UVa’s Disability Rights Movement

Laura Kniaz Knox was one of the student leaders who was integral in the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act at UVa. Ashley Heuser, the DSI’s student administrator interviewed Laura about the Disability Rights Movement on Grounds.


Ashley: Laura, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me.

Laura: My pleasure!

Ashley: I am very interested in your contributions to the disability rights movement at UVa in ’89 and ’90. I believe you graduated in 1990?

Laura: Yes, I did, in May of ’90.

Ashley: I really want to create this narrative talking about how disability has come up around Grounds and how students have, historically, perceived of disability. When I started to research into the ADA, I noticed that your name kept coming up in The Cavalier Daily articles. I really wanted to get your perspective on that.

Laura: Okay, so You have to remember this was a long time ago.

Ashley: Right.

Laura: I’ve got children your age

Ashley: Right.

Laura: I started a group called Independence for Students with Disabilities on campus. I and a couple of other people on Grounds had noticed that there were physical accessibility issues that we were concerned about and explored a little bit in addition to some of the other accessibility issues.  I mean, probably when I was younger, when I did most of my activism, I was more aware of the physical disability issues. Though, as I have gotten older I have certainly become more aware of some of the other things. I can’t speak to how UVA did those [things, but] I can tell you things like curb cuts and physical access to buildings and things like that. We had done a big survey back in the 80’s about how high lips were and where there were ramps and where there weren’t. We had done a booklet about it. I don’t have a copy anymore, but we had gone through everywhere and measured things. It’s a historic area, obviously, but the fact is historic or not, we felt like all people deserved physical access to Grounds. So that’s what we spent a lot of our time working on and trying to do advocacy in that area.

Ashley: Could you talk little bit about the origin of that? From what I understand, Disability Rights as a movement at UVA really started after the death of Franz Stillfried. If you feel comfortable, would you be willing to elaborate more on that?

Laura: I don’t know anything about that. I had gotten involved because several of my siblings had more hidden disabilities and I used to date a guy who used a wheelchair, and he had physical accessibility issues. That just made me more aware of the issue in general. One of my siblings had had some discrimination based on his disability and I had done some legal research for my mom and advocacy in that area. I approached it more from that angle, my personal background.

Ashley: Could you talk a little bit more about how either you or the students you were involved with thought about what you were doing? Did you think it was necessarily connected to the Disability Rights Movement at the time or was this a university specific phenomenon?

Laura: I, personally, was very interested in disability rights as one of the civil rights movements. It was a civil rights issue. Jason Lopez was the person who worked closest with me on the committee.  I think he felt about it similarly. The fact is- think globally act locally- we figured we weren’t going to change the world completely while we full time students. But we felt like we could make an impact at UVa. That is where we focused our energy on even though we were interested in the disability rights movement more as a whole. After undergrad, I worked for about two years and then I went on to law school and I became a special education attorney for a little bit. I also did a legal clinic during law school where we worked with students who had equal access to school under the IDEA and Section 504. I looked at it as a civil rights movement and as an equal rights movement. The administration probably looked at us as pests, [that] is my guess. I think sometimes university administration has lots of priorities and lots of interest. While they may be generally well meaning, lots of equal access issues have costs tied to them so I think that probably wasn’t the university’s priority even though it was ours at the time.

Ashley: Did you think that the administration did things to support you, you meaning the committee or the group, or did you feel like there was any resistance?

Laura: The stuff we were doing, measuring curb cuts, talking about where doors should be widened, where elevators should be put in, that’s really not something that a student should be doing, that is something that should have come from the university. I wasn’t trained to measure slope and those kinds of things. Those are really something that they should have been looking at as an institution if they wanted to provide equal access. When we had done all of that, all the measuring and that kind of stuff, they didn’t really inhibit us in any way, but they weren’t really cheering us on and they weren’t pouring lots of financial resources into it when we were doing it all. My guess, and I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that they were hoping that we wouldn’t get a lot of traction and we would ultimately graduate and go away. But with the pamphlet we did print it out and we had meetings with the administration [and we talked about] things that we thought should be done and what some priorities were. But then ultimately, I graduated and I am not sure where everything went after that. I haven’t been back to UVa since I graduated so I don’t know how the physical accessibility is now. I am guessing it is mediocre.

(Ashley and Laura laugh)

Ashley: We do have ramps on the Lawn now.

