As part of my Speaking Fellow training, I created a workshop about facilitating more inclusive environments. I was then asked to give a modified version of this workshop for faculty and the wider community during College’s Accessibility Week (March 15-19).

My workshop, “Ableism in the Classroom, Academia, and Society: How to Create or Facilitate More Inclusive Environments,” will present a broader discussion of ableism, how it shows up in the classroom and society, and what we can do to be more conscious about it. Ableism is a system that places a hierarchy of value on people's bodies and minds, based on what their value is in the role of capitalist production. Community lawyer and social activist Talila A. Lewis has a broader conception of ableism that implicates everybody, regardless of where they sit on the ability spectrum. This expanded definition demonstrates how the fight against ableism is everyone’s fight, just as the fight against all forms of oppression is everyone’s fight.

When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, disabilities of any kind are tacked on like a tag. That’s why facilitating workshops like this are so crucial. What we need is disability justice, which is the fight for civil rights, equal rights, and inclusive representation of people across the ability spectrum. This means seeing myself represented in the many spaces I want to exist in, including in academia — spaces that are not traditionally built for people like me or for anyone who is not able-bodied. It means removing the barriers I experience on a daily basis, physically, socially, and institutionally.

Part of what drew me to Barnard was the spirit of activism here. The conscientiousness around equity, diversity, and inclusion aligned with my own. I’ve always seen Barnard as the place where we engage in conversations about systems of oppression, where the student body is really focused on fighting this oppression, and disability justice is a big part of that. Generally, it’s not as represented as it should be, including on Barnard’s campus, and I want to share why we should amplify and elevate the voices of the disabled. It’s integral to our fight to create a more inclusive and equitable community.

Finding a college was incredibly difficult for me. I’m a wheelchair user, and push-buttons are really important to me, as well as elevators and ramps. When I toured other colleges, I encountered several accessibility barriers that rendered me dependent on my parents’ support and that made me feel unsafe. I worried about feeling trapped if no one was there to open the door, and I didn’t want to feel that there were places I could not access on my college campus. In addition, disability services offices were unwilling to meet with me until I committed to their institution. 

At Barnard, I met with CARDS (Center for Accessibility Resources & Disability Services) director Holly Tedder before I decided to attend. I was able to tour Barnard with other prospective applicants, whereas at other colleges I had to go on a separate, “accessible” campus tour, which left me feeling isolated. My visit to Barnard made me feel comfortable and supported at a time when I thought that physical inaccessibility precluded me from getting my undergraduate degree. I considered enrolling at my local two-year college, but Barnard helped me realize that inaccessibility did not have to limit my dreams and aspirations.

As great as Barnard is, there’s still work to be done around physical and pedagogical accessibility. For example, I’ve been wanting to impress upon faculty and community members the importance of using multiple modalities when assigning coursework. When academic texts are assigned — articles, book chapters, scientific studies — very few come in accessible formats, like audio, or with color blocking and larger fonts. Because I am visually impaired, that’s been a struggle for me. Although I have an accessible screen reader from CARDS and accessible technology called Capti Voice, sometimes the PDFs are not remediated enough for the screen reader to pick up, which requires me to take additional steps. So I’m trying to get the word out to faculty members to use multiple modalities: Option A would be the reading, option B would be listening to a podcast, and option C would be another way to get the information needed to prepare for class. Offering multiple options with which students can access course material is a big part of universal pedagogy. 

This is important because my physical ability to read and see the text of an academic article has nothing to do with my intrinsic ability to absorb that information or with the strength or depth of my ideas and intellectual interpretations. It’s about making the information accessible. There’s this perception that if we shift modalities for how we deliver information to students or how we expect students to deliver their assignments, it somehow compromises the rigor. But rigor comes from the strength of intellectual inquiry and ideas, not who can write the longest essay. 

When we think about accessibility, we should ask these questions: Does everyone have access to the space? To what degree do people have access? How convenient is that access?

What we need is universal design, which means having spaces and places that everybody can access, regardless of where they sit on the spectrum of ability, which is the true essence of accessibility. The language of the Americans with Disabilities Act is equal access, which we’ve taken as being sufficient. It is not. As we move forward and build our consciousness of how people are oppressed within the larger system of white supremacy and patriarchy, we’re hopefully moving towards more inclusive, universal design. Equitable access means that instead of giving everyone shoes for a race, give everyone shoes that fit.

On campus, it means that people don’t have to ask for accommodation because accommodation is inherent in the space. An important first step is to be conscious of people’s needs and to find ways to support them.  


Bourla, an urban studies major, will present her virtual workshop — “Ableism in the Classroom, Academia, and Society: How to Create or Facilitate More Inclusive Environments” — from campus on March 19. Learn more about her event and Accessibility Week 2021

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