Last week, members of the Disability Council — a subcommittee of the Office of Diversity and Equity’s Diversity Council within Student Council — held Disability Acceptance Week. Events aimed to educate, raise awareness and increase acceptance within the University community.
Disability Council member Araba Dennis, a third-year College student, explained how Disability Acceptance Week fits into the larger mission of embracing diversity at large at the University.
“It was important to us that the people and students living with disabilities are part of our definition of diversity — that is, a variety of people with different lived experiences who are both accepted and celebrated for their ability to create new perspectives,” Dennis said.
Members of the council partnered with a variety of actors including professors, the Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights and the Disability Studies Initiative to enhance the week’s events. Each day focused on different aspects of disability, including a mental health panel, an ally training and a lecture focusing on the disability rights movement.
Second-year College student and council member Anh-Thu Vo said students have had the opportunity to engage in educational opportunities past this week, and that is essential for them to improve their understanding of disability.
“I think there are still many misconceptions about disability,” Vo said. “In fact, I learned a lot from this week. I would highly recommend everyone to go through Accessibility Ally Training provided by EOCR. Also, society normally only associates disabilities with physical disabilities. Mental disabilities are just as important.”
Third-year College student Anelle Mensah worked on professor coordination within the committee. She explained the strategic reasoning for diversifying the week’s events to engage attendees.
“We tried to diversify the type of events we were going to offer — we definitely wanted to strike the necessary balance between education and fun,” Mensah said. “We had everything from trainings to film screenings, and we hoped to emphasize that there are different ways to learn about these issues besides sitting in a room and listening to someone talk.”
Mensah also explained how Disability Acceptance Week is critical for illuminating the inherent misunderstandings held by those in the able-bodied community about people living with disabilities.
“I have noticed not only at U.Va. but [also] in larger conversations that if you are living with a disability, your life is far more difficult than that of an able-bodied person,” Mensah said. “This leads able-bodied people feeling pity for their disabled peers when we actually have no understanding of what their lives are truly like. Having a disability does not mean you are living your life as if it is forever on pause — disabled individuals lead rich and fulfilling lives.”
In terms of future areas of improvement for the University to become a more inclusive community, Dennis stressed the importance of a tangible increase in accessibility in terms of infrastructure and mental health resources.
“In the IRC where I’m a Resident Advisor there are no elevators and few ramps,” Dennis said. “A person with a physical disability would be unable to comfortably live here. Additionally, resources for people with mental health-related disabilities should be made more aware of resources like [the Student Disability Access Center].”
Furthermore, Dennis said the feedback from attendees can empower Student Council to better address the issues facing students, especially once concerns are situated within the competitive and high-achieving environment that can usher in health problems.
“As facilitator of the dialogue, I did my best to get feedback from attendees about ways in which Student Council could address these mental health needs from students, and across the board it seemed U.Va.’s culture of competition and widespread elitism do the most damage,” Dennis said. “A great deal needs to be done to show students that studying for a test is never more important than sleeping, eating or generally taking care of oneself.”