Laura: That’s good! When we were there, there were some lifts that didn’t always work and elevators didn’t always work. There were certainly not sufficient curb cuts and there were definitely really basic [things]: there weren’t accessible bathrooms and student shouldn’t have to go to a different building to use the bathroom.

Ashley: Yeah, when I was reading over the report, because Vice President Lampkin gave me the report that you all worked on-

Laura: Oh did she! It’s great that it’s still out there!

Ashley: Yeah! And it was really interesting because as I was going through it, in almost every single building you all broke it down by what is the easiest, what is the cheapest, what is the most costly, [and] what is most labor intensive. And I found it interesting that the number one cheapest thing was “take the table out of the handicapped bathroom.” And I’m like, “why was there a table there and why was it in every single building, every single stall? Who does this, who puts a table there?!”

Laura laughs: The whole mindset there wasn’t set up to provide equal access. I think people were probably a little more ignorant in general than they are now. The things that people of your generation find to be very common sense, like mental health awareness and sexual preference, and all those types things, those were a lot more radical in the eighties. I mean, it’s not like it was the fifties, but it was just a different day and age and their natural instinct wasn’t to make things as physically accessible. And I’m guessing also to make things more accessible for kids with ADHD or learning issues or that kind of stuff. We had a Disability Services Center but I remember they provided- and I volunteered sometimes- reading books and they were on tape, but there really weren’t a lot of the resources that are sort of expected now. People didn’t think about [accommodations] as frequently or readily and I think the way that they thought about them at the time is that they were more doing somebody a favor instead of providing somebody with what should be their basic fundamental rights to have equal access.

Ashley: Could you talk a little bit about the perceptions that the student body in general had about the committee, about the work you were doing? Were they supportive, did you get the buy in?

Laura: We were a small, active group. Jason and I did a ton and we had some other people who helped but were really did a lot of the work ourselves. I think sometimes students- you know everyone is busy. They are worried about their classes and they are worried about their boyfriend, and stuff that immediately affects them. I don’t think anybody was opposed to the work we were doing and they were certainly willing to cover us in the student newspaper. But I don’t think it drove and motivated people for the most part as it did us. You have to remember that there weren’t a ton of people with physical disabilities on the campus, probably because it was so physically inaccessible. We weren’t having five hundred-person demonstrations or anything like that. If I recall, and I’m not one hundred percent sure because it’s been some time, but we may have had some kids form Key Club that helped with some of the measuring. Kids who were a little more service minded helped us out because it was a big campus and there were lots of things to look at so we definitely needed some help. But I wouldn’t say there was a ground swell of people helping us. It was me and Jason for the most part rattling a lot of cages.

Ashley: Other than the Accessibility Report that your committee produced, do you think that there were other changes to the culture on Grounds? Is there a legacy that you all left behind that I may not be able to dig up in archives?

Laura: I think we raised awareness. Unless disability touches someone directly- people think about things from their world view and not in the world view for somebody that, for whatever reason, sees the world differently. I think we raised awareness in that area and I think we got the administration talking about more what sort of changes need to be done. I can’t tell you the pace in which any of those changes took place because I graduated. But I think that we raised awareness about all of that, I think that is probably my legacy and documenting some of the problems. Before then, to my knowledge, there were issues but nobody had ever tried to do any sort of systemic assessment of what worked there because I guess they felt like they didn’t need to. I think this made them have to be more accountable.

Ashley: You mentioned before the work and the manpower that you and Jason put into this and how you’re students trying to do this activism work, you’re trying to stick up for the rights of the disabled, you’re doing all these things- that is the reality for a lot of disabled students on Grounds right now. What advice would you give to any of those students?

Laura: Paper it! Honestly, I don’t litigate anymore but I used to be a litigator. I can tell you that people’s memories are faulty and people aren’t always truthful. But if you document things, document conversations, if you have an in-person meeting, send a follow up email documenting what you discussed. People don’t always ant to be held accountable for things and I think with students, or anybody asking for more than somebody inherently feels they want or are able to give. I think people can sometimes shove them aside. I think it is a really good idea to paper whatever requests you make or changes you suggest or promises people make to help hold everybody accountable. And don’t be afraid to tick people off. Honestly, that’s the other thing I would suggest. If you’re an activist, you’re not always going to make friends with people. People aren’t always going to like what you have to say but you always need to do what you feel is ethical and right and know that that’s enough. Not if everyone likes you or agrees with you, you’re doing what you feel is right. And be comfortable in that. While activism may make you some friends, it can also make you some enemies. Those are the things I would suggest.

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