My Black Deafhood

By Bobbi-Angelica Morris

Like many, if not most, and probably all Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) students that attend UVA, I grew up mainstreamed. This meant being the only Deaf person in my classes up until the end of my undergraduate career and growing up without knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL), the vibrant culture associated with it and the Deaf community for most of my life. I first became interested in Deafness after binge watching the popular television show Switched At Birth. While this sparked my interest, it still left me really unsure on where I fit into all of this. During my last year of high school, I hoped to learn more. I created a student led ASL club where my friends and I would gather weekly to learn signs using YouTube videos. Ultimately, this revealed a kind of gravitational pull towards ASL that I was entirely new to and became the reason I took my first ASL class at UVA.

My experience with the ASL program and navigating my identity at UVA has been a roller coaster. One of the many highlights has been UVA’s Deaf Lecture Series. Each semester, the program invites two guest speakers from the Deaf community to share their experiences and contributions to the Deaf community. I remember attending my first ever lecture as a first year; it was a comedy show that helped me understand parts of myself that I wasn’t even aware of. For example, the speaker joked about Deaf people always injuring themselves (because we’re constantly looking in one direction as visual communicators by default) and suddenly, so much made sense. From every wall I’ve walked into to bruise I’ve sustained from car doors to the head, it clicked.

The second Deaf lecture I attended was less enjoyable and I didn’t realize until there was nothing I could do about it. The comedy show from earlier in the semester was presented with screened live captions behind the comedian. I assumed this would be a recurring thing, being a Deaf space and all. Much to my surprise, that was the only Deaf lecture I attended in person that had live captions. Where did that leave me? A mainstream Deaf/HoH student with only one semester of ASL completed, I sat surrounded by all my hearing ASL classmates, my ASL fluent and Deaf teachers, an interpreter to voice, an interpreter for signing ASL, and no hearing aids. I sat in that room with no idea how to advocate for myself.

Things changed a little by my second year. I moved into Shea House, the language house at UVA that dedicated a floor to students learning ASL. Living in Shea House has been one of my most rewarding experiences; I’ve had some of the best times of my life staying up late, signing and feeling safe in an environment I was able to choose for myself. I was surrounded less by people who constantly felt the need to debate whether or not I was actually Deaf and more by people who just let me be myself, accommodations and all.

My feelings around disability justice radicalized in the spring semester of my second year when I interned for a nonprofit named Jahid Adibi Foundation while studying abroad in India. I learned many invaluable lessons during this time but of most importance was self-advocacy.

As I learned more about disability advocacy, I grew connected to the disability community through Twitter. I learned that hearing aids and cochlear implants are most often not tools that accommodate Deaf people, but means for Deaf individuals to accommodate hearing people, and that the best way for hearing people to actually accommodate us is by learning sign language. With these new understandings of disability and Deafness, I started to think differently about the hearing aids I had finally acquired by the end of my first year and eventually stopped wearing them when I didn’t need or want to. After choosing this route, I came to feel liberated in my Deafness and the newfound label I held of myself as disabled.

I remember being greeted with belligerent bangs on my hotel door at 5am one morning in India. This knock was followed by a very hostile tone and borderline physical contact that was meant by my professors to awake me. My professors did not show my white, hearing classmates the same aggression when knocking on their doors that same morning and instead justified their behavior as the necessary aftermath of being unable to reach me by phone, despite being aware that I was Deaf. My professors allowed preconceived notions about deafness dictate their actions and it was at my expense. From here on out, I requested all information to be made accessible through a digit or in written form so situations like this would be prevented in the future. The class proceeded as normal but once COVID hit and we were forced to return to the US, I cut all ties with them.

As the only Black female student on the trip, I began to realize intersectionality in disability and race. Upon returning to UVA, I became hyperconscious of the nuance of discrimination towards not only disability, but the additional challenges I had to overcome as a Deaf woman of color. Ableism is rooted in racism; the two cannot be separated and as a university whose land and institutional systems have a foundation of genocide, slavery, and a continuous displacement of Black and Brown communities, there are flaws embedded in our everyday operation. I still confront inaccessibility daily, especially in post-COVID conditions. Without the safe haven of Zoom’s live captions and ability to read lips through mask coverings, I found myself back at square one in my fight for an equitable education. Even after completing all levels of ASL offered at UVA and thus finally being able to fully utilize interpreters for in-person classes, I still felt little to no improvement in the quality of my education. The non-disabled ignorance and obliviousness towards accommodations is something I am constantly reminded of. I remember the first day my interpreters accompanied me to class; admittedly, I entered the classroom feeling a degree of relief and comfort. I soon realized I was mistaken to feel this way when my professor turned off the lights to show a caption-less video and I was forced to make sense of my interpreter in the dark.

