‘Unmasking Stigma” gives voices to disabled community

The Office of Health Education is working on addressing the stigma surrounding mental health and disability on campus, especially through the upcoming event “Unmasking Stigma.” / Courtesy of The Office of Health Education via Facebook

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. The goal was to prohibit discrimination for the disabled community and provide accessibility accommodations. However, 27 years later, little change can be seen. Stigmas and misconceptions still impact members of the disabled community, with an assumptive belief that those who are disabled are limited in their actions and expressions. There is a severe lack of discussion about the topic of ableism, and the current dialogue around ableism often doesn’t include voices from the disabled community with an assumptive belief that those who are disabled are limited in their actions and expressions. There is a severe lack of discussion about the topic of ableism, and the current dialogue around ableism often doesn’t include voices from the disabled community.

Sponsored by the Office of Health Education, Office for Accessibility and the Disability Rights Coalition (DRC), “Unmasking Stigma: Ableism & Ability Through Student Art” will be exhibited in the Old Bookstore. The exhibit features artwork by students of differing abilities that express their experiences and raise awareness of the misconceptions and stigmas around the topic of ableism. An opening reception for the exhibit was held on Nov. 8; “Unmasking Stigma” will be on display until Nov. 27.

The main coordinator behind this exhibit was Wellness Peer Educator for the Office of Health Education and President of the DRC Robin Corleto ’19. Corleto addressed the biggest misunderstanding he hopes this event disproves: “I feel like there’s this huge stigma that once you are labeled with disabilities that you are limited, that you can’t do certain things. And that’s definitely not the case. For me, people say I need to work harder, but it isn’t about working harder; it’s about working differently and to do my best that I can.”

As a wellness peer educator, Corleto came up with this event idea as his semester project, reaching out to the various centers on campus in the hopes of receiving submissions by the various members of the disabled community on campus.

Post-Baccalaureate Fellow in the Office of Health Education Sam Hoher ’17 spoke via email about how the Office of Health Education helped Corleto develop his idea fully. “Since the beginning of the semester, Robin, [Director of Health Education] Renee [Pabst] and I have been working closely to make his brainchild a reality. Robin has been leading the charge, while I’ve helped with some of the smaller tasks (including some of the publicity, sending the artists’ work to the printer, and coordinating the hanging of the artwork with [Associate Director of the Palmer Gallery] Monica Church).”

In an email, Pabst expanded on how her office helped Corleto facilitate his project: “As the Director of Health Education, my goal is to help my wellness peer educators to think about programming to help students thrive at Vassar. One of the areas that Robin is interested in is accessibility and the intersectionality with other identities. I encourage the wellness peer educators to think about the issues that are important to them and how to raise awareness around those issues, so when Robin came to me with this idea we discussed how to make it happen and I supported him in his vision.”

Every event on the Vassar calendar includes a paragraph about providing accommodation for those with disabilities, but the conversation surrounding ableism rarely develops beyond formalities like this. During President Bradley’s forum with the VSA in October, several students addressed the lack of accommodations that still impact the campus, asking for the administration to give this subject the attention it deserves.

Pabst spoke about how her office has tried to facilitate a conversation around ableism at Vassar and what she feels is still missing from that conversation: “Our office tries to keep in mind how all identities effect [a] student’s ability to be well and access support which is always at the center of our discussions. As for the current conversation around ableism—on a community/holistic scale, I think we need to do a better job thinking about the stigma around these issues, especially ones concerning mental health or other ‘invisible’ abilities and elevating the stigma so students feel supported, seen and empowered to seek support.”

Beyond the administration’s policies and actions, for students, the two disability rights orgs

are the DRC and ACCESS. The DRC is focused on community building and creating a safe space at Vassar for members of the disabled community to exist and belong. ACCESS is more advocacy focused, addressing ableism through tangible policies that affect Vassar and beyond.

President of ACCESS Jesse Horowitz ’19 [Full Disclosure: Horowitz is an Opinions columnist for The Miscellany News] expressed admiration for the work that Corleto and the DRC has set out to accomplish and the message behind this exhibit: “Personally, I am very thankful to the DRC here. I’ve met Robin on quite a few occasions. He strikes me as being an exceptionally good and honest and reasonable person who truly, truly cares about disabled people and about empowering voices. And I’m very glad that events like this exist to empower disabled voices because we desperately need to.”

Concerning the larger discourse about ableism that “Unmasking Stigma” aims to address, Horowitz believes that there are still glaring omissions in that conversation: “I encourage people who are interested in fighting ableism who are not disabled to research the real atrocities that are going on that target disabled people in our country. People are talking about it but we don’t listen to those people. It doesn’t have to be me. More importantly, don’t tell a disabled person how they’re supposed to talk about themselves. Allow it to be centered around disabled voices.”

Besides “Unmasking Stigma,” the Office of Health Education is currently working on a video that addresses the stigma surrounding mental health. The DRC is hoping to collaborate with Big Night In or an identity org to bring a greater focus to intersectionality and mental health.

After previewing the works that will be in the exhibit, Corleto already believes that this event will disprove the assumptive beliefs of the artistic talents within the disabled community: “I feel like people believe we can’t create art. I’m already looking at the art pieces and they’re beautiful. They’re amazing. I feel people think we can’t do things and this helps show that we definitely can.”

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