Voices for Students with Disabilities: UI Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness (UISDAA)

By: Katie McCullough

For University of Iowa students, faculty, staff, and members of our community who live with disabilities, the fight for accessibility and equal status in their lives can be a tough, slow-moving process. Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which has improved the status and quality of life for many Americans, those with disabilities continue to experience disparities in social, cultural, political, and economic status.1  

To help address these disparities, UI Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness (UISDAA) was founded in 2010 and continues to work toward a more inclusive and accessible campus environment. UISDAA is an organization that invites all students with a disability of any kind and their allies to be a part of the group. Besides advocating for awareness and change surrounding the experience of having a disability and what that means, the organization is also interested in building a community on campus for students that identify as having a disability, so that they know they’re not alone and have a place for sharing resources and stories.

“Historically, having a disability has been viewed from a medicalized perspective” according to UISDAA President, Kaydee Ecker. “[Meaning that] a person with a disability had an inherent problem or deficiency.” Ecker contends that society is slowly moving towards a radical shift in thinking: people are embracing and identifying their disability as an inseparable part of their identity. Because the shame of having a disability is crumbling away, some people are more willing to embrace their identity and seek to be recognized and acknowledged in the realm of diversity. “[Living with a disability is a] salient part of people’s identities, should be treated as such, and thusly, be recognized when talking about diversity on campus,” Ecker says.

UISDAA also raises awareness about the nature of having a disability; they remind people that not every disability is visible, and that it is necessary embrace disability status as a key part of the richness of the diversity of campus. Acoording to Ecker, “Being a student with a disability is hard; if the campus community moved the needle towards recognition of this, it would be a more inclusive and vibrant place.” UISDAA  students are also asking to be considered where there is talk about an inclusive and equitable campus- conversations which include accessibility and accommodations for those with disabilities.

UISDAA is asking tough questions about accessibility, equity, and inclusion on our campus, and meeting with key administrative leaders to drive the process towards improving campus climate for those who have disabilities. Members of the organization are seeing the campus become more aware of their needs on campus and are using this momentum to drive their cause forward, rolling out awareness campaigns and making their voices heard. Their goal of an inclusive campus is one that recognizes that, by creating a culture of acceptance and inclusion surrounding disabilities, the UI can engage students, faculty, and staff with disabilities in a way that will strengthen their commitment to strong research, scholarship, and student success.

Currently, UI ranks No. 1 in Web Accessibilty, thanks to a concerted effort across many partners on campus. It is also making huge strides in IT accessibilty, with multiple trainings being offered for faculty and staff in topics that range from web accessibility and inclusive design to making accessible PDFs. The University of Iowa is consistently working on updates and improvments to many of its buildings to make them more accessible. Examples include new elevators in Boyd Law Building that are ADA compliant, using universal design principles in Linquist Center, rennovated bathrooms that are fully accessible in many buildlings on campus, and removing stairs and installing inclines on the Pentacrest for better wheelchair accessibility. The university has also started the Hawkeye Accessibility Ambassadors program. This program allows students with disabilities the opportunity to advance their leadership and advocacy skills while concurrently assisting the university with designing facilities that are more universally designed, inclusive, welcoming and supportive of individuals with disabilities. This group is a student-run activist group and is part of UISDAA.

“We have a huge opportunity to be ahead of the curve [at the University of Iowa] on the development of disability as diversity and identity,” Ecker says. “I can't help but see this as a pivotal moment for the university. An "all eyes on us" kind of moment. A chance to prove to students with disabilities, the university community, and higher education as a whole that it IS possible to sprint boldly toward unprecedented, trailblazing ways of rethinking what services, support, equity, and inclusion could look like for college students with disabilities.” Ecker continues: “People on campus are acknowledging we can and must do better, that living with a disability, there is not a clear-cut definition and that the work is messy.”