As my time at UVA comes to an end, I reflect on these experiences and more importantly their place as drivers of my identity and dedication to disability advocacy. Not having quenched my desire to learn, I recently applied and was accepted to Gallaudet University, where I will be pursuing a Master of Social Work. I welcome this opportunity to not only pursue a path that will afford me the skills to challenge deeply-embedded social injustices faced by Deaf and HoH people, but to find a community similar to that of the Shea House. I hope to always feel as free as I feel during signing lunches and ASL classes. Outside of my professional pursuits, I have also looked to poetry as a creative outlet. My poem titled “My Black Deaf History” touches on many of the briefly mentioned experiences in this piece and can be found at the hyperlink above; I encourage you all to take a look at it.

Likewise, I encourage anyone, hearing or Deaf, to take a few moments to reflect on spaces of belonging and the importance of community. With that, I would like to leave a short message for the next generations of Deaf/HoH students that will walk UVA’s grounds:

I hope that current and future Deaf/HoH students at UVA find their place in the Deaf community eventually. I hope that you surround yourself with people who care about your wellbeing in every aspect. Don’t let this inaccessible setting make you feel like you are the problem, because you aren’t. Your Deafness is beautiful regardless of how much you grew up learning sign language or know about Deaf history. Make sure you put yourself and your fellow Deafies/disabled people first no matter what. I want to do so much for the Deaf community, but especially you, my fellow mainstreamed Deafie.

Bobbi-Angelica Morris is a fourth year at UVA majoring in Global Development Studies and minoring in American Sign Language. She is the founder of De’Vias (Deaf View/Image Art and Song Club) at UVA, where she created a space centering Deaf art, music, and other aesthetics to promote engagement and awareness of Deaf culture in the community. She’s also served as the treasurer for the Chronically Ill Disabled Cavs (CDIC) and was a member of the CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam) poetry team for FLUX at UVA. Bobbi currently teaches ASL to local children and plans to attend Gallaudet University post-graduation in pursuit of a Masters in Social Work. Bobbi’s long-term goal is to create a nonprofit organization teaching ASL through a community garden and ultimately, help significantly bridge inaccessibility gaps. To keep up with Bobbi’s work in disability advocacy, visit her Instagram or Twitter pages @BlckRainbow5.

Microaggressions Against Service Dog Handlers

By J. Wyatt Regner

I hustle briskly down the sidewalk, on my way to the library. Flop flop flopping along the pavement beside me in his sneakers, my service dog, Benny, glances up at me. It takes us longer than usual to get to the library that day, not because the shoes slow him down, but because they have a magnetic effect on the public.

I decide to cut through Newcomb Hall, assuming it will be a shortcut. The usual gasps, aws, and whispers of “service dog” and “look at his shoes” follow us through the building. These we grew accustomed to long ago. They follow us everywhere.

We round a corner and find ourselves suddenly encircled by three women. They reach for Benny, cooing and fussing over him.

“Look at those shoooeees! Ain’t he fancy!”

“Oh, what a HANDSOME dog!”

“I’d take that baby home with me in a second!”

They seem to have no plans of acknowledging that I, the human at the other end of the leash, exist.

“Excuse me,” I try politely, then more forcefully after I go unheard.

Without a single glance in my direction, they part just enough for Benny and me to squeeze past. We continue on our way, a little more ruffled than we were. We have several more encounters on our way to the library – drive-by petting, gasps and stares, and many, MANY questions. Each person seems to think they’re the only ones asking for a moment over our time. Despite the fact that they definitely are not, I always pause, give them a polite, but curt response, and continue about my day.

I don’t mind educating the public. I even enjoy being an advocate. However, there are specific interactions that feel an awful lot like microaggressions. Typically, these exchanges go in one of three ways.

In the first scenario, I am approached by an insatiably curious individual. They quickly launch into a series of questions – sometimes about Benny and his training, but other times about me, my medical history, or my credentials as a trainer. These questions are occasionally accompanied by an infantilizing tone of voice. Despite the fact that it can feel like an interrogation, I prefer these situations most because they present the largest opportunity for the facilitation of change. Still, it cannot be forgotten that this probing constitutes an invasion of privacy and a monopolization of a disabled person’s limited energy. It’s as if these individuals feel they have a right to satiate their curiosity. They can’t help but notice, ask, pry.

