A Disability Community Center: A student with disabilities’ perspective

Opinion by Tilly Griffiths
March 14, 2019, 1:54 a.m.

From my very first moment on Stanford’s campus, I knew without any doubt that here, I would be enabled, encouraged and empowered to thrive. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s opening words at Admit Weekend about diversity, inclusion and the co-dependent nature of these two abstract ideals filled me with immense joy as I looked ahead to my future as a Stanford student with a physical disability, and immeasurable gratitude for whatever greater power had guided me to such a paradise. At Stanford, the social implications of my disability and the barriers that they construct would be gone, and in their place would be a whole new realm of acceptance, community and celebration.

It is for this reason that, upon learning that students with disabilities did not have a physical space on campus to foster this sense of community in the same way that many other minority groups do, I was somewhat perplexed and disheartened. Having attended mainstream school and been one of very few students with disabilities throughout my education, I was excited to explore this aspect of my identity in ways previously not possible. Yet, I worried that Stanford’s lack of a disability community center may in fact be a reflection of something much greater and much more unsettling.

To my great relief, I quickly learned that I was not alone in these concerns and, contrary to my lingering fears, I was met by a campus energized and alive with the fight for disability equity. Dating back to the 1980s, the campaign for an established community center has brought about a number of phenomenal changes for the disability community, such as the creation of the Disability Advocacy Chair within the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) and the growth of Power2Act, an organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for students with disabilities. This campaign itself has created a community of students from all backgrounds with a shared goal of achieving equality for those with disabilities on campus.

Following the campaign’s revival in recent years, the 20th Undergraduate Senate voted unanimously this January to pass a resolution supporting the creation of a permanent community center for the disability community. This marked a huge milestone for Disability Equity Now, a community action network that has now taken the lead on this campaign, and provided a rejuvenated sense of hope for the disability community as a whole.

However, in order to fully appreciate the necessity of an established disability community center on campus, it must first be understood how exactly such a space will impact the experiences of the students for whom it is intended. According to the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, community centers “provide a gateway to intellectual, cultural and leadership opportunities” and serve as a vital resource for “students seeking academic enrichment, connection to a broader community, and/or individual support and services.”

While Stanford does offer plentiful resources pertaining to academic inclusion and physical accommodations, what is still missing is the form of social empowerment for those with disabilities that a community center can provide. Having a disability community center is about so much more than the physical space, funding and resources that it can provide; it is the recognition of this community as an accepted minority group and a reflection of changing attitudes towards disability in the broader sense.

For so long, disability has been considered a problem in need of fixing and, when it cannot be fixed, it is pitied, discussed in hushed tones and shrouded by the wish that things had been different. As a full-time electric wheelchair user myself, my life has undoubtedly taken a different and unexpected course, but never once have I viewed myself as lesser than that of my able-bodied peers. If anything, I have been enriched by my experiences and have grown into a more authentic version of myself as a result. In an age of emerging treatments for many disabilities once considered untreatable, the concept of identity and how a clinical diagnosis plays into it has been brought into question. Only now is society also beginning to view disability as yet another aspect of identity. While certain measures may well be required to facilitate the day-to-day lives of these individuals, disability is starting to be seen less as a tragedy and more as just another layer of the human experience.

In this light, the creation of a disability community center here at Stanford is a celebration of disability as an identity in itself that has endless scope for exploration and cultivation. The goal is not to dismiss the challenges faced by those with disabilities, but rather to view and acknowledge these in conjunction with all other aspects of identity in order to avoid negative stereotyping and misinformed ideology. Community centers serve as a springboard to important conversations and provide space for students to share, learn and gain a whole new appreciation of what it means to belong to their community.

My experiences at Stanford so far have been nothing short of extraordinary, and the support I have personally received from both the Office of Accessible Education and the Diversity and Access Office has been truly exemplary. If utilized and implemented to their full potential, these services are the foundation of the experience of students with disabilities here on campus, providing the necessary tools and accommodations for success. The addition of a disability community center will create a tremendous resource that complements these existing provisions, but also branches out in a new direction that goes beyond the physical needs of students with disabilities and inspires an ever-growing spirit of unity and acceptance.

Contact Tilly Griffiths at tillykg ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Tilly Griffiths ‘22 is a senior from the United Kingdom pursuing a double-major in Political Science and Communication. As a person with disabilities herself and current ASSU Director of Disability Advocacy, she has written extensively for the Daily on issues relating to accessibility and inclusion since her freshman year, and continues to highlight the experiences of the disability community on campus as an opinion columnist

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