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Disability Pride Month highlights need for accessibility, accommodations

Photo courtesy of Laura Saavedro/Heather Diehl. UNC junior and former Campus Y co-president Laura Saavedra Forero sits for a picture at the Old Well.

July 26 marked the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights law that prevents discrimination on the basis of disability. Observance of this legislation's anniversary comes at the end of Disability Pride Month.

“July being Disability Pride Month, is important because it is an acknowledgment of the United States recognizing that we are going to make the country more accessible and adaptable and welcoming to people with disabilities,” Eric Garcia, senior Washington correspondent at The Independent and author of "We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation," said. 

Garcia has autism and graduated from UNC in 2014.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, up to one in four adults in the United States have a disability.

Jennifer Diliberto is a clinical associate professor in UNC's School of Education, with a concentration in disabilities and special education. She said it is important to remember that a disability is only one aspect of an individual's identity, and does not define the person as a whole.

Individuals with disabilities are often treated as victims before people capable of joy, junior and former Campus Y co-president Laura Saavedra Forero, who uses a wheelchair, said.

“Too often folks have correlated disability with tragedy or something like that, and never really take the time to value the idea that disabled joy is revolutionary and an active form of resistance, and that simply surviving in such an ableist world is a feat that deserves to be celebrated,” she said.

Disability Pride Month creates a space to celebrate the resilience and joy of the disabled community, she said.

People with disabilities have long struggled to feel welcomed in society, especially in higher education, Garcia said. On a campus as old as UNC’s, everyday activities can become a challenge.

“UNC always talks about being the university of the people," Garcia said. "Well, if the elevators are broken and there aren't enough student services, then you're excluding one-fourth of the people,” 

Saavedra Forero brought the inaccessibility of the campus to the forefront of community attention this past spring when she led a 32-hour protest with her arm bonded via PVC pipe to the arm of her Campus Y co-president, Megan Murphy, outside the South Building. The 32-hour period matched the amount of time Saavedra Forero was unable to leave her first-year residence hall when its elevators were not functioning.

“The ADA is the bare minimum, but we’re not even there,” she said.

Garcia also said that enforcement of the ADA is not perfect, but the legislation has allowed him to thrive more so than preceding generations of individuals with disabilities.

Saavedra Forero is a member of Crips in College and the Disability Advocates for Carolina Committee of the Campus Y. Crips in College was launched last year with the goal of creating a grand-scale movement for accessibility in education, while the Disability Advocates for Carolina Committee strives to create a safer space for people with disabilities.

“Those are the (organizations) in which I personally have found more of a sense of community belonging while actively trying to combat the systems and the ableism in everyday life,” she said.

As well as highlighting the Disability Advocates for Carolina Committee at the Campus Y, Diliberto said organizations like Tar Heels at the Table — an advocacy group of which she is the faculty advisor — are also important. She also cited University initiatives, such as Accessibility Resources & Service, the Learning Center and behind-the-scenes work in the chancellor’s office.

Garcia and Saavedra Forero both advocate for active listening to disabled voices and allowing individuals with disabilities to speak for themselves. This listening goes hand in hand with providing resources that accommodate their needs, Saavedra Forero said.

Diliberto said there needs to be better education and more comfort surrounding disability-focused conversations.

“I would just encourage people to think about walking with a lens that's going to consider barriers — physical barriers, intellectual barriers, sensory barriers,” she said.

Diliberto said the renovation of the Old Well to include a permanent wheelchair ramp is a good start. Not only does it allow some students with disabilities to participate in a University tradition, but it also increases community awareness of disability struggles, she said.

“As a society, we need to work on accepting individual differences and embracing those differences to welcome everybody into spaces so that persons with disabilities feel like they belong," she said.

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Editor's note: Eric Garcia is a former staffer at The Daily Tar Heel.


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