In the second scenario, I enter a room and someone makes a huge scene over Benny, much like the situation that unfolded with the three women. They fawn over him, grab at him, try to call him over – completely impervious to my presence. These occurrences are actually incredibly dangerous for service dog handlers because they distract service dogs from their jobs. Many service dogs are trained to help their handlers navigate safely or alert to impending medical emergencies. If a service dog fails to perform, it could result in a life-or-death situation. People who interact with my service dog frequently say things like, “I can’t help it! He’s so cute!” But the fact of the matter is their lack of impulse control could LITERALLY kill someone.

Additionally, these situations marginalize disabled individuals by treating them as though they don’t exist or lack an identity beyond their adaptive equipment. There is a boy living in my dorm hall whom Benny and I frequently run into. Whenever he sees us, he says, “Hi, Benny!” and keeps walking. This is a brief, unimportant interaction, but it frustrates me endlessly because he never acknowledges I exist. I don’t even think he knows my name. He only knows me as my medical equipment – the only visible sign of my disability. Failing to notice the person behind the adaptive equipment devalues their existence. At its best, it makes a person with a disability feel unimportant. At its worst, it endangers a person with a disability and violates their human rights.

The third scenario, I hypothesize, is the product of something commonly told to children: “Don’t stare.” In my experience, this is taken too far and leads to the alienation of people with disabilities. When Benny and I enter a room, people sometimes quickly avert their gaze, stealing quick glances when they think we aren’t looking. People also avoid talking to or sitting near Benny and me in classes. I believe “don’t stare” misses the point because it’s often interpreted as “do not engage.” In an ideal world, people would pay disabled people exactly the same amount of attention as anyone else because we really aren’t that different. THAT is what needs to be taught.

I consider each of these scenarios to be microaggressions because they devalue the disabled individual, deny them the respect they deserve, and distance them from the rest of society. I understand this isn’t the intention of MOST people who inappropriately interact with Benny and me. However, I’d like to point out that most microaggressions are not intended offenses, but the products of ignorance.

I do not pretend to speak for all people with disabilities. At the end of the day, it is always best to ask the individual how they prefer to interact with the public. In my experience though, I feel most validated when people acknowledge ME and ignore my service dog. When I pass someone on the sidewalk and they look me in the eye and say hello, it always brightens my day. A quick, “I like your dog!” is great, too, because it’s addressed to me, rather than my dog. It allows me to feel as though I can share in the public’s appreciation of Benny. I also love when someone takes an interest in my life OUTSIDE of my disability or medical equipment. Those who spend the time will find I have a whole slew of hobbies, ideas, and stories that make me uniquely and unequivocally me.

Wyatt Regner is a second year transfer student at UVA pursuing a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a minor in American Sign Language and Deaf culture. After graduating, he hopes to work as an occupational therapist and service dog trainer, helping people with disabilities live life to the fullest. Wyatt currently participates in UVA’s Disability Advocacy and Action Committee (DAAC), as well as the Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavs (CIDC). He is also a certified professional dog trainer and owns B.R.A.V.E. Dog Training LLC based in Leesburg, VA.

Identity and the Nuance of Marginalization

By Heaven Begum

Amma gave birth at home. There was a hand generator supplying power for twenty minutes. Flooding would sink the place up to two feet. Water came from a well—contaminated. Bamboo logs were bridges to cross rivers. We farmed chicken and grew rice. And bugs, everywhere. 

It is December 1999. From Dhaka to London to NY, Amma arrives with Abba, my two brothers, and me in the womb. Amma remembers falling asleep on a real mattress, a luxury. 

The story of my mother is one that has taught me a lot, beginning at a very young age. Like many others, she arrived in America with hopes of a better life and future for herself and family. Soon after, she became bedridden. Diabetic, Amma developed severe chronic fibromyalgia after I was born and struggled to care for herself and us. Her greatest challenge, however, was not dealing with symptoms of her condition but navigating the cold rigidity of society’s institutions, structures and systems towards people like her. 

In the months following my parent’s separation and my father’s departure, we struggled. My immigrant, non-English speaking, disabled mother of six and I struggled to learn the world around us. We did not know how to obtain a city bus pass or open a checking account or afford to keep the heat on that winter. 

