Opinion | What’s holding disability advocacy back?

Opinion by Tilly Griffiths
Feb. 24, 2021, 8:10 p.m.

As a full-time electric wheelchair user my whole life, I have long been acutely aware of my own needs and how the concept of “disability” manifests in my particular circumstances. I have a clearly defined vision of what accessibility looks like for me and I know exactly how I would like the “disabled” part of me to feature — or not — in my identity. Disability for me has been something concrete that I have learned to navigate, accept and embrace in my daily life.  But as time goes on, I am realizing that this narrow understanding of disability, even from me as a person with disabilities, might be the very thing preventing the progress and prosperity of disability advocacy today.

At Stanford, community identity seems central to how students relate to one another, and even dictates where we live, study and socialize. It is by no means binding, but students derive great value from this community-based structure and, from these identity groups, student advocacy grows. For the longest time, however, disability as an identity and a source of community has had no place in this system and, despite valiant efforts, disability advocacy on campus has been prevented from reaching what I perceive as its full potential. Acknowledging the barriers that have inhibited this progress and defining new pathways to address these directly will be crucial first steps on the way to more impactful disability advocacy in our community. In my role as ASSU Director of Disability Advocacy, here are my key takeaways.

First, only a small population of students identify as disabled to begin with, and even fewer may feel strongly enough about this identity to participate in on-campus advocacy. Unlike with other, more straightforward demographic traits, participation in the disability community requires a process of self-identification that in turn raises questions such as, “Am I disabled enough to be part of this movement?” 

The term ‘disability’ encompasses such a broad spectrum of experiences, but our restrictive understanding of disability as a society means that students must figure out for themselves whether a particular chronic illness or invisible disability is as worthy of recognition in these communities as a more visible, physical disability. As a result, disability-focused organizations are suffering from a lack of clarity on this message and are at risk of being further hampered by this untrue reputation as exclusive spaces where only those who score enough “disability points” are welcome to participate.

Building on this first point, the extreme diversity within this relatively small group is simultaneously its greatest strength and its most perplexing challenge. Although members of this community may be united by the “disabled” label, many of the experiences of an autistic person are simply incomparable on the most basic level to those of a wheelchair user, for example. To bring these two people together and expect connections to freely blossom is naive at the very least and undermines the validity of the unique experiences of each individual. 

Instead, in the interest of building advocacy from a platform of real, intentional community, it is vital to dig deeper for meaningful points of relation and put in the work to finally see disability as more than a static monolith. The disability community is so wonderfully enriched by the vast array of experiences it represents, so it’s now time to be bold about ensuring that each of these experiences is truly embraced in both community-building and advocacy efforts, and to get creative in highlighting the common threads that unite community members behind a set of shared goals and aspirations. 

But that isn’t where the story ends. Having explored avenues to progress from within, I also wish to address how I see great promise in the ability of disability advocacy movements to reach out and take advantage of the passion, generosity and drive that surrounds us at Stanford every day. Students here have time and time again exhibited their great capacity to invest with purpose in causes they deem noble, and it is my greatest wish that disability advocacy on campus can capitalize on this energy and have its mission more broadly embraced by the student population. 

Achieving this will entail a two-stage process that begins with the discovery of what currently prevents non-disabled individuals from participating in disability advocacy, and then explores how we can strategically remove this invisible partition that lies between the movement, composed primarily of those with disabilities, and the outside world. I have observed that unless non-disabled individuals can at least prove that they have a close friend affected by disability, they feel that they are somehow not qualified or justified in their participation and support of the community. Unlike other social justice causes that have now entered into the mainstream consciousness, disability issues seem trapped in their status as ‘taboo’ and off limits to those who do not possess a direct or personal link to the cause. It’s an absurd perception, and it’s harming the potential for progress of disability advocacy.

On the flip side, it is equally the responsibility of disability advocacy groups to prioritize outreach that emphasizes the importance of allyship and intersectionality. Striking an appropriate balance between maintaining a safe space for community members and a welcoming environment for potential allies is a necessary first step. Then, the messaging of these organizations must be appropriately tailored to express the value and legitimacy of both groups as well as their codependency. 

Similarly, homing in on intersectional issues and supporting members of the disability community whose identities overlap with more than one marginalized group will not only be vital to any effective disability advocacy movement but will also promote more opportunities for collaboration and expansion. Although disability and all other marginalized identities alike face their own unique struggles, there are aspects that are most certainly interconnected and even universal (for example, COVID-19 inequalities) and can be more effectively addressed with an intersectional approach.

Disability advocacy at Stanford has come a long way already and the recent energy surrounding the fight for an established Disability Community Center is testament to the fact that change is necessary, and students are willing to put in the time to make this happen. Disability in the broadest sense will likely touch all of our lives — whether that be indirectly or personally, now or in the future — and so disability related-issues take up a more prominent role in advocacy spaces. This would not be at the expense of any other movement, but rather would enrich the greater advocacy landscape and grant us all the opportunity to collaboratively explore the meaning, significance and manifestation of disability today.

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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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