New student union helps fill disability activism void on campus

New+student+organization+discusses+disability+issues+on+campus.

Media: Dana Gerber

New student organization discusses disability issues on campus.

By Dana Gerber, Deputy News Editor

Sitting around bags of Hershey’s chocolate in one of the fourth-floor rooms of 172 Tremont, members of the new student organization Access Student Disability Union—a space for Emerson students with disabilities and allies on campus—decided that they were all either Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs.

Coupled with boosting disability activism on campus, the organization aims to build a community among Emerson students who identify as disabled. The organization launched this semester, and weekly meeting conversations range from Harry Potter houses to internships and film festivals for disabled students to accessibility activism on campus. The group’s upcoming game night on Feb. 21 will emphasize sensory-sensitive activities.

“We really started [the organization] because there was no space on campus for people with disabilities to engage with their community, talk about the issues that we’re experiencing,” Harper McKenzie, student accessibility services commissioner for the Student Government Association and co-founder of Access, said in an interview with The Beacon. “[And to] just make friends, have people in their life that know what they’re going through.”

The organization is open to any students who identify as physically disabled, experience chronic pain, or are neurodivergent—a term used to refer to non-pathological variations in the brain affecting sociability, learning, attention, and other mental functions. The group is also welcoming to able-bodied allies.

McKenzie, who is autistic, co-founded the organization with Zach Swasta, who has Asperger syndrome. Student Accessibility Services Assistant Director Matthew Fisher connected them together after they approached him independently with an interest in starting an organization for disabled students. They planned the organization last semester and are now working towards SGA affiliation.

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McKenzie said the organization is advocating the college to add more braille signs, set up auditory cues in all elevators, and install a push button on the main entrance of the Walker Building for students who cannot open the door. Swasta added that much of the sidewalk construction at the college is difficult for physically disabled students.

Fisher said Access aligns well with the mission of SAS and he hopes to work with them to provide input on accessibility matters at the college.

“Our primary mission is to promote access on campus and remove barriers where we can,” Fisher said. “They can be a stronger voice together in terms of their experiences on campus, it can let us know about any issues they’ve seen. Also, they can let us know what we can do better to better meet the needs of students.”

Besides Active Minds, which focuses on mental health concerns and activism, Access is the only Emerson College organization that deals with promoting advocacy for disabled students.

“I realized there was little to no attention to neurodiversity,” Swasta said. “So I kind of said, ‘this needs to change.’”

McKenzie added that among all the dialogues on campus, disability is not often prioritized.

“We sort of talk about disabilities sort of like the last forefront of civil rights and justice,” McKenzie said. “We talk about gender and sexuality and race all the time on this campus, and disability is never included in those conversations.”

McKenzie said the group is attempting to establish working relationships and meet with other departments on campus, including Facilities Management, and the Office of Housing and Residential Education, in order to promote accessibility.

“It shouldn’t have to fall on us, and we know that we’re not responsible for making these things happen,” McKenzie said. “But at the same time, we want to be doing this work, and we really want to make changes for ourselves and for the future of Emerson.”

Beyond the physical accessibility issues, McKenzie said the organization is also interested in finding ways to streamline the process of discussing accommodations with professors, which she said can often be a difficult conversation. They are also collaborating with the performing arts department on some of their upcoming shows, including the play Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which features a main character with autism.

“First and foremost, I wanted it to be a community,” Swasta said. “Because if you have the community then you’re going to get the activism out there more fluently.”

Professor Nancy Allen said McKenzie developed the plan for Access as the final project for Allen’s Disability and the Media class.

“I am so thrilled that Access has finally come together as a student org—I feel like there’s been a gap or a need for a long while,” Allen said.

Allen said she is encouraged by Access’s mission and believes it will be a valuable resource on campus for students and administrators alike. She said she hopes Access students will influence curriculum in courses like hers, as well as raise awareness on campus-wide accessibility issues.

“I think we’re hitting a tipping point soon about a broader conversation about accessibility on campus,” Allen said. “I think those students are going to start that dialogue—and it’s a dialogue that absolutely needs to be had.”

McKenzie, an IDIP creative writing and disability studies major, said she appreciates being able to use her identity in this activism outlet.

“This is what we do as disabled people,” she said. “We take this crap and we make good stuff out of it. And we use our creative thinking skills, and we make it work.”