The fight for disability community at Stanford: Reflections and aspirations

Opinion by Tilly Griffiths
Sept. 20, 2020, 8:36 p.m.

As I write this from my home 5,000 miles away from the Stanford campus, I am reminded all the more profoundly of the importance of community and the role it has played since the arrival of a pandemic that rendered the world we inhabit almost unrecognizable. Though the idea of community in itself has undergone great transformation, now confined almost entirely to the online sphere, I believe that we are more aware than ever of how important it is to seek out, build upon and cherish human connections.

For those with disabilities at Stanford, however, this desire for a community out of reach is nothing new and formed the basis of the campaign for a Disability Community Center, which, in recent years, has driven and shaped disability advocacy on campus. As incoming ASSU Co-Director of Disability Advocacy and a member of the disability community myself, I wish to share my thoughts on the recent decision by the vice provost for student affairs to not establish a Disability Community Center.

After the campaign for a Disability Community Center was revived in recent years under the leadership of Disability Equity Now, a student-led advocacy group, the cause gained widespread support with a petition for more resources for the disability community gaining over 1,200 signatures in just a short time. Efforts continued with student-organized rallies and multiple op-eds published in The Daily. The challenge that followed was to present this proposal to the Office of the Vice Provost of Student Affairs (VPSA) that, at the time, did not have a system in place to accept applications for new community centers. The next phase of the campaign saw students waiting eagerly for news of the application’s creation, all the while maintaining lines of communication with University staff to ensure that this item remained firmly on the agenda.

The ensuing months of waiting and wondering were well-documented in The Daily with anticipation building, but it wasn’t until the beginning of spring quarter 2020 that the application for a community center was finally released. Amid the chaos of vacating campus as the COVID-19 crisis took hold, a group of students rallied together to write up an extensive and heartfelt proposal to submit on behalf of the disability community. Yet, since there was no official deadline (instead, the first two submissions received would be reviewed), we could only hope that this tremendous labor at an already difficult time would not be for nothing.  

The Disability Community Center’s application made it through the first round of review and we were invited to present the proposal before a specially selected committee later that month. The process moved quickly, and we were so grateful that the University continued to prioritize our ongoing needs at a time of such uncertainty. The opportunity to present our proposal directly to the committee seemed to signal a commitment to the conversational system for community center designation that had been promised — a commitment to centering the voices of the community making the application. But the reality of this presentation was less encouraging.

Marked by a series of miscommunications rendering it almost impossible for students to make adequate preparations in a timely manner, the remote presentation was described by an ASSU representative leading the application process as more closely resembling a “grilling” during which students were repeatedly pushed to quantify and justify their marginalization as a marginalized community. Though disheartened by the unexpected tone of the meeting, those involved appreciated the opportunity to communicate directly with decision-makers and hope that this aspect of the community center application process will be expanded and further improved upon in future iterations.

Following this presentation, the channels of communication unfortunately seemed to evaporate and, as students continued to grapple with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, correspondence from Stanford was sporadic at best. Throughout the process, we have endeavored to show the utmost understanding of the constraints posed by COVID-19 and at no point anticipated any major decisions at this time. We are simply asking to be kept informed of any progress or lack thereof. Since the process for applying was released almost precisely when the reality of the pandemic arrived on our campus, it was a delicate balance to respect the time and priorities of University staff while also adhering to the timeline of the application. However, on July 24, without any further conversation between the committee and the applicants, the committee issued a series of final recommendations in an email.

Though this initial correspondence still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, its arrival over the summer was both uplifting and disheartening. In essence, the recommendations seem to offer unprecedented resources for students with disabilities and, at least for the suggested pilot period, would go a long way toward meeting the needs of this community in ways never seen before at Stanford. It’s a triumph for the disability community and the culmination of decades of disability activism on campus. But after all this, we still do not have a Disability Community Center.

The recommendations look and sound just like a community center, including the provision of a designated space, designated staff member and funding resources — but official community center designation was not given. It is unclear as to why exactly this is, but many have been left questioning what it would take to achieve this status in the absence of any formal criteria. The disability community has received no guidance on whether a center is something we could work towards — never mind details on requirements — and it is simply impossible to understand why we would be granted the resources, but not the name, within a process so lacking in accessibility and transparency.

The recommendations of resources themselves appear promising, but the conversational aspect of the process required to fine-tune these and ensure student needs are centered has unfortunately been absent. For example, the recommendations suggest we rely upon the Office of Accessible Education for community staff to report to. This is concerning because the OAE exists to provide federally mandated academic and housing accommodations and traditionally has not had the capacity for adequate community-building. In addition, the disability community has been granted the designated space and resources for just one pilot year, meaning that the need for such resources will be evaluated throughout a school year of tremendous turmoil and leaders will be required to bring together this new community of students in a primarily digital setting. Alternatively, if the pilot is delayed until the turmoil has passed, the disability community would have to continue our long wait for a University-sanctioned and supported space for community.

As we continue through this process and advocate for the needs of students with disabilities on campus, we hope to expand our communication with University staff and committee members to bring about positive change for future communities navigating the process. The milestones reached by the disability community thus far are truly extraordinary and we thank the University for their support. However, through these conversations, we envisage a system in which decisions of such magnitude can be reached in a more collaborative manner so that minority groups may feel empowered to be at the forefront of discovering, crafting and establishing their own communities.

Contact Tilly Griffiths at tillykg ‘at’

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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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