At a training session on disability for student leaders last week, Lydia Brown (COL ’15) faced an empty room.
The disability rights advocate, who runs a blog called “Autistic Hoya,” was scheduled to give a presentation on making campus events accessible. However, no student leaders showed up for the session.
“Why doesn’t the word disability catch people’s attention? This is because if you’re not disabled yourself, you aren’t good friends with someone who’s disabled, you don’t have a family member who’s disabled, disability isn’t on your radar,” Brown said. “It’s not something you’re going to be looking for or something that will catch your attention when you’re skimming through an email.”
The session, scheduled at noon on Sept. 29, was part of the Center for Student Engagement’s Lunch and Learn series, which has also drawn low attendance for events covering budgeting, event planning and the platform HoyaLink.
According to Associate Dean of Student Engagement Erika Cohen Derr, the CSE broadcasted the event with flyers, emails and a Facebook event. Despite this, leaders of student groups said that they could not attend due to both advertising and scheduling problems.
College Democrats Chair Chandini Jha (COL ’16), Lecture Fund Chair Marcus Stromeyer (SFS ’15) and Georgetown University Student Association Director of Communications Max Harris (COL ’15) all said that the event occurred when many club representatives were in class and that the event was not well-advertised.
“The email we received from CSE did not mention the event in the title, causing [College Democrats] as an executive board to be collectively unaware about it happening,” Jha wrote in an email.
Cohen Derr said CSE administrators are working to address the lack of student attendance at these events.
“Given the low attendance throughout the Lunch and Learn series, my colleagues in CSE and I are consulting with campus partners, and student leaders in GUSA and the Council of Advisory Boards to consider how to best share this information with student leaders so that organizations can be prepared proactively,” Cohen Derr wrote.
Despite the issues with publicity, Brown said that the lack of attendance shows that student leaders do not prioritize disability access on campus. She wrote a blog post titled “This is What the Empty Room Means” on her website, autistichoya.com, about these slights of “casual indifference.” The post, published Sept. 29, garnered 50 comments.
“At Georgetown, we in theory have a commitment to diversity; in theory we have a commitment to representing people from different communities, different backgrounds of different experience and identities; but in reality that often doesn’t play out,” Brown said.
According to Jha, the College Democrats put disability access at a high priority for its events. Jha said that she has spoken with Brown to plan a training session for the club’s executive board.
“Creating ability-accessible events is a definite priority,” Jha wrote. “The fact that no clubs sent representatives to the Lunch and Learn event was a major wake-up call to how this issue is just not addressed comprehensively on campus.”
Stromeyer said that the Lecture Fund is also dedicated to accessibility, but that cost prohibits hiring sign language interpreters at every event. He said that the Lecture Fund will work with Brown in a training session as well.
“We run into trouble having sign language interpreters at our events, which is really expensive,” Stromeyer said. “We always want it at events [but] we have a limited budget, and it’s $500 per event at least, so we keep hounding [the Academic Resource Center], but they would say they’re funding academic events so they can’t pay for the Lecture Fund to have accessibility for deaf students.”
Harris said that he thinks that the problem lies mostly with university administrators who should take steps to improve disability access.
“I think the administration should be doing a lot more,” Harris said. “The door to the Healey Family Student Center doesn’t have a disability access button, elevators are failing all over campus, the new construction on campus because of the campus plan — I don’t even know how you enter Leavey Center in a wheelchair.”
Brown agreed that funding for disability access and lack of support from university administrators were the main issues with creating a more accessible campus for students with disabilities.
“Student groups and academic departments do not receive enough funding in their budgets to pay for such costs so they are routinely holding events that are not accessible,” Brown said. “They have to chose: do we hold this event and be inaccessible and risk criticism from Lydia Brown and other disabled people, or do we dig into our budget and use all of the money from the whole semester on one event? They shouldn’t have to make that choice.”
Doctoral Candidate Chris DeLorenzo, who has autism, said that he feels that there is a cycle of indifference to disability issues at Georgetown.
“Our problem is institutional, it’s systematic,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s this cycle where disability isn’t on people’s radar screens, therefore it is kept off of people’s radar screens. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle for as long as I’ve been here, at least.”
Brown said that while the university has made attempts to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act on paper, access has not improved for disabled students.
“When we talk about disability, we approach it as if it is somebody’s private, individual medical problem,” Brown said. “The way to deal with it is to treat it and hope to cure it, as opposed to thinking about disability as a diversity and a social justice issue. We’re here. We’re a part of the world but we are not considered a community because people deny us the ability to be recognized as a community.”