In 2013, my mother was served a summons and complaint to appear in court. Unable to work, Amma lacked a stable source of income and we were facing eviction as a result. We didn’t know our rights or how to defend ourselves but still, we were due in court. We found ourselves navigating countless offices, stacks of paperwork and language absolutely foreign to us for survival. It was in these experiences and circumstances that I was exposed to the significant gaps in accessibility that exist for marginalized communities of color and ability, particularly for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.   

In efforts to secure a source of income, we began the application process for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in 2014. Truthfully, I thought we had caught something of a break, learning of a program specifically meant to help people like my Amma, low-income and disabled. I quickly realized I was wrong when even applying, let alone getting approved, started to feel impossible. 

Completing the initial application packet was among one of our biggest hurdles; provided only in English, my mother’s understanding of the questionnaire was very limited and thus was her ability to accurately describe and provide answers. Moreover, a completed application was to include Amma’s full medical history, requiring that she sign off on release forms from every hospital, clinic, or specialist she had visited in the last decade—a daunting task for someone with no means for transportation. Having no car presented yet another barrier as Amma struggled to make it to medical examinations called for by the administration, missing evaluations required to process her case.

During the interview stage, Amma struggled to communicate as the administration failed to adequately accommodate her linguistic needs, aimlessly providing Bengali interpreters who spoke entirely different dialects than that of my mother’s. Soon after, when denied after reconsideration and required to attend a hearing for the appeals process, Amma found herself in court yet again with no interpreter. 

Though finally approved in 2016, we struggled for nearly three years before this was possible. In these three years, I watched as my mother’s identity as a low-income, disabled immigrant rendered her an outsider kept at the margin. With so little effort put forth to accommodate her unique sociocultural experiences and circumstances, I witnessed the day to day realities faced by individuals who find themselves at the intersection of overlapping marginalized identities. Most importantly, however, I learned first-hand of the importance of advocacy and representation in shaping social outcomes.

In Latin, diversity means ‘turn into one’. With post undergrad plans to pursue a JD and career in law, I seek to dedicate my work to pulling those at the margins in. I only hope that others recognize the need for care in underserved populations in their work and protect those most vulnerable, people like my Amma.

Heaven Begum is a fourth year at UVA majoring in Global Studies with a concentration in the Middle East and South Asia and minoring in American Sign Language and Deaf Culture. She is an executive member of Deafness Education and Awareness for Students (DEAFS), Hoo’s First Look (HFL) and is heavily involved with QuestBridge and the first-generation, low-income student body on grounds. Additionally, she currently tutors ASL and serves as the Student Administrator for the Disabilities Studies Initiative. Following graduation, Heaven plans to attend law school and pursue a career devoted to serving underserved and marginalized communities. 

Challenge of Masks and Children with Disabilities in Schools

By Martin E. Block

Imagine your child with a disability cannot wear a mask, but he attends a school district with a strict mask-wearing policy. As a result, the school district says your child cannot go to school in-person until he can wear a mask. The school district offers a few hours a day of homebound instruction. In addition, the district says your son can come to school for about 30 minutes a day to work on mask wearing, but not to work on IEP objectives or social skills. Are you OK with this scenario? Now imagine your child with a disability is severely immunocompromised, but she attends a different school district that does not require children to wear masks. As a result, you do not feel comfortable sending your child to school, and the school district offers a few hours a day of homebound instruction. Are you OK with this scenario? Unfortunately, both cases are real, and in both cases, parents are arguing that such policies are violating their child’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other federal civil rights laws.

The first scenario is taking place in my home school district in central Virginia. Albemarle County Public Schools has been denying in-person learning access to students with disabilities who can’t or won’t wear a face covering. Albemarle Schools says that a student who is not comfortable wearing a mask has three choices: virtual school, home school or a private school. Parents of children with disabilities say that the mask policy and its implementation force a small but vulnerable population of students into virtual learning, which parents say doesn’t meet their children’s needs. Parents say their children will not receive the supports they need to progress academically and learn. Interestingly, other school districts in the area are being more flexible with mask policies for their students with disabilities. It is unclear why Albemarle chose to strictly enforce mask-wearing among students with disabilities during in-person instruction, especially when the State Department of Public Health issued an exception to state-wide mask mandates for “persons with health conditions or disabilities that prohibit wearing a mask.”

