By Xara Davies
During my first year at UVA, I joined the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee (DAAC) and was thrilled to see how individuals from across the university came together to address accessibility in every form. What I realized, however, was that this level of intersectional discourse was missing from the student body.
The DAAC is comprised primarily of deans, coordinators, staff and faculty. Whilst the number of student representatives has grown, these representatives tend to be self-motivated students, independent from student organizations, with a determination to support the disability community. These students tend to have a personal connection to the disability community — through either their own experiences, their family members or advocacy work. What is frustrating is that at the “student administrative” level, at the level of organizations that “lead” at UVA, there is often an empty chair at the table. This is neither through apathy on behalf of these groups, nor a lack of invitation from the DAAC — no particular group is at fault. Instead, it speaks to a larger problem at UVA whereby a culture of competition consistently trumps a culture of collaboration.
Let’s examine this at the insular level of accessibility advocacy. What I admire about the DAAC’s work is its ability to discuss barriers to accessibility across the entire university, integrating voices from across Grounds into one, productive conversation. I want to see more of this from student groups at UVA, especially those that partner with children and adults with disabilities in the Charlottesville community. During my time at UVA, I have worked with several different community groups that primarily focus on accessibility for people that have autism, such as the Accessible Theatre Project (ATP), which provides sensory-friendly performances. I also volunteer with Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy (CART) through Madison House, which operates out of White Hall and offers accessible horse riding lessons to an array of students with disabilities. I frequently recommend each of these two opportunities to community members I meet at events for one or the other. I am often disappointed that people I meet through ATP have not heard of CART, or vice versa. I know that members of these two communities would often enjoy being involved with both.
A great deal of the advocacy work that takes place at UVA is siloed off into individual organizations that severally, do incredible work. Yet, I think that if student organizations were to pool their resources instead, Charlottesville’s community members would benefit greatly from a plethora of opportunities to attend accessible events. At UVA, there appears a tendency to encourage individuals to start new organizations, to innovate, to be individuals. What I propose instead is that we coordinate a greater amount of collaboration to create cross-community interactions that will further benefit those we are already working with individually.
The annual Restoration Ball held by the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society is one example of how much can be achieved when resources aimed at increasing accessibility come from a collaborative environment. In 2018, for the first time in several years, the event was hosted in a new, accessible location instead of the typical Amphitheatre which immediately poses accessibility concerns. The lead organizer that year, Kirsta Hackmeier, took the initiative to ask about other barriers posed by the event, financial and otherwise. I connected Hackmeier with the DAAC and from there, important conversations began. Why do large-scale UVA events hosted by students often lack the necessary consideration Hackmeier gave to accessibility? From website design to sensory-friendly areas, the Restoration Ball was the most accessible it has ever been – but we should not stop there.
Collaboration across advocacy groups at UVA is necessary to ensure that every event hosted by students prioritizes accessibility in all of its forms. Working together to ensure that audiences are representative and that community members feel listened to, is integral to the success of any event. The Restoration Ball in 2018 prioritized accessibility – but it takes more than one annual event. Student leaders need to remember that accessibility is not optional; it is a necessity. Accessibility should not pivot on the interest of individuals but should be a community-wide effort that means attendees with disabilities do not have to constantly question whether or not they can attend due to organizational oversights that could be solved, collaboratively.
The Restoration Ball was successful because Hackmeier not only worked with the DAAC, but through those meetings interacted with Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavaliers and the Student Disability Access Center in order to ascertain accessibility needs. These organizations joined forces, and this is what leads to success. No one group can be an expert on, dare I say, anything. This is why a culture of collaboration needs to be cultivated at UVA.
As we enter into a new year, we should resolve to focus on collaborating more. This could mean seeking input from committees like the DAAC in order to ensure that student-led events are more accessible. It could also involve working with other student organizations to guarantee that if you coordinate with similar communities, that those community members are aware of both opportunities in Charlottesville. Finally, it could mean coming to Student Council’s Disability Awareness Week in February to witness first-hand how collaboration across student groups can lead to dynamic discussions about disabilities, on both a personal and a scholarly level. Through creating external, accessible events, I would hope that student organizations would look inwardly to ensure their own meetings and internal events were equally accessible. Grounds can be more accessible, but only if students actively collaborate together.
Xara Davies is a fourth-year in the English Department’s Distinguished Majors Program with a minor in Urban and Environmental Planning. Xara is the communications intern for both Public Service at UVA and the Biocomplexity Institute. Xara is also a program director for Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy, president of the English Students Association and a member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society.