Last summer, two students from the Lawrence University Disability Working Group (LUDWiG) collaborated with Assistant Professor of Environmental and Ethnic Studies Sigma Colon to develop a new academic course. Sophomore and LUDWiG co-chair Rose Williams and junior Katrina Girod conducted research to develop a new academic course titled Intro to Disability Studies, which will be offered in the upcoming Spring Term. It explores power dynamics, intersectionality, disability justice movements as well as how discriminatory systems shape society’s perception of disabilities and affect disabled people.
Educating the Lawrence community about disabilities is one of LUDWiG’s many goals as both a diversity organization and one of LUCC’s standing committees. LUDWiG seeks to improve campus accessibility, promote inclusion and equity, raise awareness of disability issues, provide disabled students with the resources they need to succeed and create an empowering space for Lawrence’s disabled community.
According to Williams, LUDWiG was founded to serve the needs of disabled students that Lawrence’s administration was not fulfilling. Until recently, Lawrence did not have an Office of Accessibility; while there were a few staff members who assisted with academic and physical accommodations, the university had no designated office or position for supporting students with disabilities.
“I was very happy to find that Lawrence has finally created an Office of Accessibility and centralized this whole process,” said Williams. “There will be staff members whose job it is to make accessible spaces and help ensure that all students have the accommodations they need.”
When Williams joined LUDWiG in her first year at Lawrence, she was impressed that although LUDWiG does collaborate with faculty and staff, the organization is entirely student-run. She also credited former chair Alex Chand with creating LUDWiG’s strong, unique foundation. Unlike other disability organizations Williams has previously encountered, LUDWiG places disabled people in leadership positions so they can advocate for themselves.
“It’s run not only for people with disabilities, but by people with disabilities,” said Williams. “I thought it was such a great sign to show that this isn’t just a way for people with disabilities to do something fun; we’re getting important work done.”
LUDWiG co-chair and junior Eileen Limon explained that since LUDWiG is a student-led organization, its future goals depend largely upon the needs of the student body.
“When students come to our events or email us about concerns, we try our best to take what we hear most about,” said Limon.
One of LUDWIG’s current goals is to create an accessible emergency exit outside Andrew Commons. Junior Felix Spaniol, LUDWiG’s Events and Outreach Coordinator, explained that Warch Campus Center’s inaccessible layout places students with mobility disabilities in severe danger. Currently, there is no accessible exit on the first floor in case of a fire.
Furthermore, most students have no choice but to eat in Andrew Commons due to Lawrence’s current dining plans. While Lawrence does offer food in Kaplan’s Café, Limon pointed out that meal swipes cannot be used in the Café during regular dining hours, and Lawrence’s current meal plans do not supply enough Culinary Cash to purchase all meals. Since almost all students are required to purchase a Lawrence meal plan, disabled students are being forced to eat in a space with no accessible fire exit.
Spaniol stated that LUDWiG’s solution will likely involve replacing the staircase of one of the emergency exits on the first floor with a ramp.
Limon also emphasized the importance of resources and accommodations for disabled students in order to help them achieve their full potential.
“It’s so important for people to have not only an equal opportunity, but also equity. There’s a difference between equity and equality, but I believe in both,” she said.
Limon found out about LUDWiG in her first year at Lawrence, when she attended a campus event centered around the experiences of people with autism and how neurotypical people can better interact with people who are neurodivergent.
“I was interested in joining because I am autistic and, growing up, I understood the struggles that people with disabilities have,” she said. “I wanted to put my help in wherever I could.”
Both Limon and Williams expressed that they want to promote disability awareness – particularly towards those with invisible disabilities, because their disabilities are often overlooked. They also facilitate discussions about disabilities, run peer advocacy programs and invite guest speakers to educate the rest of the campus and the broader community.
“Members of the Lawrence community are generally very open-minded and accepting people, and I think that there is no intention to be discriminatory or to exclude individuals with disabilities,” said Williams. “But I think that including people with disabilities and making them feel accepted is not always at the top of everyone’s minds.”
On Thursday, Feb. 9, LUDWiG hosted its annual screening of “Crip Camp,” a documentary about the disability rights movement in the United States in the 1970s. Following the screening, participants gathered for a roundtable discussion about how activists have advanced disability rights throughout this period and beyond, the portrayal of disabilities in the media and the perceptions of disabled people in society.
Last spring, LUDWiG hosted an event featuring Judy Heumann, one of the disability rights activists showcased in “Crip Camp.” Heumann was one of the most prominent leaders of the disability rights movement during the 1970s, and she continues to advocate for disabled people today.
The university’s new Office of Accessibility will begin overseeing some of LUDWiG’s previous responsibilities, such as aiding communication between disabled students and their professors, providing accessible technology and materials and working with campus partners on accessibility needs.
Williams hopes that this assistance will allow LUDWiG to focus more on hosting more frequent events in the future so people can learn more about the history and experiences of disabled people. She also plans to partner with local Appleton organizations that work with disabled people.
Limon wants to see LUDWiG attract more members, become more visible on campus and expand so it can better advocate for accessibility.
Spaniol said that while LUDWiG’s promotion to a LUCC standing committee last year has helped the organization gain heightened visibility, they still see opportunities for growth. They also urged professors to support disabled students through inclusive class policies and limiting the amount of required homework.
Lawrence’s current accommodations include modified materials or procedures, auxiliary aids and services and environmental adjustments. However, some professors still implement strict attendance policies with limited excused absences, which affect disabled students at disproportionate rates.
Students whose disabilities affect their mobility sometimes face penalties for arriving late to class or skipping class due to chronic pain. During upticks in COVID cases, immunocompromised students are still expected to attend class at risk of exposing themselves to disease or suffer a penalty.
Spaniol also explained that Lawrence’s 10-week trimester system and culture surrounding heavy workloads (colloquially known as the “Lawrence Busy”) is particularly grueling for students with disabilities because they must manage the difficulties of their disabilities on top of a demanding schedule.
“The amount of stuff that Lawrence students are expected to do can be really hard for anyone, but especially for disabled students,” said Spaniol. “Lightening up homework that isn’t 100% necessary could be a great way to lighten up that load and support disabled students.”