My Journey to Disability Advocacy

Chung Do Kim

On July 24th, 2018, I entered into an open room of the Center for American Progress, filled with disability advocates from the Washington, DC area. The room was equipped with a wheelchair accessible stage and Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) captioning services. Here, members of the Disability Justice Initiative would work to bring the disability lens across progressive issues such as poverty, health care, the environment, and more by raising awareness to the specific vulnerabilities that disabled people face, and I had been invited to attend the launching of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress (CAP).

So how did I get here? At the heart of disability advocacy in Washington D.C.?

I am not disabled, nor do I have any personal ties to disability. However, I see having a disability as a type of minority identity, and what’s more, as a minority myself, I see disability through a minority lens; as an able-bodied Asian-American, one of the ways I can help the world become more inclusive is to promote disability rights so that the next generation will enjoy a more fruitful and accessible society.

The World Bank estimates that 15% of the world’s population experience some form of disability. That accounts for one billion people in the world, some of whom are likely to be family, friends, or neighbors. This means that ultimately, we will all experience disability at some point in our lives, whether it’s a sprained ankle, a chronic and lifelong condition, or something that develops over time, such as reduced mobility due to old age. While it’s impossible to plan for unanticipated disabilities, it is possible to plan a society that treats people with disabilities equitably.

So why not start now? Why don’t we consider accessibility in our social planning? Why don’t we orient our communities to be more inclusive?

When I was in elementary school, I always enjoyed the aspect of inclusive community building and including newcomers into a group. As an immigrant from south Korea growing up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, I remember my first day of classes in second grade: here, I was accepted by an entire class of peers, all of whom were a conglomerate of different ethnicities, hair colors, and favorite colored popsicles. Maybe it was because I felt so accepted by my peers that I genuinely wanted to share acceptance and embrace others that were different than me.

When I was a junior in high school, I had the chance to practice this form of welcoming acceptance that I had received my first day of school in the States. I interned at a therapeutic recreation summer camp working with kids with disabilities through Fairfax County’s Neighborhood & Community Services.

On the first day of my summer internship, I found myself face-to-face with a room full of kids hell-bent on tearing apart the Dr. Seuss-themed room, “one fish” at a time, while buckets worth of finger paint splattered across tables and floors. I quickly ran to wipe the paint off the floors but let the kids continue playing with their new-found toys: fuzzy craft stems, blue cellophane, and giant tinsel garlands. I realized that it didn’t really matter what the kids used to participate in the classroom even if their method of accessibility into the class activity was attained by hand picking off the decorated walls. The construct of the room we envisioned wasn’t fit for some of the kids, and that was okay. The kids were actively engaged in accessing the activity, and we learned how to adjust for each individual.

That humid, sultry summer was filled with laughter, chaos, and most importantly, acceptance. The community of volunteers and teachers came together to create a lively, inclusive environment for kids with disabilities who may not have had a chance to interact with peers on a daily basis. I fell in love with the work, the kids, and the community of teachers and volunteers coming together to build an inclusive and accessible environment. The way we accommodated each individual in recreational activities, music therapy, and games allowed each camper to enjoy themselves to the fullest.

I continued to work at the summer camp for the next two years, cultivating my interests in learning about the wide range of disabilities.

Contrast this experience to my arrival at the Grounds of the University of Virginia. Here, I experienced a lack of accessibility on a more personal level. During my first week of classes, I tore my ACL, and found that the campus was not accommodating to my acquired disability. The more I used crutches on campus, the more I noticed physical barriers such as heavy doors, endless sets of stairs, and lack of accessible parking. My personal experience heightened my sense of awareness for the need to increase accessibility and foster community.

Before this injury, I never had surgery and I didn’t know what to expect; needless to say, I was nervous and a bit afraid. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how isolated my injury had made me feel. In fact, I had been struggling so much on my own that I had even planned to go to the UVA hospital alone. However, my friend texted me that night and asked if he could come with me to surgery at 7AM in the morning. I gladly said yes.

It wasn’t until after the surgery that I realized how much I needed someone there with me. It wasn’t until I had friends and family bringing dinner to my dorm night after night, when I couldn’t move, that I experienced the full power of community. It wasn’t until after this experience that I realized how crucial it is to empathize, support others in need, and be an ally to others and their experiences because, I have come to see that we really never know what someone else goes through.

Ever since my injury, I have been a disability advocate at UVA. I have tailored my studies to learn about the disability rights movement and disability in the workplace. From babysitting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in my free time, to researching about ASD through an independent study, I am always striving to learn more about disabilities so I can take part in creating an inclusive and accessible society for all.

Through my work as a disability advocate, I have come to believe that, as much as we can embody others’ experiences through compassion and consciously include all members in society, we can begin to create a world that benefits everyone.

Come back with me to that summer at the State Department this summer. Here, I attended a meeting with disability advocates from China and the Disability Action Group (DAG) that highlighted the variety and scope of diversity issues and activity in the foreign affairs agencies. While the DAG was sharing how the federal government works to include persons with disabilities in its recruitment process, I was fixated on the speaker using American Sign Language (ASL) which was being interpreted into English and then to Chinese and then back to ASL.  Not only was this incredible to see, but it also underlined three beliefs that have come to shape my life.

Inclusion is possible. I have experienced a wide array of situations where people with disabilities could have been kept to the margins, but more often there are many willing to stand up and actively include these people, particularly by increasing accessibility.

The United States is actively seeking to represent and include persons with disabilities in leadership roles. My summer working with disability advocates at the State Department is enough to illustrate this.

Three, other countries/societies should follow suit. Just as our government is working to break down the attitudinal and structural barriers in other countries by shaping foreign policy, we all should work towards making our societies inclusive and accessible for our families, friends, and neighbors.

Chung Do Kim is a fourth-year Global Development Studies major. He is involved on grounds as a Student Advisory Board Member for UVA’s Center for Global Health and is a former International Disability Rights Team intern at the State Department. 

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