Here’s a scenario: Some prospective students with mobility disabilities come to campus tours, note the widespread inaccessibility and delete Vassar from their list on the CommonApp. The Vassar Disability Rights Coalition is trying to fix that.
Two years ago, a decades-old organization called Access, which had a significant campus presence in the early ’90s advocating for an ADA-compliant campus, merged with the existing Vassar Disability Rights Coalition. Under the Vassar Disability Rights Coalition (VDRC) name, the new merger has created a two-branched organization dedicated to improving campus accessibility for students with disabilities (the Access branch) and providing a space to discuss disability issues (the Inclusion branch). The groups came together to increase their presence as an educational resource on issues relating to disability.
The Miscellany News talked with Chair of Access Bronwyn Pappas-Byers ’21 and VDRC President Isabella Perez ’21. The two emphasized how small the org has become (with about 10 active members this year), especially without the usual annual growth from an in-person org fair. The org’s usual size is upwards of fifteen members. “It’s hard to organize big events since we don’t have a large membership, and we don’t have a huge amount of skills to rely on,” said Pappas-Byers. The low membership certainly hasn’t stopped the Access branch from taking on several projects surrounding activism in the Vassar community. Their long list of projects includes adding a representative for students with disabilities to the Vassar Student Union, ensuring food security with Challah for Hunger and running events with the campus Accessibility Committee and counseling services.
Another part of the org’s activism is spreading knowledge about disability in the community and world through coursework. “We are huge advocates for creating a Disability Studies correlate within the Women’s Studies department and hiring professors with tenure track positions within the Disability Studies program,” Pappas-Byers said. Currently, many professors in departments like Queer Studies include readings by and about people with disabilities, but there are no courses dedicated fully to Disability Studies.
According to Pappas-Byers, the Vassar administration has had a tenuous relationship with the VDRC. Several years ago, Pappas-Byers explained, the org asked the administration to complete a universal design audit of the entire campus, and were told to do it themselves. Pappas-Byers explained to the Misc that such audits require the knowledge and experience of a licensed professional. “Vassar is an ableist institution, and most of the things that happen within the institution are going to have ableism in it, even the term ‘highly selective college’—what are the implications of that?” Pappas-Byers said.
The Vassar DRC maintains an active mailing list that provides information on many resources, from links to live Zoom panels to practical tips and upcoming events, both on campus and around the world. Pappas-Byers and Perez told the Misc that even if people don’t want to commit to attending meetings, they encourage them to join the mailing list—just email firstname.lastname@example.org to do so.
As Perez explained, “People assume anything with disability in the title is an affinity group, so a lot of people feel awkward. We love when people come into an Access meeting and are curious, and some of our members a couple of weeks later say ‘Oh! I am disabled. I had never claimed it as an identity before.’ Many people associate our work with physical disabilities, but we also spend a lot of time on neurodivergence and mental illnesses.”
Accessibility is much more than just slapping a wheelchair ramp on the front of a building. Whether advocating for representation in the classroom, the VSA or the architecture of the campus, VRDC is demonstrating the vital work that needs to be done to make our campus a more disability-friendly place.