity and pity. (And it gave too much of its money to organization salaries, she said.)

An audience participant asked Reis about the difference between a disability story that educates and one that’s mere inspiration porn.

“You have a poster of a kid running in the Paralympics with one leg, and it says, ‘What’s your excuse?’ That’s inspiration porn,” she explained. But “accessibility is important to me, and I do X, Y, and Z to make sure I do that. That’s a disability story.”

Reis rejects making the disability itself an object of congratulatory gold stars. “I have people who think that, ‘Oh, you’re so inspiring. To overcome your illnesses and to do all this. And I’m like, ‘No, what’s inspiring is creating community, and sharing these workshops, and getting a group of people together who want to talk about this.’”