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.

Cultivating a Culture of Collaboration

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. 

The Visibility Paradox: My Experience with Disability at UVA

By Mausam Mehta

I approached the bus with one hand holding the harness of my guide dog, and the other weighed down with a collection of grocery bags.

“Is this the outer loop?” I asked the driver, hoping my guess was right, because it was getting late and I wanted to go home.

“It sure is. Haven’t seen you in a while. Beautiful dog you have there. What stop do you need today?”

After I let him know, I settled down for the 20-minute ride, secure in the knowledge that I would make it to my stop without incident.

This is just one of so many positive experiences I have every day at the University of Virginia. 

Yet, it is an intriguing and thought-provoking exercise to consider how our identities shape us. So many of our characteristics, no matter how seemingly insignificant, define our overall experiences from day to day.

I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for several years, starting in early high school. It is this organization that guided me to understand that blindness, while a major part of my identity, is not the characteristic that defines me. Upon further reflection, it is this idea of the defining nature of disability that poses a unique contradiction: to the general public, I am often bathed in a glaring spotlight by my disability, and simultaneously made invisible under its shadow.

A few days after I moved into first-year dorms, I was navigating through the narrow hallways, still cluttered with new furniture and belongings, on my way to class. I walked confidently into the stairwell, pausing to locate the top step with the tip of my cane. In that brief moment before I began the climb down, I heard a throat clearing behind me.

“That’s amazing,” one of my fellow first-years declared.

“What?” I responded, caught slightly off guard.

“How you go down stairs. If I were blind, I can’t imagine how I’d do it.”

I paused for a moment, considering my response. How could I explain, in the few seconds I had before I would certainly be late for class, that this was nothing out of the ordinary, that my blindness was simply a way of life? How could I picture something other than this, as she herself was attempting to do? I allowed the opportunity for a long, drawn-out philosophical explanation to pass, and instead responded simply, “Thanks, but it’s nothing special.”

In the vast array of similar experiences I have had since that day, I can’t help but point out the commonality: my ability to accomplish simple tasks as a blind person is a larger-than-life feat. Like a circus tiger doing tricks, it is so alien and unexpected, fascinating and magnetic to witness. I am hyperaware of my actions, knowing that surely they are being monitored, weighed, and tested for the slightest sign of uncertainty. So saying, public expectations of blindness rest on a bar that practically touches the ground.

I stood in line at Subway with a friend, waiting impatiently for the satisfaction of a sandwich I’d been craving for hours. As the line slowly inched forward, I recounted the terrible feeling of unease I experienced upon completion of my first accounting exam. I just finished my rambling story when we reached the order counter.

“What does she want to order?” the lady behind the counter asked. I knew, without having to confirm that she was talking to my friend, who was standing in line behind me. I am all too familiar with this scene. The lack of eye contact from my side, or maybe my need for a little verbal instruction to get through the maze of stations , gave me away. To this lady, I had faded entirely into the background, incapable of communicating my needs and unable to interact. I was suddenly invisible.

Throughout my time at UVA, I have often encountered this strange duality. It stems, predictably, from a lack of education and understanding of disability. It is an ongoing process, one that I wholeheartedly embrace. I am fortunate to serve on the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee alongside students and faculty who are passionate about accessibility and equal access. I have found a community that is endlessly supportive and a home at a university that strives to be inclusive to the best of its ability. Nonetheless, there is plenty of work left to be done.

I present an alarming case. The unemployment rate for people with visual impairments in the United States is 78%. Many of these individuals have one or more college degrees, but are discouraged and rejected, because their disabilities introduce doubt and apprehension into the minds of employers. Their disabilities trump their qualifications. Their potential worth is secluded behind the pervasive fear of uncertainty. They are, quite effectively, invisible. Upon my graduation from this university, I could be one of them. But I refuse to bow beneath the weight of low expectations.

Every winter, my fellow blind students and I stand on capitol hill, fighting for legislation that will improve the equality of disabled individuals. In those moments, as we assert our hopes for the future and we are not invisible. We are part of something bigger, a feeling we hold close to us in the face of adversity. Through hard work and determination, I hope to spread this feeling of triumph to every corner of UVA, so we can work together as the next generation of leaders to overcome the fear of unfamiliarity and make our society a more inclusive place.