The US Department of Education clearly noted that state and federal special education laws cannot be suspended during the pandemic, so schools are still obligated to provide services spelled out in a student’s individual education program (IEP), a legal document. A lawyer for a legal justice center in central Virginia said that school divisions should assess each child individually to determine whether it is possible to accommodate their disability and make an exception to the general mask policy.  She suggested that if children who are unable to comply with mask mandates because of their disability and also are unlikely to benefit from virtual school, then accommodations to the mask policy are warranted.

In the second scenario, parents of children with disabilities who are immunocompromised are suing school districts over a lack of mask mandates in schools. Complaints filed in Tennessee, Florida, Utah, Texas, and South Carolina argue that limiting mask mandates infringe on disability rights, and that children with disabilities and their parents are being forced to choose between their health and their education. One parent said, “We hear all the time, ‘Oh, only kids with preexisting conditions are the ones that get sick and die,’ Well, that’s my kid. That is my child. He has a lot of preexisting conditions, and he matters.” The U.S. Department of Education has also said restrictions on mask mandates may be discriminatory against students with disabilities. On Aug. 30, the department’s Office for Civil Rights announced it is investigating mask mandate restrictions in the five states mentioned above. The lawsuits are not demanding schools institute a mask mandate. Instead, the lawsuit is asking for schools to be given the right to require masks based on regional health metrics rather than having to abide by a state directive prohibiting mask mandates.

Lawyers cite IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantee that children with disabilities have access to a public education. Both laws also require schools to provide “reasonable accommodations” to help make that education accessible — and the complaints argue those accommodations can include masks for everyone. Matthew Dietz, one of the lawyers who filed that lawsuit, says mask mandates meet the benchmarks for a reasonable, necessary accommodation. “If they don’t get that mask when they go to school, they’re at higher risk of death. So yes, it’s necessary,” Dietz says. “Is it reasonable? It’s a piece of cloth, it’s not difficult. Would it cause a fundamental alteration or an undue burden to the school system as a total? Not at all.” Dietz adds that it’s just as reasonable as accommodating peanut allergies, which schools have been doing for years. So, where does that leave parents and school districts? On the one hand parents are asking for exemptions from mask mandates, while on the other hand parents are asking for stricter mask mandates. In both cases IDEA and Sec 504 of the Rehabilitation Act have been cited as guaranteeing all children with disabilities have access to public education. Furthermore, both laws specify that reasonable accommodations must be made to ensure that access. Seems like one needs the wisdom of Solomon to satisfy parents in both scenarios! There clearly is no easy answer, but permit me to give it a shot. In the first scenario, parents working with Albemarle County Schools have suggested better ventilation and air filtration systems in special education classrooms, teaching outside when possible, great spacing between children, and having teachers and therapists wear masks and shields when teaching students who cannot wear masks. These seem like reasonable accommodations that do not impose an undue hardship. In the second scenario, having teachers and children in the child’s classroom as well as teachers and specialist within the child’s sphere (e.g., physical education teacher, speech therapists) wear masks when in contact with the child. Similar to above, efforts for greater ventilation and spacing as well as teaching outside when possible seem reasonable and do not present an undue hardship to the teachers, therapists, other students, or the school. While some parents may be generally against mask mandates, they may be more receptive to having their children wear masks if they know a specific child in their children’s classroom is immunocompromised and in danger of dying if she contracts COVID. Starting from a place of “what is best for this particular child with a disability” is most likely to help everyone focus on what is most important and end with a compromise that is satisfactory for all parties.

Martin E. Block is professor at UVA and the Program Director of Kinesiology for Individuals with Disabilities (KID). His coursework includes classes on Physical Education for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Physical Education for Children with Severe Disabilities, Kinesiology for Individuals with Development Disabilities, Motor Development and more. Beyond teaching, Professor Block has done considerable work for the Virginia Institute for Autism, Little Keswick School, University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, Charlottesville Area Special Olympics, and the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. Notably, Block has also served as the past president of the International Federation of Adapted Physical Activity (IFAPA) and past president of the National Consortium of Physical Education for Individuals with Disabilities (NCPEID).

Making a Life I Wasn’t Given

By Noor Samee

I am an agent of chaos or creativity depending on which way you want to look at it. 

I was in Kindergarten. Ms. Smaglis handed me a piece of thick paper and a black sharpie. I didn’t know what was going on, so I looked over at my neighbors papers to see what they were drawing. Oh, our families. Okay yeah I can do that.

