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Celebration and Awareness: National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Women in Student Affairs Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level Undergraduate VP for Student Affairs
October 28, 2019 Jillian Strong

I should be entirely transparent with you. I am having the most difficult time trying to find the words to convey to you what it is truly like as a disabled woman in student affairs, especially as October is both Careers in Student Affairs Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month. I want to be excited and have the chance to vocalize the celebratory moments and victories, but it is not always that simple.

To give some context through an informal introduction, hi, I am Jillian. I identify as Hard of Hearing and someone who was born with various developmental disabilities. I am someone who does not like using person-first language (which I will discuss in a second). Lastly, I am someone whose favorite color is lavender (though periwinkle is a close second).

Within the field, professionals always have the best intentions of working with our disabled students, but there seems to be that line of questionable discomfort still while working with them. I have had moments where I was conversing with a colleague or a faculty member, and we will have one of those frequent moments where I misheard something, I ask them to repeat themselves, they do. I apologize and disclose my disability as a form of "I promise I am paying attention. I am just guessing everything you are saying". The moment this disclosure has been presented, not only has the energy changed, but their complete persona towards me does.

I am sure you may be sitting here wondering if you have ever reacted similarly to a disabled student or colleague, which, if you have had that is alright, honestly, I am guilty of it too. Here is the thing about disabled folks; you never know who it is. They are physical, invisible, cognitive, and everywhere in-between. Disabilities are complicated, hence why the dialogues around them are so messy.

So how do we get to be better-aspiring allies? Here is the number one thing to remember, disabilities are an identity and a culture. To go back to my previous statement of person-first language, most disabled folks prefer identity-first language (I.e., Jillian is a Hard of Hearing woman). The reason for this is because you cannot separate disabilities from life experiences, they are always going to be an influence, and that in no way is a bad thing.

Phrases and messages such as "you are so much more than your disability," "(dis)Ability," "perfectly abled" are not only cringe-worthy, they are prime perpetrators of ableism. They perpetuate the idea that disabilities are something to hide and be ashamed of and that the only way to be included is that by hiding our disabilities, we have to be like abled people. There are other perpetrators, like the way a room is set up, physical campus layouts, class-attendance policies, office-culture, and who is making decisions for disabled people. However, it truly can start with the language used and post throughout campus.

Now the experience is not all bad after all this blog is also supposed to highlight celebration! For starters, I get to write and share about this very topic! Being disabled comes with its' struggles, but it is not because of my disabilities but because it is hard to find individuals who have the same experiences I do. That being said, the more I have gotten involved, the more I have been able to connect with other disabled colleagues from various institutions.

It is the first time that I have been able to feel a sense of community through my disabilities. I am finding validation through moments of shared experience, rather than teaching experiences. Through the frustrations, I have found personal confidence and joy.

Speaking up about accessibility needs and disabilities rights can get tiring after a while. However, I have witnessed colleagues become willing to learn and therefore speak up in meetings or conferences and vocalize the needs for accessibility. There are many times where I have felt that I am the only one who ever brings disability-awareness to the table because I am the only one who has had to think about it, but witnessing a shift in conversation to include disabilities has been a moment of hope for me.

The joys and hopes are essential in preventing burnout. However, there is still one aspect that needs significant improvement; we need to hire and bring in more disabled colleagues, and that includes hiring them for other areas than just Disability Services. Just like our students, it is hard to tell who in the room is disabled unless they tell you, but if they tell you, believe them. Do not assume their disability will hinder their ability to perform; in fact, it will probably improve it.

I want to leave you with a personal story. Last year while working in Disability Services, I was sitting in an accommodations meeting with a student. This student was expressing concern over feeling anxious around testing, as many students do. Upon questioning about their experience and what they were feeling, they were expressing how they were losing focus in class, trouble remembering, and more. At some point, the student had made an off-handed comment about their hearing but carried on with their anxiety symptoms. It was then that I realized that while the student may need accommodations for their testing, what they were experiencing were symptoms around hearing loss.

Everything the student was conveying were issues that I remember personally feeling in both high school and undergrad. While we were able to set accommodation needs for the student, I recommended to the student to get their hearing tested, because I think they would be surprised by what they may find. One blog post is not going to encapsulate how every single disabled person feels, remember that point earlier about how complex disabilities can get? I suppose my end goal for this post is to leave my disabled colleagues with hope and my abled colleagues with a form of connection. Our abilities will differ our experiences, yes, but if any of you also like the color periwinkle, let me know. 

Bio:

Jillian Strong (she/her/hers) is a Graduate Student at the University of Redlands pursuing her Master of Arts in Higher Education with an emphasis in Student Affairs. She is a Graduate Assistant in the Registrar's Office and also spends her time on campus working to improve accessibility and destigmatize disabilities within higher education. If she is not on campus, she is probably watching The Walking Dead or looking at photos of dogs.

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