Mausam Mehta is a second year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is the outreach officer for Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavs, a Jefferson Society member, and a student member of the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee.

Students are Students, Disabilities or Not

By Evan Dunks ’14

I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I’ve read a good amount of blogs like these. This one is off to a great start, and I wish I had started something like it when I was a student (Class of ’14!). Still, I’m happy I was asked to post here.

I’ve read through everything here, and the entries so far are good, but too familiar. A quick search online and you’ll find countless stories about students who just want to go to class or motivated allies who just want to help those in need. Sure, great goals – but seeing a bunch of repetitions of the same story can obscure the fact that a human with a disability is still a human, with the same spectrum of adventurous, or unique, or ugly, or violent human desires.

I began my UVa career in the fall of 2010, and if we’re going to be honest, I came to party. I didn’t want to learn new subjects or expand my horizons (well, those at least weren’t my primary goals) – I wanted to drink and do drugs. I wanted to go to frats, black out, wake up with a tiger inexplicably in my bedroom, and all the other things that modern culture happily shows as the ‘fun’ part of being a student. I listened to the song I Love College by Asher Roth, and dammit, that’s what I wanted.

But I want this post to be about more than me. I don’t want to tell you “my story,” because I know that some of my experiences are not unique – and I didn’t want them to be. When I started at UVa, my top priority was just being a student, and enjoy all aspects of the “college experience.” People with disabilities can be nice and studious, but if we lose sight of anyone’s humanity, we’re going to do a lot more to make their life a lot worse no matter how hard we try to help.

Obviously, it’s nice when you don’t explicitly hate individuals with disabilities. No one has ever physically attacked me just because of my wheelchair, and unfortunately that probably wouldn’t be the case if I had a different skin color, gender, etc. But there are more ways to discriminate, and having a disability will bring you to the front of the line for soft discrimination.

“You’re so brave!” “You’re an inspiration!” – these are the kind of backhanded compliments I (and probably most people with a disability) hear on a daily basis. Personally, I really don’t care if something I do inspires you. I’m glad for you, but please don’t tell me about it. It doesn’t make me happy to hear that you’re amazed I got out of bed or made lunch or completed a 5K in my wheelchair. Go ahead and feel amazed if you want, but you don’t have to tell me. Just keep moving on with your life.

If you feel like you need to make the University a more inclusive place, remember that students with disabilities are still students. For example, think outside the scope of academic buildings when you prioritize locations you want to make accessible.

A time-honored tradition at UVa, as any student reading this already knows, is streaking the Lawn. We’ve all done it so much that it’s not even necessarily an exciting story if you tell your friends about it. Think about that – running naked down a long field while a lot of people watch isn’t by itself that interesting. If you tried to impress anyone at UVa, everyone else would just nod along, because they’ve also streaked the Lawn at least twice.

But I’ve never heard anyone say that the lawn should be made accessible so that students in wheelchairs can streak the lawn (I mean I made it happen anyways, but it took some friends and some strategic planning). If you laughed just now, honestly ask yourself: Why? Every student does it, and allowing students with disabilities more access to a common tradition is certainly going to expand their opportunities.

Being a Wahoo is more than the classes you go to, or the sports games you cheer at, or the parties you enjoy. It’s a combination of every experience you have for the years you’re here. If you’re going to help expand accessibility on grounds, then you should look at every possible area that could affect student life. And I’m not saying classrooms aren’t on the list of places that should be accessible – they’re of course near the top.

But that list is expansive, and covers a lot of buildings beyond the classroom. Newcomb, Alumni Hall, and most ‘Old Dorms’ come to mind immediately, but it’s been a while since I could last check out specific areas. I’ll be happy as long as accessibility is centered around allowing humans to act like humans. Not inspiring angels who just want to learn, but regular people with a variety of desires that aren’t always admirable or even appropriate to talk about. In the case of the University of Virginia, making the classroom accessible is only part of the job – the student experience as a whole is what needs to be open to everyone.

Evan Dunks, ‘14 is a UVA alumnus who majored in Foreign Affairs. He currently works as a marketing manager for a nonprofit called the Institute for Humane Studies in Arlington, Virginia.