A common theme prevailed during this university’s second annual Disability Summit: building a proud disabled community, Deputy Chief Diversity Officer Beth Douthirt Cohen said.
“We need to do it today,” she said as she delivered the event’s keynote speech, “do it as an act of social and political resistance and an act of self-preservation.”
More than 400 students, faculty, presenters and community members registered for Friday’s second annual Disability Summit in Stamp Student Union. The summit consisted of 19 presentations on topics ranging from “Crowd-sourcing the Disability Resistance” to “Perspectives from the Guamanian Sign Language Community,” focusing on stigmas surrounding disabilities and “build[ing] a true cross-disciplinary and community of disability studies at the University of Maryland and in the region,” according to its website.
The Graduate Student Government and the Information Policy and Access Center hosted the summit, and the President’s Commission on Disability Issues, which advises university President Wallace Loh about issues concerning people with disabilities on the campus, sponsored the event.
In her opening speech, Cohen called out industries that work with people with disabilities — such as special education and disability support services — and criticized them for hiring mostly able-bodied people. Nearly one in five people have a disability in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There is rarely a disabled person in power, at the table or even in the room,” Cohen said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as one “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
Aggie Hu, one of the event’s presenters, shared her research on the experience of having a physical disability. For her research, Hu, an international education policy doctoral student, interviewed four participants from China who had different physical disabilities including blindness, limb loss and being a polio survivor. She found people with physical disabilities face limitations such as picking things up, driving and giving hugs.
Hu herself wears a prosthetic leg and said some people may want others to hide their physical disabilities, possibly out of fear of being treated differently.
“Once I had a prosthetic leg, my parents would just buy me long pants because it can cover you, and then people won’t see that you are different,” Hu said. “Because the physical difference draws attention, draws unwanted looks, a lot of people with disabilities … want to cover that.”
Some with physical disabilities view their differences positively, Hu said, but experiences depend on factors including socioeconomic class, access to resources and support.
These negative experiences can prevent people with physical disabilities from being “disabled and proud,” she added.
“Negative encounters really prevent a person to identify as a disabled person,” Hu said. “They see disability as a negative term and it implies so many negative experiences, like being excluded, being discriminated against.”
Jennifer Mizrahi, the president of RespectAbility — a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities — discussed the importance of representing people with disabilities on TV. About two percent of characters on TV were shown to have a disability in 2015, and of those characters, 95 percent are played by able-bodied actors, according to RespectAbility’s website.
“One out of five Americans has a disability, but if you look on TV, you don’t see us,” Mizrahi said. “It’s as if we’re completely erased from society.”
Mizrahi cited the musical La La Land as an example. The opening scene has people of many ethnic backgrounds, but not one with an apparent disability, she said. When people with disabilities are portrayed, they are often done so negatively, such as in the movie Me Before You, where a main character commits suicide because life as a wheelchair user is difficult, Mizrahi said.
“It’s very important to show us, to show that we exist in society to take away the stigmas, but to also show us doing things that are successful,” Mizrahi said.
Renita Fajardo, a sophomore English major, said she is glad to see people caring about representation of people with disabilities in the media, and the Disability Summit provides exposure and education about the larger community.
“A lot of people have their stereotypes about disability, but when you attend the disability summit I feel like you get more knowledge, more exposure to what the community is like,” Fajardo said. “We do care about health care and resources, but we also care about these other things that matter to us.”
The day also included presentations about how this university can do more to help students with disabilities. Currently, this university offers resources such as Accessibility and Disability Services. McKeldin Library has an Adaptive Technology Lab, and the UMD Career Center provides workshops designed to help students with disabilities search for jobs.
Nancy Forsythe, a career development specialist at the University Career Center, helps students with disabilities find and keep jobs. At the summit, she shared findings from a Moving Maryland Forward grant, which supports projects addressing goals of this university’s Strategic Plan for Diversity.
This university needs more data about students with disabilities in order to determine the scope of this issue, she added. For example, there aren’t any questions about disability on the campus graduation survey, she said.
“One of the most important issues is the very limited cultural competence on campus in addressing disability as a source of prejudice and stigma,” Forsythe said. “In our very ableist environment, we are not addressing our own prejudice.”
Jen Wachtel, an information studies and history graduate student, said the summit gave her the opportunity to learn about the disabled community.
“As someone outside the field of disability advocacy, I came to learn, and I’m ready to be an advocate as a result of everything I learned today,” Wachtel said.
Paul Jaeger, co-chair of the summit, called the day a success.
“We’re extremely pleased with not only the amount of people that came, but the quality of the presentations and how excited people are about the conversations they’ve been having,” Jaeger said. “It shows there is a real need for events like this. This is a really productive chance for people to get together, share ideas, build community.”