Amid all the GUSA executive candidates’ discussion of social justice, diversity, pluralism and funding, Lydia Brown (COL ’15) noticed one topic missing from the debates: disability issues.
Brown, who identifies as an autistic person and writes a blog called “Autistic Hoya,” sent a six-question survey to all five executive tickets asking how disability-related issues factor into their platforms. She then posted the responses on her blog and endorsed the ticket of Nate Tisa (SFS ’14) and Adam Ramadan (SFS ’14) late Wednesday evening.
“The fact that our issues aren’t even on the radar to begin with is evidence of the immediate need to begin having conversations in ways that aren’t relegated to the sidelines or margins on the university community,” Brown said. “It was important to me to write the questionnaire and collect and publish the responses to show that the candidates cared enough to send in responses and that these are questions that should be asked.”
The questionnaire addressed the need to increase advocacy for disability-related issues and to foster effective conversations about the underrepresentation of and prejudice against disabled students. Brown also asked the tickets to develop concrete plans to mitigate oppressive and prejudiced behavior on campus and generated highly supportive responses.
Spencer Walsh (MSB ’14) and Rob Silverstein (SFS ’14) addressed disability issues under their pledge to promote diversity.
“Harassment and hostility directed against anyone at Georgetown is unacceptable, and Spencer and Rob will work tirelessly to promote a Hilltop that is unified in our diversity,” Walsh and Silverstein wrote. “This is one of the reasons why we decided to run on the theme of ‘One Georgetown.’ We believe that diversity must encompass people with disabilities and we will make including liaisons to disabled students a key point of emphasis in building our administration.”
Shavonnia Corbin Johnson (SFS ’14) and Joe Vandegriff (COL ’14) promised to reform New Student Orientation’s Pluralism in Action program.
“How Pluralism in Action is currently structured, we address racial, religious and sexual differences, but addressing the presence of disabilities on campus is neglected,” Corbin Johnson and Vandegriff wrote. “We believe having a campus-wide dialogue about these issues will greatly increase understanding and foster a more receptive atmosphere.”
Jack Appelbaum (COL ’14) and Maggie Cleary (COL ’14) agreed.
“Disabled students will see an ally and a resource in the student association, something they hope they will utilize to address the challenges they face on campus,” Appelbaum and Cleary wrote.
Brown also asked the candidates about eliminating physical and mental barriers to accessibility for disabled students. Most of the candidates focused on physical barriers, offering solutions such as improvements to handicap housing and the addition of ramps to campus infrastructure. Some included additional plans to address barriers for students with mental disabilities.
Nate Tisa (SFS ’14) and Adam Ramadan (SFS ’14) focused on the Safe Spaces program, a peer support program.
“For students with neurological, psychiatric, developmental, intellectual, sensory or learning disabilities, we will further develop the Safe Spaces Initiative,” Tisa and Ramadan wrote.
Walsh and Silverstein, on the other hand, focused on the university’s Academic Resource Center.
“We would demand the university expand and fully fund the Academic Resource Center, while ensuring that their interactions with students with neurological, psychiatric, developmental, intellectual, sensory or learning disabilities is sensitive and appropriate,” Walsh and Silverstein wrote.
Tisa identified the common experience disabled students share with students who have experienced other types of exclusion.
“Not long ago, members from the LGBTQ community were regarded as psychologically ill, and issues addressing them were highly medicalized,” Tisa wrote. “Having gone through this, it is impermissible for members of the LGBTQ community to allow fellow human beings to suffer from this sort of discrimination.”
Brown wrote on her Facebook page that Tisa and Ramadan deserved the endorsement because their responses reflected a “commitment to true diversity and disability justice.”
Cannon Warren (SFS’14) and Andrew Logerfo (COL’14) did not respond to the questionnaire. They said that the questionnaire merely called for agreement, failing to facilitate constructive dialogue.
“I thought the questionnaire was inappropriate,” Warren wrote in an email. “It was more like a three-page accusatory essay. If [Brown] wanted to have an interview with me, I would have said fine.”
Brown asked candidates if they would support an effort to build a Disability Cultural Center on campus — a project she is spearheading. All candidates who responded declared support.
“We perceive GUSA’s role to be helping students achieve solutions to any problems they face on campus and empowering them to take action on their own by connecting them with the other students passionate about their cause and administrators who can be helpful,” Appelbaum and Cleary wrote. “As a result, we would actively work with the committee of students and community members by providing GUSA support and resources to a Disability Cultural Center.”
In addition, the candidates encouraged disabled students to hold leadership positions in GUSA and other campus organizations in order to effectively advocate for the disabled community.
Brown said she was cautiously optimistic about future progress and saw opportunities for increased discussion of disability issues based on the candidates’ responses.