One by one, kids would go up to Ms. Smaglis’ table with their papers and continue their picture. I wasn’t sure why they kept going up to her desk, so I pretended to get a tissue so I could hover around the teacher’s desk and figure out what was going on. They were adding paint to their drawings. Ooooo I want to add paint to mine too. I finished outlining as quickly as I could and walked over to Ms. Smaglis’ desk. Even though I drew my picture as fast as I could, I still somehow managed to be one of the last kids to come to the painting table. But I was excited that I finished my outline in time, and I was about to bring my drawing to life. Ms. Smaglis asked me why I colored in my mom’s hair, “Remember I told you not to color in with the sharpie? Remember I said you’re going to use black paint for that?” I didn’t remember her saying that at all. I made whatever excuse I could come up with so she wouldn’t get mad at me, but I knew I wasn’t fooling her.

And just like I would for the next five years of elementary school, I did well on every portion of my report card except, “Listening and following directions”.

As school went on, work only got harder. I graduated high school with a GPA so low my counselor didn’t think I would get into a university. No matter how hard I worked, how many holidays I skipped, and how many all nighters I pulled– I couldn’t make good grades. And it was frustrating. I was trying so so hard. But nothing I did could make me function the way neurotypical people do.

So I stopped trying. All that time I used to spend mad at myself for not finishing assignments, I started to spend learning why I couldn’t do them. I journaled every day to identify what habits help me feel happy, focused, energetic, etc. I researched my disabilities and mental illnesses in depth, as well as coping mechanisms other people use. I still couldnt get my assignments done, but I stopped blaming myself for it.

Every day I wake up not knowing what my mind and body will let me do. Sometimes, I can cook meals for an entire week in one day, but I can’t leave my house. Other times, I can socialize nonstop without issue, but I can’t sit down and write a paper. So every day I listen for the creaks and feel for the pulls and watch for the lighthouse beam inside me. I let how I feel lead me to a destiny I have very little control over. 

Is it enough to say that not knowing what I am doing is exactly what brought me here? When the aunties ask me how I got into this college and I tell them it was an accident? Because I have never been good at making deadlines. I can’t memorize information. And I can barely pay attention in class. As long as something feels boring, my brain will refuse to do it. So even if it means taking risks, I have to make my work feel interesting. I stopped trying to follow directions. Now I just make my own.

Last year, I asked my professor if I could turn in an album of original songs instead of writing her 30 page capstone research paper. It was an idea just wild enough that only someone really desperate could think of it. I knew I couldn’t write that paper. But I also knew I couldn’t graduate without her class. I don’t know how or why she let me do it, but 3 months later, I turned in six songs and an interlude. My professor loved it.

Growing up disabled has made me have to learn how I think and function, as well as how neurotypicals think and function all at the same time. It has forced me to be creative enough to do what neurotypicals expect of me, while also finding my own way of getting there. Although struggling with school is a large part of my neurodivergence, there is so much more to it that I couldn’t mention in this blog. From the way I socialize, to the way I process information, to the way I experience sound, light, and texture– my disability is a huge part of who I am. And while my peers, professors, and employers continue to be ableist, I know that I see and understand the world in a way no one else can. I’m proud of all the chaos and all the creativity I bring into my life, just by being me.

Noor Samee is a fourth-year in the College of Arts and Sciences studying Global Development Studies. She’s interested in food sovereignty work, creative journalism and both singing and songwriting. Noor is also very passionate about nature and currently helps facilitate a spirituality series at UVA.

What Can a Designer Do?

By Omer Gorashi

I trudge up the stairs to my humble apartment in Harlem, barely surviving a long first week of classes at a campus foreign to me compared to The Grounds I knew so well. Slowly losing pace with each flight, I reach the top floor, hearing my celebratory sigh echo down below. I pause for a moment thinking about what it would have been like for my late father to visit me in the city.

As I continue to mourn his passing in April, every staircase I encounter in New York City reminds me of my father’s journey with disability.

In 2005, a work-related accident altered two of his spinal disks, severely impairing his nervous system, and ultimately changing our lives forever. After a month of anxious hospital visits with my mother and siblings, the first time I began to question accessibility in design was his return home. In helping my father up stairs, open doors, and sometimes even scout out an alternative, more accessible path altogether, we confronted the barriers of the built environment. From these seemingly small gestures between a parent and child, arose the initial reason why I decided to follow the path of an architect. While applying to graduate programs in December 2020, I actually spent some time looking through my old transfer application to UVA, surprised by my eagerness to help him and those who also received the shorter end of architecture in my essay. 

