In October, Laura Saavedra-Forero, a first-year student and a Morehead-Cain scholar at UNC, voiced her concerns to The Daily Tar Heel about the University’s treatment of students with disabilities. She feels forgotten by the administration and like an afterthought, Saavedra-Forero, who uses a wheelchair, told the DTH.
Then, in February, Saavedra-Forero came forward again: After an elevator broke down in an on-campus residential building, she was trapped in her fourth-floor dorm room and was met with “dehumanizing treatment.”
When I read Ms. Saavedra-Forero’s account, I was disheartened and disgusted. I attended UNC School of Law from 2012 to 2015, and had certain advantages as an able-bodied student. As a civil rights lawyer, I’ve dedicated my career to empowering others to have what they need to survive and thrive. Yet, our University and broader community have fallen well short, especially when it comes to our students with disabilities.
Now, as a father of three children, I would do anything to make sure my children have what they need. We need that same attitude when it comes to our students and community members with disabilities and to accessibility around campus and across North Carolina.
The N.C. General Assembly can play a great role in empowering our students. It appoints members of the UNC Board of Governors, and it should take particular care to appoint people who are committed to meeting the needs and interests of students, faculty and staff.
In many ways, the University is a microcosm of our society. Many of the same physical barriers to classrooms, housing and work exist outside of the walls of the University. Courtrooms do not uniformly provide Braille materials or sign language interpreters. Many public streets remain wheelchair inaccessible, and few give audio descriptions or instructions for crosswalks. Some colleges, schools, summer camps and after-school programs do not provide classroom accommodations.
This lack of accommodations is within the control of the General Assembly through laws and funding. Yet, it has failed to act. It is long past time for our General Assembly to enable our students with disabilities to live, work and play in integrated settings with the resources and accommodations they need so they can be full participants in our society.
When it comes to voting, the state can do so much more to enforce the right of citizens with disabilities to vote. People face structural barriers, such as locked, handicap accessible doors on Election Day, and some voter engagement funders do not account for meeting the physical needs of voters with disabilities, such as blind voters and voters living in facilities.
In the state House, I would be committed to leading on increasing accessibility in all of the aforementioned areas and more. This means: (1) revisiting our regulatory schemes for public infrastructure such as public streets, transit and buildings and requiring specific technologies to ensure accessibility; (2) tying public funding to reviews of accessibility accommodations; and (3) establishing measurable goals for decreasing the state’s reliance on congregate settings (institutions) and increasing investment in in-home care.
I will tie these efforts to the University in pushing for leadership to make our university truly accessible. I would look forward to working with advocates such as Disability Rights North Carolina, who have been steeped in this work for decades. Politics have gotten in the way of doing the right thing for people in need. I’m a proud Tar Heel, and I’m even prouder to stand and work with fellow Tar Heels facing barriers that our state can and must solve.
Candidate for N.C. House District 56
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