Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

The Social Justice Collaborative to host a two-part disability accessibility workshop series

Illustration Rachel Choi

To facilitate conversations about disability justice and accessibility on campus, Erin Robins, accessible design specialist in the office of the Vice President for Equity and Social Justice, is hosting two virtual workshops. 

The two-part “Reframing Accessibility” workshops are in partnership with the Social Justice Collaborative. Both workshops will be held twice, the first on Friday, March 1, and the second on Wednesday, March 27. 

Robins is framing the workshops around the different models of disability to garner an understanding of accessibility. She has recognized these models through her time as a special education teacher for grades three to five and her experience as a disabled person. 

“My understanding of disability at that time was really impacting how I perceived and how I acted upon accommodations and in supporting my students,” Robins said. 

One model of disability Robins will discuss during the first workshop, “The Impact of Disability Models on our Design Choices,” is a medical model that positions the term disability to mean brokenness and “something that is wrong with you,” Robins said. 

“The first session … is intended to help us think about and reflect on how we think about disability and how we understand it,” Robins said. “How we think about and understand it has huge impacts on what we do.” 

Robins received a master’s degree in education, learning, and design from Vanderbilt Peabody College, allowing her to gain an understanding of how and why environments are created the way they are. She aims to apply this expertise to the content of the workshops by discussing what materials and norms can be introduced in Emerson learning environments to promote accessibility for students and faculty alike. 

“What I love about the idea of design is that pretty much everything is designed,” Robins said. “Design for some people might be thinking about their meetings. What are you designing into your meetings or not designing into your meetings? What do the interactions look like? What do the materials look like? What do you give in advance? What do you not give in advance?” 

The second workshop, “Using Disability Models to Redesign,” is aimed to facilitate conversation on how understanding disability models can be applied to designing systems and processes to promote accessibility. The workshop will also analyze how assumptions about the disabled community form and infiltrate the design of current systems. 

When Robins came to Emerson in October, she sought to support a “cultural shift” on campus. Robins shared a catalyst for this shift is being mindful of how people understand disability and how those understandings are formed. Understanding disability is socialized, according to Robins, meaning the media and what individuals see and hear around them play an active role in shaping someone’s perception of what disability means. 

“Creating a culture that is grounded in disability justice and grounded in access does require a cultural shift,” Robins said. “It takes that intentional work to reframe and break that understanding. I’m excited about this session as a way for us to begin to create a shared language and understanding of what disability is and why it matters how we think about it. That plays out into everything we do.”

Upon her arrival on campus, Robins collaborated with the Director for Strategic Initiatives with the Social Justice Collaborative, Mary Whitehead, who serves as Robin’s supervisor. Whitehead has guided her throughout the creation process of the workshops. When Robins stepped into her role, she and Whitehead hosted listening tours where they spoke with faculty and students across campus to determine the campus’s needs as they relate to disability justice. 

“We learned very quickly that there needs to be some shared language around accessibility and how we think about it,” Whitehead said. “People come from different experiences and different understandings of accessibility to make sure that at Emerson we think about it collectively.” 

These listening tours gave Robins the idea to start creating these workshops. She spoke with students and faculty to assess the Emerson community’s current understanding of disability and what resources are available across departments. 

“I started brainstorming around ‘where do we need to start?’” Robins said. “I’m excited about these workshops as an opportunity for us as an Emerson community to come together and start that process of even understanding the impact of our understanding or model of disability has on everything that we do.” 

Whitehead and Robins communicate daily, whether through virtual meetings, calls, or Slack, to discuss current projects like the workshops and gain insight from each other. Whitehead hopes to “set the stage in a way that (Robins) feels like she can arrive authentically as herself.”

“Accessibility is so vast and beyond human nature,” said Whitehead. “What does it mean to have a universal design? What does it look like to have accessibility at the beginning of our conversation versus at the end? … Do I think all of that is going to come from these two workshops? No, but I hope it could initiate some of those conversations and start to do some paradigm shifts or shifting of culture to think about (how) we want to be inclusive … and equal.” 

To ensure the workshops serve Robin’s intended purpose of meeting the needs of others, she has piloted the workshops multiple times to gain feedback on areas for improvement. Robins first piloted the workshops in November and has been adapting them since then.

When creating the workshops, Robins wanted the sessions to “meet people where they are” by diversifying them to include both listening and active engagement from participants. Part of the workshop will be presentation-based, while other sections will be dedicated to group conversations. Robins also infused reflection questions into the content that participants can discuss verbally or write in the Zoom chat. 

“I’m hopeful that when we come together in this session, we can leave thinking about disability and accessibility as things that we can do together as a community,” Robins said. “Things that are part of all of our roles, part of our culture and our ways of being and something that we are doing proactively and as a community instead of something independent.” 

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About the Contributor
Bridget Frawley, Staff Writer
Bridget Frawley (she/her) is a freshman journalism major from Jupiter, Florida. When she is not writing for the news section, she is a morning anchor for Mornings with George Knight of WERS 88.9 FM. She also loves reading, going on long walks, and thrifting.

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