Asking myself where did all that enthusiasm go, I reflected upon my last three years of undergrad. Surprisingly enough, accessibility was a topic normally avoided in most of my course work, and whenever addressed I would be told by critics, “Not to worry too much about fitting difficult realities into unbuilt designs” or “Refer to the ADA guidelines if you are that earnest about it.”

The only time I as a student was asked to put accessibility at the forefront of my work, was during my final semester by Garnette Cadogan, The School of Architecture’s 2020-2021 Porter Visiting Professor’s (currently, the Tunney Lee Distinguished Lecturer in Urbanism at MIT School of Architecture + Planning) seminar “Reimagining Public Spaces: Making Room for Others.” The course challenged me and my classmates to approach public space with a greater creativity and deeper understanding towards concern for the rich humanity of the varied people in shared spaces, to create public spaces with greater sophistication, to develop and employ a more thoughtful design philosophy, to be alert to what constitutes a just city, and be motivated to actively work to understand public spaces by patiently and respectfully listening to the multiple publics that use—or avoid—them.

During his course, we even had the honor and privilege of conversing with Sara Hendren, artist and design researcher at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, who also has a son with Down Syndrome. Before our discussion, Cadogan introduced us to her book What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World where she asks readers to question the things and spaces we interact with or to better imagine the collective desires and needs of the human body when living in the world.

Below is an excerpt from her book that we read for class, but more importantly what resonated with me as a designer the most.

“But disability is not a fixed or permanent label that belongs only to some people; it arrives for each of us. Short-term injury and long-term illness, changes in our perception and mobility (and the perceptions of others about us), the chronic misfires that happen in our emotional makeup—if it’s not a reality in your life now, it’s sure to be so in some form, in your own body or among those who share your intimate life. Disability gathers a dimensional we like nothing else, because disability is no more and no less than human needfulness, both personal and political. That’s why the we that ties together this book is as tenuous as it is important: the collective that arises in the form of shared bodily vulnerability, the ways our physicality and our thriving are tied.

So often, of course, the first person plural is a falsehood: Who is this we, a word mostly used to blithely generalize from one person’s limited experience in a myopic way? Our distinctions and specificities are important. But for disability and design in this book, the we is both real and profound. It’s not that all our bodies are the same. It’s that the stakes for life together are universally shared by the misfit states that come for every body. We find ourselves in need of assistance—some of it from the forms of the designed world (or, as these stories show, the redesigned world), and some from one another, body to world and back. But getting help? That’s for my son, Graham, but it’s also for me and for you, for all of us. Not everyone should call themselves disabled, but everyone should recognize that both giving and receiving assistance are actions we will each take up in turn, every one of us. Human needfulness really is universal. We—and I do mean we—might choose to let tools for assistance be visible and unifying.”

Sara Hendren, “What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World”

Just as I have recently taken a significant step forward in my architecture studies, disciplines both within and outside the realm of the built environment have begun—and I only say begun because there certainly remains a long way to go—as well.

So whenever I see that an architecture school has or is looking for a new administrator dedicated to matters of “Diversity,” “Equity” and or “Inclusivity,” I can only hope that they are cognizant of their intersections with accessibility. Or will schools just have to invent yet another role for that purpose? In self-critical efforts, I finish this piece as an attestation to my re-found commitment as a designer to work towards a more accessible, inclusive, and equitable built environment. I only hope you join me in learning a little bit more about even the subtlest of design decisions that would either make or break my dad’s day. I recommend you start with Sara Hendren’s book!

Omer Gorashi is a Sudanese American, designer and urban photographer (@soozysufi on IG and @omer___go on Twitter). He currently pursues his Master’s of Architecture at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Preservation and Planning, upon graduating from the UVA School of Architecture (BSArch ’21). At UVA, his design coursework questioned how interventions within the built environment can improve the human condition, socially and culturally, as well as physiologically, mentally and emotionally here and abroad. He has worked at Leers Weinzapfel Architects in Boston, with UVA’s in-house Design Group where he assisted with the recent renovation of the A-School’s FabLab and LOT-EK in New York City. Outside of architecture, he volunteers with several non-profits, such as Islamic Relief USA and Pious Projects of America, serving Muslim communities worldwide.